National News

Florida Is Exempted From Coastal Drilling. Other States Ask, ‘Why Not Us?’

Posted January 10, 2018 6:21 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON — At 5:20 on Tuesday evening, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted a photo of himself at the Tallahassee airport with Gov. Rick Scott of Florida, announcing that he had decided, after meeting with Scott, to exempt the state from a new Trump administration plan to open up most of the nation’s coastline to offshore oil drilling.

It was a sudden and unexpected change to a plan that President Donald Trump had celebrated just five days before, and it took lawmakers and governors from both parties by surprise. It also gave Scott, a Republican who is widely expected to run for the Senate this year, a clear political boost in that race. Florida lawmakers of both parties have long opposed offshore drilling, especially after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill send tarballs to the shores of a state where the economy relies heavily on tourism. Zinke’s sudden flip-flop on Florida drilling allows Scott to tout the decision as evidence of his influence with the White House.

Trump’s critics say the move highlights the president’s willingness to blatantly use the nation’s public lands and waters as political bargaining chips.

It also appears to illustrate the clumsiness with which the Trump administration drafts federal policies. By publicly putting forth the comprehensive new coastal drilling plan and then abruptly announcing a major change to it less than a week later, with little evident public or scientific review, the Interior Department appears to have opened itself to a wave of legal challenges.

Within hours of Zinke’s tweet, governors in other coastal states began demanding their own drilling exemptions.

“The governor’s apparent intervention on behalf of Florida gives him something he can brag about to voters as an example of his relationship with the president,” said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican strategist. “But the decision is, at a minimum, arbitrary. It appears to be on a whim. To the extent that the decision was not the result of a process with testimony, deliberation — the decision that Florida’s coast is more pristine and valuable than California’s coast seems to be just on the request of Governor Scott. Why?”

On Wednesday, Gov. Henry McMaster of South Carolina, a Republican, announced plans to do just that, saying that he intends to ask the Trump administration for a drilling exemption just like Florida’s.

“New York doesn’t want drilling off our coast, either,” Andrew Cuomo, the state’s Democratic governor, said on Twitter on Tuesday night. “Where do we sign up for a waiver?”

The attorney general of California, Xavier Becerra, a Democrat, asked why the Trump administration deemed Florida’s coastline valuable enough to preserve, but not California’s.

“California is also ‘unique’ & our ‘coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,'” Becerra tweeted on Tuesday, quoting Zinke’s own stated reasons for suddenly withdrawing Florida from the drilling plan. “Our ‘local and state voice’ is firmly opposed to any and all offshore drilling,” he wrote. “If that’s your standard, we, too, should be removed from your list. Immediately.”

Hogan Gidle, the White House deputy press secretary, said it was in the country’s best interest “to unleash our energy potential to its fullest.”

“The Secretary is currently in the process of speaking to stakeholders, like Governor Scott yesterday, to determine the most responsible and environmentally sound path forward,” Gidle said, referring to Zinke. “All states have different concerns and needs, which is why this is an ongoing process with a built-in 60 day comment period.”

The governors of New York, New Jersey, California and several other states requested exclusion from the drilling plan last year, while the plan was being drafted, citing the tourism value of their coastlines.

“The problem is that the request for exclusion came from most of the East Coast states and all of the West Coast states, and yet it was just granted to Florida,” said Sierra Weaver, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “The problem is treating Florida differently from every other state that requested exclusion.”

In fact, Florida was not among the states that had requested an exemption to the drilling plan. Throughout his political career, Scott has veered between supporting and opposing offshore drilling.

Legal experts said they were perplexed by Zinke’s move. “No one knows what the legal implications are, because this has never been done before,” Weaver said.

She said Zinke’s move may put the administration in conflict with the provisions of the 1953 Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, a law that lays out the standards and procedures for determining which areas will be opened to offshore drilling.

“There’s supposed to be a 60-day public comment period, an environmental-impact statement,” Weaver said. “It’s not clear what they did here, and it’s not clear that they understand that there is a legal process that they need to follow.”