published Tuesday, May 4th, 2010

Magee: Gulf Coast drilling protesters now have ammo for argument

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In the Florida panhandle one weekend in February, I watched demonstrators gather by the hundreds on the beach.

On a Saturday at midday, they formed a single line as far as one could see -- men, women, children, liberals, conservatives, you name it -- the group was diversified.

They stood together in unity against drilling for oil in the waters off the Gulf Coast.

In many areas, the issue of allowing more drilling for oil in Gulf Coast waters is political. One side argues it is unwise not to tap obvious oil availability that could lessen America's dependence on global oil resources, while another argues that risking the environment isn't worth the return.

But I was quick to note on a day outside of traditional tourist seasons that many full-time residents see it not as politics but protecting the land they love. We all know oil serves valuable purposes. We also know, though, that when it escapes harnessing boundaries, bad things can happen.

I've thought about that long line in the sand many times this week, as news reports reveal the disaster developing along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to the Florida panhandle and all the waters in between. Reports this week suggest the flow of oil won't be stopped until next week.

Federal authorities halted fishing from the Mississippi River to the Florida panhandle. Residents and business owners in beach communities began bracing for the worst, fearing oil-laced beaches would cripple the economy in the heavy summer tourist season.

That's the irony of oil and water. Often, the argument made for allowing more drilling in the Gulf of Mexico involves the economy -- yielding lower prices at the pump and less dependence on other nations. But all we have to see is one gushing disaster like this one to understand that the protesters I saw made a very valid point.

It's too early to know exactly how bad the damage will be from the oil spill. We already know, however, that it's shaping up to be a major catastrophe, likened by a fishing-boat captain to a slow version of the devastating Hurricane Katrina.

If that's true, one can assume the February protesters just got the final proof they needed to slow down efforts for more oil drilling in coastal waters. But they'll no doubt be the first to say this is no way to win an argument.

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