TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Charlie Crist has dropped his long-standing support for the federal government's ban on offshore oil drilling and endorsed Republican presidential nominee-in-waiting John McCain's proposal to let states decide.
The governor said he reversed his position because of rising fuel prices and states' rights. Crist is considered a possible running mate for the Arizona senator.
"I mean, let's face it, the price of gas has gone through the roof, and Florida families are suffering," Crist said Tuesday. "And my heart bleeds for them."
Also backing offshore drilling is President Bush, who urged Congress on Wednesday to lift the drilling moratorium that has been in effect since 1981 in more than 80 percent of the country's Outer Continental Shelf.
Democrats immediately pounced on McCain's proposal, saying countries that allow offshore drilling have even higher prices and that oil companies don't need more offshore drilling areas because they have failed to fully exploit their current leases.
Last year, Crist had urged federal lawmakers to reject legislation, which they did, that would have allowed drilling as close as 45 miles off Florida's beaches. He also supported the ban during his 2006 campaign for governor.
Most Florida politicians have opposed drilling because they fear it would harm beaches vital to the state's tourism economy and interfere with weapons testing and training in and over the Gulf of Mexico by Florida military bases.
Democrats also argued additional offshore drilling would not affect prices set on the world market.
"It would only increase oil companies' record-breaking profits," said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Mark Bubriski.
He compared Crist's reversal to his recent proposal for a temporary reduction of Florida gasoline taxes after McCain made a similar proposal at the national level. Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, criticized it as a campaign gimmick.
"If John McCain jumps off a cliff, will Charlie Crist jump, too?" Bubriski said.
Eric Draper, policy director for Audubon of Florida, said it would take 10 years to produce energy from new offshore leases even if exploration started now. He said conservation is a better solution.
"If you had an oil leak out there, an explosion, you would end up damaging all the beaches on the Gulf Coast," Draper said.
Crist said he was unsure whether the Florida Legislature would approve drilling, but he said it's something lawmakers should at least study.
He said protecting the environment should be balanced against economic factors.
"We're a tourist state," Crist said. "We have to protect the beauty of Florida, but we also need to have people have the opportunity to drive here and be able to afford to do that too."
Crist, though, acknowledged even if Florida decides against drilling the state's beaches could be damaged by pollution from neighboring states. He said he hoped improved technology would reduce the chances of that happening.
David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said the industry already has changed since the moratoriums were put in place.
"Technologies that we use and the extraction of oil and gases is much more compatible with offshore resources and protection of the environment," Mica said.
Associated Press reporters David Heller and Jon Manson-Hing contributed to this report.