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Florida House Spent $200,000 on Rush-Job Oil Drilling Study

Cannon drilling bill.png
Florida House of Representatives

Shortly before the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf, the Florida House spent $200,000 for a study of oil drilling off Florida's coast which said any spills would be rare, small and easily contained.

Now, a leading environmental lawyer and Congresswoman Kathy Castor are calling the original study misleading and a waste of taxpayer money – especially since another well-respected think-tank had just issued its own report about drilling off Florida’s coast.

The Willis Group study received almost no coverage in the media, and neither the lawmakers who commissioned it nor the men who completed the study were willing to talk with WUSF about it.

The report by the Willis Group cost $200,000 because it was a “rush job,” according to Jill Chamberlin, spokeswoman for Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul.

She says Cretul commissioned the report at the request of Rep. Dean Cannon, who’s in line to become the next House Speaker. Cannon has led the effort to allow oil drilling in Florida’s territorial waters, which reach about 10 miles offshore in the Gulf.

A spokeswoman said Cannon was traveling and too busy to speak to us about the Willis report.

On April 14 – one week before the Deepwater Horizon explosion – two men from the Willis Group presented their study to the House Select Policy Council on Strategic and Economic Planning. Video from their presentation is available on the committee’s Web site.

One Percent Risk a Year

Charles Barder helped write the 180-page report for the Willis Group. At the April hearing, he said the risk of a blowout was very low.

“The vast majority of (blowouts) are dealt with extremely effectively and without spills,” Barder said. “And they happen from time to time, they are not normally the cause of major spills.

“So very, very occasional severity, but definitely not a frequency issue. We estimate one percent risk a year,” he said.

Phil Ellis, chairman of Willis Global Energy, told lawmakers the risks from oil drilling are “serious, but manageable.”

“The risk of damage to natural human habitats from hurricanes far outweighs anything that you'll ever see from this industry,” Ellis said at the time.

The Willis Group created a model to measure the risk of an oil spill in Florida’s territorial waters, if drilling was allowed. The average spill per year was estimated between 52 and 182 barrels a year.

Compare that to the 12,000 barrels per day low-end estimate from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Ellis admitted to lawmakers at the time that his estimate appeared too low.

“These numbers seem awfully low - they are awfully low - and the reason is because there haven't been that many spills in the Gulf of Mexico in general in the last 20 years,” he said.

Downright Deceptive

Oil drilling opponents say the study downplayed the risks from the start.

“This study wasn’t simply tilted or slanted. I would say it’s downright deceptive,” said David Guest, head of the Florida chapter of the environmental law firm Earthjustice.

He says the study’s focus on spills in the Gulf leaves out the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and a big blowout last year off Australia.

And the study’s focus on the past 20 years leaves out the disastrous spill in Campeche Bay in Mexico in 1979.

Guest isn’t the only one questioning the study. So is long-time drilling foe, Congresswoman Kathy Castor of Tampa.

“It’s outrageous that taxpayer money was being used, especially looking back today,” she said. “They have no credibility. I think you can throw that study in the garbage can.”

One group didn’t question the study: the Florida House members listening to that presentation one week before the start of the oil spill.

If anything, lawmakers questioned whether the study wasn’t optimistic enough. Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando, asked whether researchers accounted for technological progress in their model.

“The technological developments very clearly are making the risk of problems and the downside of this less as we go through time. And the likelihood of fines or great rewards of this process greater as we go through time,” Precourt said.

"The E.F. Hutton of Oil Drilling"

Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Jacksonville, compared the Willis Group to a brokerage firm made famous by the commercial, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.”

“You are the E.F. Hutton of oil drilling” she said, “because you've been everywhere, people trust your input.”

At the end of the presentation, Cannon thanked the Willis Group for its “extraordinary great work” and said the committee may continue to call on the company for guidance and further assistance.

The presentation and the study were ignored by most of the media. By this time, Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, had signaled his body would not advance the House’s oil drilling bill.

The report was commissioned about the same time the non-partisan Collins Center for Public Policy released its own, less optimistic report on oil drilling to the state Senate.

The Collins Center did not charge the Legislature for its study, according to author Frank Alcock, director of the Marine Policy Institute at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

House spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said the Willis report was not meant to be a response to the Collins Center study.

After the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, Cannon changed his mind about oil drilling off Florida’s coast. He now says the subject is off the table as long as he is speaker.

But he says he’s opposed to putting that drilling ban in the state’s constitution. Gov. Charlie Crist has threatened to call the Legislature back into session and ask them to put a constitutional ban on drilling on the November ballot.


June 1, 2010 update

After the story was posted, Chamberlin sent us this following clarification:

"The Select Committee began its study of the offshore exploration issue in the fall. As the session approached, committee members, including Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, raised the fact that despite extensive study and testimony (a total of 12 meetings, more than 28 hours of testimony) no risk analysis of the issue had been carried out — and the House doesn’t have staff resources for that kind of statistical modeling. The committee agreed.

"We hired the Willis Group, known worldwide for analyzing risk on behalf of multi-billion dollar investors and governments, in January to prepare an extensive analysis by April and it was accomplished. Any characterization of the speed of the process related to the hiring of the Willis Group, not the analysis itself."

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