Will Rick Scott Open Florida's Beaches To The Risk Of An Oil Spill?

October 26, 2010 3:29 pm ET — Kate Conway

Rick Scott

About two-thirds of the way through last night's final pre-election debate between Florida gubernatorial candidates Alex Sink (D) and Rick Scott (R), moderator John King asked the candidates to "reflect on the BP oil spill" and talk about anything they might have learned from it — a question germane to Florida state politics, given its 1260-plus miles of coastline and its "sandy beaches" on which $41.6 billion of Florida's $60 billion tourism industry depends.

Here's Alex Sink's answer:

Let me tell you what the first and most important thing that we learned as Floridians is that to approve drilling in Florida waters which is within 3 to 10 miles of our coastline would be a horrible idea. We learned that accidents can happen, and an accident like that, close-in to our shores, would totally destroy our tourist economy. That's the biggest lesson I think that we as Floridians learned. The other lesson is that we saw how much, how dependent we are on our tourist economy.

She concluded by describing her interactions with Florida business owners affected by the spill. Indeed, despite the fact that the spilt oil primarily made its way onto the shores of other Gulf states — 90 percent of Florida's beaches were unsullied by oil — Florida businesses suffered.

Then Rick Scott answered:

I dealt with this same sort of issue back in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew hit. I had a lot of hospitals down in Miami, and I was down there when the hurricane hit. We had to completely evacuate one hospital, which was basically demolished. And I showed up, we had over 500 employees without homes, we had 154 patients in the hospital, I got nurses from the west coast of Florida over there within eight or nine hours, and I reopened two hospitals and I stayed down there until it was solved. We did a fundraiser for all of our employees to make sure they had the money to get back into their homes. So that's what you do.

Scott then criticized Sink and Governor Crist for their response to the oil spill, accusing them of playing an "oh poor me" game instead of taking the opportunity to go on national television and remind potential tourists that "the oil spill's not here" and "the beaches were pretty much open."

Scott's answer misses the point of the question, which isn't really about disaster response but rather disaster prevention. A hurricane is not the "same sort of issue" as an oil spill. Leaders can prepare for hurricanes with effective planning, and they can pour time, money and personnel into cleanup after they've hit. But unlike oil drilling platforms, there's nothing they can do to prevent a hurricane from forming or control where it ends up.

Scott is right that most of Florida's beaches were "pretty much open," but he fails to touch on the policy decisions that made Louisiana more vulnerable to drilling-related disasters than Florida. The Deepwater Horizon rig was only about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, whereas Florida's coastline is currently protected by a ban on drilling in state waters — a ban threatened by pressure from the oil industry.

Prior to the BP spill a bill to lift that ban had already passed Florida's House. Drilling proponents have now reportedly indicated that they won't attempt to have the ban lifted for two years - but whoever is elected governor will only be halfway through his or her term in two years. Presumably, that person will have the chance to either defend Florida's ecology and economy or advocate on behalf of oil industry interests.

Rick Scott says he's not open to drilling within ten miles of Florida's coast — right now. But he's made his intention to expand offshore drilling in the slightly-more-distant future pretty clear. Sink, on the other hand, has been a vocal opponent of near-shore drilling from the outset.

When it comes to hurricanes, perhaps the best you can do is make emergency preparations, then hunker down and wait for the next storm to come. But when it comes to disasters directly attributable to human activity, the only responsible action is to decrease vulnerability to those same disasters.