Trump administration delivers favor to Florida GOP by removing state from offshore drilling plan

Interior secretary ignores opposition to offshore drilling in other states.

Political observers accuse Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), right, of receiving special treatment from the Trump administration to benefit the governor's political ambitions. CREDIT: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Political observers accuse Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), right, of receiving special treatment from the Trump administration to benefit the governor's political ambitions. CREDIT: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke did an about-face, only one week after releasing the Trump administration’s five-year plan for offshore drilling, by removing Florida waters from potential oil and gas leasing. Even before Zinke released the offshore drilling plan, it was widely known that Florida politicians and residents strongly opposed drilling off the state’s coasts, especially in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, an area in which drilling companies have been pushing hard to access oil and gas reserves.

Zinke’s decision was a political move, according to most observers, to help Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) and congressional Republicans in the Sunshine State win election this fall by giving them an example to show their constituents of how they successfully fought drilling off the state’s shores. Even before the plan was released last week, Zinke undoubtedly was aware that Scott and his fellow Florida Republicans currently opposed drilling off the state’s coasts.

As the Department of the Interior was putting together the five-year plan, it requested information from state officials and the public on their views. Interestingly, Scott’s office did not submit information to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Offshore Energy Management stating his position on offshore drilling; clearly, the Florida governor was confident the Interior secretary knew where Republicans in the state currently stood on offshore drilling.

Prior to opposing offshore drilling, Scott had long supported it in and off the coast of Florida. Democrats and environmentalists are accusing Scott of the change of heart because he is expected to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) this year. State polls show Floridians are opposed to drilling off the state’s coasts by a wide margin.

“Nobody’s fooled by this publicity stunt. Florida is at risk for offshore drilling because the Trump administration chose to put it at risk,” said League of Conservation Voters Deputy Legislative Director Alex Taurel in response to Zinke’s announcement late Tuesday. “If Secretary Zinke has really turned over a new leaf and decided to listen to local voices, he should listen to the outpouring of opposition coming from communities, businesses, and elected officials from both parties up and down our coasts and promptly withdraw his radical offshore drilling plan.”

State and local leaders in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and other Atlantic Coast states, as well as in California, Oregon, and Washington, oppose drilling off their coasts.

The past two years have seen an unprecedented outcry against drilling. Communities up and down the Atlantic coast have passed resolutions against drilling. During the Obama administration, opponents to drilling, who feared the devastating impact a major oil spill would have on recreation, tourism, fishing, and other existing coastal industries, convinced officials to exclude Atlantic lease sales from the final drilling plan.

But now the Trump administration has forced state and local leaders to regroup for another fight against offshore drilling. In a statement issued Tuesday, Zinke said that President Donald Trump directed him to increase the nation’s offshore oil and gas drilling activities, but in a way that “takes into consideration the local and state voice.” Zinke said he removed waters off the coast of Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas leasing after holding discussions with Scott.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) emphasized in a tweet late Tuesday that local voices in Virginia also have spoken up against offshore drilling. “If it’s truly about ‘local voice’ — not just protecting President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago — then make this same commitment for Virginia,” Kaine said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo also chimed in on Zinke’s decision to exclude offshore Florida waters from drilling. “New York doesn’t want drilling off our coast either. Where do we sign up for a waiver Secretary Zinke?” Cuomo asked in a tweet Tuesday night.

On the West Coast, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) informed Zinke that California politicians and residents also oppose new drilling programs off their coast. “California, like Florida, has hundreds of miles of beautiful coastline and a governor who wants to keep it that way. Or is that not enough for blue states,” Schiff said in a tweet, referring to the argument that the Trump administration’s move was an attempt to boost Republicans’ political fortunes in Florida.

Some narrowing of the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plan — the Interior Department proposed opening up nearly all federal waters to drilling — wasn’t unexpected, Axios reporter Ben Geman explained Wednesday. According to a political calculus that could have devastating real-world impacts on the environment and people’s lives in Democratic-leaning states, the draft plan’s wide scope gives anti-drilling coastal Republicans political wins when the administration’s removes their states from the plan, Geman wrote.

If Zinke really cared about the wishes of coastal communities or how drilling off their coasts will affect them, he would have proposed a plan that shrinks oil and gas drilling even further, not proposed expanding operations to nearly every corner of the nation’s waters, Sierra Club Florida Director Frank Jackalone said in a statement.