Zinke’s ‘political stunt’ on offshore drilling continues to backfire

President Trump is reportedly unhappy with his Interior secretary.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly caught the White House off-guard when he removed Florida from the list of states to be reviewed as part of the Interior Department's five-year offshore drilling plan. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke reportedly caught the White House off-guard when he removed Florida from the list of states to be reviewed as part of the Interior Department's five-year offshore drilling plan. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is facing criticism from the White House for his unexpected decision to exempt Florida from the administration’s sweeping new proposal to subject essentially all federal waters to offshore oil and gas drilling, according to news reports.

One White House official accused Zinke of going “rogue” by abruptly removing Florida from the list of states only one week after the Interior Department released its five-year offshore drilling plan, Axios reported Sunday. Oddly, Zinke announced his decision to let Florida off the hook on Twitter, instead of through more formal channels.

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Moreover, 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 earlier tweets, which only added to the confusion over where the administration stands on offshore drilling. Cruickshank said Zinke’s statement “is not an official statement.”

Sources also told Axios that Zinke’s alleged unilateral decision to remove Florida from the plan has damaged his standing with President Donald Trump. Zinke gave the White House no notice of the action, the news outlet reported.

On January 4, the Trump administration released its proposed five-year offshore oil and gas leasing plan, kicking off a 60-day public comment period during which affected communities would be given the chance to weigh in on the administration’s plan. Legal experts, however, have pointed out that Zinke’s move to hastily exempt Florida is likely illegal.

Offshore leasing decisions are subject to a number of federal laws, including the Administrative Procedures Act and the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, that dictate formal processes for how the Department of the Interior must consider, and revise, its decisions regarding which offshore areas can be opened up to oil and gas.

By announcing a change in the proposal only a few days into the process, Zinke demonstrated that the administration isn’t following the required procedure, legal experts argued. The move also raised flags about whether the decision was arbitrary or capricious, two things prohibited by administrative law.

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“It’s anyone’s guess what’s going on in Donald Trump’s head, but what we do know is that while Secretary Zinke makes empty promises and tries to govern by tweet, coastal communities are left guessing about whether or not they will be subjected to the dangers of offshore drilling,” Lena Moffitt, senior director of the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, said Monday in an email. “This debacle has further highlighted Donald Trump and his administration’s incompetence and failure to take the health, safety, and economic well-being of coastal communities seriously.”

In response to Zinke’s move to exempt Florida, both Democratic and Republican governors have called for their coastal states to be spared from the offshore drilling expansion. On the Atlantic Coast, Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R), a strong Trump ally, is the only governor who has said he favors offshore oil and gas drilling. Zinke has pledged to meet with other governors after they publicly asked for their states to be taken off the list, but there has been no word on any other possible exemptions, even though they’re objecting on the same grounds as Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

Conservation Law Foundation senior counsel Peter Shelley said there does not appear to be any credible thought process behind Zinke’s Florida decision. “It really exposes how shallow the administration’s thinking was behind this whole process,” he said Monday in an email to ThinkProgress.

Any coastal state in the continental United States can make the same or greater claims of economic risk as Florida apparently did from future renewed offshore exploration and drilling, according to Shelley. “This whole episode is starting to look like more of a political stunt than a serious effort to expand [outer continental shelf] fossil fuel development, but it is necessary to regard it as real until all the announcements are pulled back by BOEM,” he said.

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BOEM issued a notice Monday that, due to the federal government shutdown, more than half-a-dozen public meetings scheduled for Monday through Thursday on the proposed offshore program have been postponed to a date to be announced.

Article updated at 2 p.m. ET on January 22, 2018, to include comments from a Sierra Club representative.