MIRAMAR BEACH — Oil and gas interests are “licking their chops” as the end of a ban looms on oil and gas leasing in part of the Gulf of Mexico that includes a military test range, Rep. Matt Gaetz said Thursday at an Air Force contracting conference at the Sandestin Hilton.
Protecting the Gulf Test Range from encroachment by oil and gas exploration “is my top legislative priority,” Gaetz told hundreds of defense contractors and other defense professionals at the Air Force Contracting Summit, which continues through Friday afternoon.
Currently, oil and gas leasing are prohibited within 125 miles of the Florida coastline under the federal Gulf of Mexico Energy and Security Act of 2006. The ban is set to expire in 2022.
The Gulf Test Range, covering more than 120,000 square miles, is used by a wide range of military units, including Eglin Air Force Base’s 33rd Fighter Wing and 96th Test Wing, and the Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field. The range accommodates air combat training, air-to-air missile testing, drone targeting, hypersonic weapons testing and space launches.
Gaetz, who represents Northwest Florida in Congress, said military munitions testing and oil and gas exploration are “completely incompatible,” pointing out the danger of mixing munitions testing “with things (oil and gas) that can catch on fire.”
Over the last two years, Gaetz said, $70 million in federal funding has been steered to the Gulf Test Range, to update its telemetry equipment. That equipment — automated communications gear which provides data on the performance of munitions, other military equipment and military personnel — has not been comprehensively updated since at least the early 1970s.
Gaetz argued Thursday that federal investment in the Gulf Test Range can provide a hedge against opening the area to oil and gas exploration. And, he added, it would be difficult to replicate the Gulf Test Range anywhere else in the United States.
In other remarks, Gaetz said rebuilding Tyndall Air Force Base in nearby Panama City is the “most important job that we (government officials and contractors) have right now.” The base was devastated by last year’s Hurricane Michael, and there is “a lot of infrastructure, a lot of buildings, that we have to get stood up,” Gaetz said.
Gaetz said there are no indications that missions currently assigned to Tyndall, including drone and F-35 operations, will change as hurricane recovery moves forward.
In a broader look at America’s defense, Gaetz warned the country has fallen behind Russia and China in development of hypersonic missiles, weapons which can travel at five times the speed of sound. The future, Gaetz said, “it is going to be all about the missiles.”
Eglin AFB is at the forefront of U.S. hypersonic missile development. The Air Force Armament Directorate at Eglin is managing two fast-track programs to design and build hypersonic missile prototypes. The work is being done under contracts with Lockheed Martin, one of which sets a 2021 deadline for U.S. hypersonic missile capability.
Moving to a global political view, Gaetz said that in the future, the United States and China will be “the two countries that matter.”
He also addressed Russian meddling in world affairs.
“We also see Russia engaged in a malign influence campaign” around the globe, Gaetz said, adding that it is “critically important that we see them for the threat they are.”
by: Jim Thompson, NWFDailyNews.com