The Trump administration’s decision to exclude Florida from the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling is drawing both clapping hands and raised eyebrows.
After meeting with Governor Rick Scott at the Tallahassee Airport on Tuesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said that drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off Florida’s Atlantic coast would be "off the table."
“I don’t want your kids ever to fight on foreign shores for a resource we have here,” said Zinke after the meeting with Scott. “But there’s [sic] places where resources are sensitive; and there’s places where we’re not going to go forward with resources. And one of them is off the coast of Florida.”
The drilling proposal, announced last week, includes 47 potential lease sales in 25 of the 26 planning areas — 19 sales off the coast of Alaska, seven in the Pacific region, 12 in the Gulf of Mexico, and nine in the Atlantic region. Scott was part of a bipartisan group blasting the plan, which would have scrapped the existing moratorium on drilling, which is set to expire in 2022.
“I’m appreciative that the Secretary came to Tallahassee to sit down and talk about it,” said Scott. “And has committed that, as a result of our interest in making sure that there’s no drilling here that Florida will be taken off the table.”
“Mr. President, I must say I’ve seen political games being played with trying to drill off of the coast of Florida,” said U.S. Senator Bill Nelson on the floor of the Senate Wednesday. “Not only am I appalled, I have recoiled at the political game; but unfortunately I’m not surprised.”
During his 20 minute address, Nelson announced he has sent a letter to Secretary Zinke, containing a number of questions.
“What exactly does ‘off the table’ mean?” asked Nelson. “The whole eastern Gulf? Half of it? Does it mean both coasts of Florida, does it mean just one?”
In that same speech, Nelson also announced that he has filed new legislation to implement a permanent ban on drilling off of Florida’s coast.
“We were hoping to do this through Congress; but with the President now saying that he agrees with that it’s going to make it much easier for Congress to extend that moratorium which we must have to protect our military mission,” said State Senator Doug Broxson (R-Gulf Breeze), who also had been opposed to the drilling expansion because the Eastern Gulf is used for military training and weapons testing.
Also blasting the five-year plan, set for 2019-2024, is Sierra Club Florida Director Frank Jackalone. He contends that Zinke's decision is a purely political move to aid the ambitions of Rick Scott – who is said to be planning to challenge U.S. Senator Bill Nelson.
“There’s always politics in anything that happens involving Florida that happens in an election year,” said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida.
She says it appears that the Republicans want to steal some thunder from Nelson on this issue.
“It was the case that [Sen.] Nelson was going to be better positioned to run on the offshore drilling issue,” said MacManus. “He has consistently been opposed to it. Whereas, in days when things were really bad in terms of gas prices, [and] the public was more in favor of drilling, at that time had commented that he was more in favor of considering it.”
One reason, according to MacManus that Scott is now boarding the no-drill train, is having to win over younger voters if he decides to run.
“The Millennials and Gen-Xers – the two youngest generations in Florida – are very pro-environment,” MacManus said. “Floridians have become much more conscious of anything environmental in terms of issue that they track when they’re getting ready to vote for someone.”
For State Sen. Doug Broxson, a Republican, the claims involving a political reason in part for this decision were not unexpected, but he doesn’t believe that’s the case.
“Sen. Nelson has certainly had the inside track on defending our coastline, and I think the Governor knew that,” Broxson said. “But I believe the fact that he has the ear of the President….at the end of the day it’s good for the Democrat and good for the Republican. Because too much of our economy in northwest Florida is built around keeping our military operations strong.”
The governors of nearly all states along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts have joined Scott in calling for their shores to be removed from Zinke’s plan as well. But Zinke has not ruled out any other area at this time.