Federal officials will hold four public hearings, including one in Panama City Beach in early April, on opening new offshore oil and gas leases. The hearings are to develop an Environmental Impact Statement for two proposed oil and gas lease sales involving 658,000 acres that lie 120 miles off the Alabama and Florida coastlines, federal officials said. Paul Wohlford, vice president of sales and marketing for The Resort Collection of Panama City Beach, said he was unaware of the details of the sales but was concerned about safety issues, especially after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. “I wasn’t aware of it, but I would be very interested in seeing if there are additional safeguards in place,” Wahlford said Tuesday of the lease sales. “We have to protect our tourism, our beaches.” The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana in April 2010. The first oil didn’t hit Florida beaches until June 2010, and the physical impact on Bay County was minimal, but the economic downturn in the tourism industry was harsh. Dan Rowe, executive director of the Bay County Tourist Development Council (TDC), said the TDC has taken a position similar to U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Panama City, and other local entities such as the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. “Our position is that the TDC is opposed to any offshore drilling east of the Military Mission Line (MMI),” Rowe said. Matt McCullough, Southerland communications director, said the District 2 congressman also remains opposed to any offshore drilling east of the MMI, established at 86.41 degrees longitude, which protects the military’s ease of operations in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The area is home to both Tyndall Air Force Base in Bay County and Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, both of which provide jobs and critical economic benefits. Although the two proposed lease sales at the heart of the April hearings are located in the BOEM Eastern Planning Area in the Gulf, they lie on the western edge of the MMI, which runs north-south roughly in a line straight through Hurlbert Field in Okaloosa County. Southerland was recently on the losing end of a House vote to expand eastern Gulf oil and gas leases, including east of the MMI, although the legislation is not expected to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) has proposed a program through 2017 that would make more than 75 percent of undiscovered oil and gas on the Outer Continental Shelf available for development, although most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico would remain off limits. The hearings will “help determine the scope of the issues to be addressed in the Environmental Impact Statement, and to identify and evaluate potential environmental effects related to the proposed sales,” BOEM Director Tommy P. Beaudreau said in a written statement. Want to go? The following meetings are scheduled for public comment: Tallahassee Community College, Tallahassee; April 3, 1 p.m.; Wyndham Bay Point Resort, Panama City Beach, April 4, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.; Five River’s Delta Resource Center, Spanish Fort, Ala., April 5, 1 p.m.; Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, New Orleans, La., April 9, 1 p.m.