Lawmakers learn Ryan Zinke can’t be trusted in debate over offshore drilling

Florida senator interprets Interior secretary's statements as "just empty words."

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, foreground, and President Donald Trump want to open huge offshore areas to oil and gas drilling. CREDIT: Paul Morigi/Getty Images
Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, foreground, and President Donald Trump want to open huge offshore areas to oil and gas drilling. CREDIT: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) doesn’t trust Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s pledge to remove Florida from the Trump administration’s five-year offshore drilling plan.

For the past year, President Donald Trump and his cabinet secretaries have shown an unwavering allegiance to industry, not the environment or the will of the American people. Therefore, a presidency whose primary constituency is the super-wealthy will create suspicion when a specific decision deviates from its pro-industry agenda.

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Current discussions about the administration’s offshore drilling plan indicate Nelson has every right to be suspicious. The Interior Department had its first public hearing on Tuesday on the five-year drilling plan and the department’s maps still showed Florida waters as open for drilling.

In response, Nelson took measures to block three Department of the Interior nominees until Zinke publishes a new offshore drilling plan that officially takes Florida “off the table,” the expression used by last week by the Interior secretary when he made the surprise announcement that the state was no longer under consideration for offshore drilling. Nelson said Floridians should view Zinke’s promise as “just empty words” until he follows through with a new plan officially excluding the state from the plan.

Senators have the prerogative to place holds on administration nominees. In response to his suspicions about the Trump administration’s intentions, Nelson placed a hold on Susan Combs, nominee to be assistant secretary for policy, management, and budget at the Interior Department; Ryan Nelson, nominated to be solicitor; and Steven Gardner, nominated to be director of the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, & Enforcement, a branch of the Interior Department. The nominees are now blocked from being approved by the Senate until Nelson lifts his hold.

At a House hearing on Friday, Walter Cruickshank, acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), told lawmakers that Florida is not off the table for offshore drilling activities, contradicting Zinke’s tweeted statements from last week. The BOEM official’s statement added to the confusion over where the administration stands on offshore drilling. Cruickshank said Zinke’s statement “is not an official statement.”

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“Instead of carefully following laws and regulations, this administration writes policy on a napkin, announces it on social media and calls it a day,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement Friday following Cruickshank’s remark. “Secretary Zinke’s tweet either represents official policy, in which case he’ll lose in court, or it doesn’t, in which case he shouldn’t have announced it in the first place. Both options are deeply embarrassing for this administration and unacceptable to the American people who demand better environmental stewardship.”

Aside from Nelson’s and Grijalva’s distrust of the administration, legal experts have pointed out another major flaw in Zinke’s hasty exemption for Florida: it’s likely illegal. Announcing a change in the five-year plan only a few days into the process signals that the administration isn’t following the required procedure, legal experts argued, and raises flags about whether the decision was arbitrary or capricious — two things prohibited by administrative law.

Opponents to drilling are using a variety of means to stop the Trump administration. For starters, lawmakers in other coastal regions — both Republicans and Democrats — are applying pressure on BOEM to simply listen to their voices. Ever since Zinke announced last week that Florida would be removed from the program for offshore oil and gas development, governors from more than a dozen other coastal states asked the Interior secretary to give them a similar exemption from drilling.

In response to the outcry, Zinke pledged to meet with every governor of a state affected by the Trump administration’s move to expand offshore drilling. But the Interior secretary has not said how many other exemptions the Trump administration would issue.

“The Trump administration has united Republicans and Democrats alike against this radical offshore drilling plan. They really should pull the plug on the plan altogether,” Diane Hoskins, campaign director for offshore drilling at Oceana, a nonprofit ocean advocacy group, said in an interview. “The question of whether to drill in the Atlantic has been asked and answered and we expect all those communities who were active and vocal to make their voices heard again.”

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On Thursday, more than 150 members of Congress called on Trump to abandon his offshore drilling plan. “Expanding drilling into the Atlantic, Arctic, and Pacific Oceans, and the Eastern Gulf of Mexico would put our coastal communities, businesses, oceans, and climate at grave risk,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Zinke. “Oil spills would impact beaches and wildlife that depend on healthy oceans, wreaking havoc on ecosystems, local businesses, and residents alike.”

