Florida Republicans Push Back Against Trump Offshore-Drilling Plan

It’s not just Democrats who are concerned over the Trump administration’s proposal to expand offshore drilling.

AP Photo/Kerry Maloney
Jan. 4, 2018, 8 p.m.

The Trump administration’s laissez-faire energy policy turns environmental groups and most Democrats apoplectic. But a new group of malcontents is now emerging—Florida Republicans.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke unveiled Thursday a new offshore drilling draft through 2024. The plan would authorize lease sales in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, where a moratorium now exists on energy production.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Sen. Marco Rubio criticized Zinke’s move in the hours after the announcement. That adds to a cohort of House Republicans that oppose the drilling, alongside many of their Democratic colleagues, including Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

“I have already asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration,” Scott said in a statement.

The Florida lawmakers, however, face an uphill battle. They’re urging the Trump administration to exclude the eastern Gulf from the plan, but virtually no Republicans outside the state are backing those calls. Other Gulf lawmakers, in fact, praised the inclusion of the area along Florida’s west coast.

“This proposal shows President Trump and Secretary Zinke are serious about creating jobs and making America energy dominant,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican. “Opening the Eastern Gulf of Mexico to American energy producers will create thousands of jobs in Louisiana and other Gulf Coast states, and bring billions of dollars of investment to our country.”

The draft would authorize two lease sales in the eastern Gulf following the 2022 expiration of the moratorium.

Congress struck a deal in 2006 to open up the western and central Gulf for fossil production while excluding the eastern Gulf. Florida lawmakers have long contended that offshore drilling will harm the state’s tourism industry, a linchpin of the local economy.

The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill—recognized as one of the worst, if not the worst, in history—heightened those concerns. At least 4 million barrels of crude oil pumped into the Gulf, devastating coastal ecosystems and tourist revenues.

Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Florida Republican, knocked the proposal as “reckless, misguided, and potentially catastrophic to Florida.”

Many drilling experts say the eastern Gulf has been off-limits since the 1980s, but data from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management shows industry drilled exploratory wells into the early 1990s.

“This plan is an assault on Florida’s economy, our national security, the will of the public, and the environment,” Nelson said. “This proposal defies all common sense and I will do everything I can to defeat it.”

Nelson and Rubio sponsored separate bills last year to extend the moratorium through 2027. Nelson’s legislation includes a broad range of security measures on top of the moratorium, while Rubio’s bill would give Florida a cut of the revenue from the central and western portions of the Gulf.

Nelson “strongly opposes” the revenue-sharing language, a spokesman for the senior Florida senator said. Most Democrats argue that the federal government should claim all offshore lease revenue.

Neither bill has received a vote or committee hearing.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon opposed the moratorium lift in an April letter to Florida GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz.

“The complex of eastern Gulf of Mexico operating areas and warning areas provides critical opportunities for advanced weapons testing and joint training exercises,” acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness Anthony Kurta said. “The moratorium on oil and gas ‘leasing, pre­ leasing, and other related activities’ ensures that these vital military readiness activities may be conducted without interference and is critical to their continuation.”

Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, said the public comment period will reveal any valid issues and the military will likely raise any concerns related to conducting tests and exercises. But the opportunity to consider the drilling is a significant step forward, Luthi said.

“From the industry perspective, the eastern Gulf is very attractive. You already have all the infrastructure in place, and that will make it a lot easier,” he told National Journal. “I think there certainly will be a lot of debate. You may have enough legislators from Florida who can hang together and vote on something to extend the moratorium.”

The full offshore draft authorizes nearly 50 potential lease sales in the Gulf as well as the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans—the largest in U.S. history, according to Interior. The department has spelled out its five-year plans since Congress amended the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act in 1978. The current plan will undergo additional public comment before finalization.

No lease sales have been conducted in the Atlantic and Pacific since 1984.

Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency have taken Obama-era energy regulations by storm in the nearly one year since President Trump took office, with the administration approving a range of new oil pipelines and rescinding the Clean Power Plan. Zinke’s offshore draft complies with a Trump executive order from April that aimed to expand offshore drilling.

Democrats and environmentalists have rallied, largely unsuccessfully, to impede some of the administrative actions. Those groups also failed to remove language in the tax bill designed to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Trump’s critics are turning to the courts to resist the energy policies.

Republicans and industry groups have applauded the administration for its energy policies, and many repeated that praise Thursday. Sen. Tim Scott, a South Carolina Republican, however, said local communities should sign off on the offshore drilling. Spokesperson Michele Exner said Scott is “supportive of offshore energy exploration, but, as a native of the coast, also sees it as a necessity to get buy-in from more coastal residents on this issue before moving forward.”

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