Seven months after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a surprise offshore drilling exemption for Florida following bipartisan outcry, the issue has roared its head again, just in time for the state’s midterm primary elections.
Oil and gas companies are pushing Florida lawmakers to reconsider their opposition to drilling off of the state’s coast, Politico reported Wednesday. Drilling in the eastern Gulf Coast has been a source of contention for years in Florida, but energy insiders are lobbying heavily regardless.
If successful, oil rigs could come within 75 miles of the state’s shores. It is unclear which companies specifically have been lobbying lawmakers, but Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Shell are among the fossil fuel giants that have long pushed for such measures.
That looming threat is likely to complicate midterm elections in Florida — especially for Gov. Rick Scott (R) as he seeks to unseat incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson (D).
In January, the Interior Department announced intentions to open up virtually all federal waters to oil and gas exploration and development. East Coast states swiftly rebelled, with Gov. Paul LePage (R) of Maine the sole governor actively supporting the decision. But only Florida obtained a coveted exemption, via tweet, following appeals from Scott.
— Secretary Ryan Zinke (@SecretaryZinke) January 9, 2018
During a much-covered press conference held later, Zinke announced the state would be “off the table” for offshore drilling.
That decision has widely been seen as a choreographed boost meant to help Scott during an election year. Republicans and Democrats alike in the state have expressed opposition to offshore drilling, in a rare show of bipartisan unanimity. But some have a rockier history on the issue than others — including the governor.
Scott initially campaigned in support of offshore drilling eight years ago. He now opposes expanding offshore drilling, but inconsistencies in his record have opened him up to attacks from Nelson. The senator has targeted Scott’s record on environmental issues repeatedly, honing in on drilling in addition to the governor’s generally cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry.
In response, the Scott campaign has pointed to the governor’s seemingly successful efforts to thwart the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plans for Florida. But oil and gas lobbyists don’t appear to see Zinke’s pledge as a done deal and many have pushed for a compromise of sorts that would see drilling allowed 75 to 100 miles away from the shoreline.
“Secretarial tweets and statements to Congress are outside the administrative process, but certainly are indicators of where the Secretary and evidently the White House might end up,” said Randall Luthi, president of the trade group National Offshore Industry Association, in a statement to Politico. “The Eastern Gulf of Mexico is ripe for some kind of a reasonable compromise.”
Nelson’s own anti-drilling credentials have come under scrutiny as well; during the Obama administration, the senator seemed far more open to the possibility until the infamous BP oil spill made such a stance politically unsustainable.
A number of factors will play into future offshore drilling plans. Despite initially eyeing opening all federally-administered waters to drilling, the Interior Department has indicated states like New Jersey, Delaware, and Maine could see a reprieve, with military training zones also limiting available areas. Moreover, the 2006 Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act prevents eastern Gulf exploration until mid 2022.
Scott isn’t the only Republican shying away from offshore drilling in an election year. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican and a member of the bipartisan (and controversial) Climate Solutions Caucus, has argued that such efforts would jeopardize national security. Fellow caucus member Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R) has also opposed drilling, something that is broadly true of the bulk of Florida’s congressional delegation.
Another Republican, Rep. Francis Rooney, has proposed drilling 200 miles away from the coast instead, so as to protect Florida beaches in case of an oil spill. Rooney once served on the board of Laredo Petroleum, an oil and gas company.
The Interior Department is notably holding its oil and gas lease sale on Wednesday. Some 77.3 million acres offshore from Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, in addition to Florida, are included, with the land set to be used for oil and gas exploration, along with development.
Offshore drilling is hardly the only environmental issue dominating elections in Florida. On Monday, Scott declared a state of emergency over a toxic algae crisis plaguing the coast. Controversy over that issue is increasingly taking center-stage in parts of the state, with tensions set to come to a head on August 28, when voters will head to the polls.