To create a level playing field for all coastal states, Zinke could put Florida back into play, although such a move would be met with outrage by the state’s lawmakers. The Interior secretary also could provide exemptions to all of the states where governors have protested their inclusion in the offshore plan, a move that would anger the Trump administration’s sponsors in the oil and gas industry. A third option — excluding some areas, but including others in its final offshore drilling final — would undoubtedly spark widespread protests and lawsuits in the states targeted for offshore leasing.

When the Obama administration studied a proposal to open new offshore areas to development, including waters off the mid-Atlantic coast, Americans came out in force to reject the plan. That same opposition hasn’t died down. According to surveys, the majority of Americans oppose offshore drilling in these new areas.

Source: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management
Source: Bureau of Ocean Energy Management

The Obama plan covered potential lease sales for offshore drilling between 2017 and 2022. “There’s absolutely no requirement for the administration to update or redo the five-year plan. It’s a waste of resources,” Hoskins said.

The Trump administration’s draft offshore leasing plan for 2019 to 2024 would open thousands of miles of U.S. coastline to oil and drilling, including regions such as the Atlantic and Pacific that have been protected for decades from the practice. BOEM has opened a 60-day comment period for citizens to provide feedback on the proposal. The agency is also holding public hearings in affected communities in the coming weeks.

“Secretary Zinke said local voices matter. We certainly agree. Over 160 coastal municipalities have voiced their opposition to offshore drilling and seismic testing. It’s time for the administration to listen,” Hoskins said.

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Not too long ago, resistance to leasing offshore areas along the Atlantic Coast wasn’t as solid as it is today. Even Nelson, during President Barack Obama’s first term, did not strongly oppose a plan to open vast expanses of water in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural gas drilling. The plan was eventually removed from Obama’s offshore drilling plan.

Governors of Virginia and North Carolina were more forthright in their support for oil and gas drilling off the coasts of their states. Former governors — Pat McCrory (R) of North Carolina and Terry McAuliffe (D) of Virginia — led a push to open the Southeast to offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling. But then Roy Cooper (D) won the governorship in North Carolina in 2016, leaving only McAuliffe as the leading promoter for offshore drilling at the state level.

But after towns along the coast protested, unlike their leaders in the statehouses, Obama withdrew the plan.

In a change of heart last August, McAuliffe asked BOEM to exclude Virginia’s coastal areas from its 2019 to 2024 offshore oil and gas leasing program. In a letter to the agency, McAuliffe said his primary concern about a revenue-sharing agreement between participating Atlantic coast states and the federal government had not been satisfied. McAuliffe also cited concerns about Trump’s proposed budgetary cuts to “the very agencies that are responsible for ensuring compliance with statutory safeguards and environmental protections.”

As it stands now, Maine Gov. Paul LePage is the only governor on the Atlantic Coast who has come out in support of offshore drilling. The three governors of the Pacific states oppose new leasing off their coasts. Though no new leasing has occurred along California’s coast since 1984, hundreds of oil and gas wells can be seen off California’s coast. Many are located on platforms in the Santa Barbara Channel, the site of a catastrophic 80,000-barrel oil spill in 1969.

As the debate intensifies over Trump’s plan to open up drilling along almost all of coastal America, environmental groups also are fighting seismic testing off the Atlantic Coast — a practice needed to measure the amount of oil and gas that is economically available to producers. Last June, the administration tentatively approved seismic testing off the Eastern Seaboard. The approval specifically allows “the incidental, but not intentional, taking of small numbers of marine mammals” by five companies — CGG SA, GX Technology Corp., Spectrum Geo Co., TGS, and WesternGeco Co. — seeking to test the waters of the Atlantic for oil and gas reserves.

Seismic testing is a method for determining the composition of the ocean floor by tracking the reverberations of extremely loud sonic booms underwater. The practice is known to disrupt aquatic life, including fish, sea turtles, and mammals such as whales, and an “incidental take” permit is required.

The area where the industry wants to do seismic blasting ranges from Delaware all the way down to the Florida. “It’s an area twice the size of California,” Hoskins said.