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West Coast, Florida Foes Resist Trump Offshore Drilling Plan

Both Republicans and Democrats pan Interior Department proposal

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is among those opposed to the Trump administration’s plan to allow offshore drilling off Florida's Gulf coast. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Florida Gov. Rick Scott is among those opposed to the Trump administration’s plan to allow offshore drilling off Florida's Gulf coast. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There is a reason the last federal sale of oil or gas drilling leases off Florida’s Gulf Coast or California’s Pacific coast was in the 1980s: The local and congressional opposition is bipartisan and intense.

That’s also why the Trump administration can expect a fight over its new offshore strategy, which calls for drilling in areas once thought to be sacrosanct.

In the aftermath of Thursday’s public reveal of the draft five-year plan, lawmakers from both parties urged the Interior Department to drop the idea of holding lease sales off the Florida Gulf Coast and the entirety of the Pacific coast.

Fears of oil spills and interference with defense activities highlight the arguments against the administration’s plan to tap all the domestic oil and gas it can in pursuit of U.S. dominance of global energy markets.

“As the Department of Interior works to finalize their draft plan, I urge Secretary [Ryan] Zinke to recognize the Florida congressional delegation’s bipartisan efforts to maintain and extend the moratorium in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and remove this area for future planning purposes,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said.

He echoed the sentiment of two fellow Floridians likely poised for electoral battle this cycle. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, both oppose the drilling, making it a unifying issue.

The White House acknowledged Thursday that the proposal may have struck a nerve with Florida lawmakers and vowed to reach a consensus on how to move forward.

“Our goal is certainly not to cross Gov. Scott,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said during Thursday’s news briefing.

The Florida opposition stems from a combination of defense and environmental concerns. From the defense angle, the worry, lawmakers say, is that drilling will interfere with defense and NASA-related training activities. Environmentally, the worry is that beach tourism could suffer from a spill — similar to the financial hit the area took after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The proposed plan would offer two lease sales in the central and eastern Gulf regions beginning in 2023 after a congressionally directed moratorium expires in 2022. The sale would represent the first time the majority of the eastern area would be available for leasing since 1988, the department said.

California dreaming

The Pacific sales, which would be the first since 1984, drew even harsher criticism.

The governors of California, Oregon and Washington issued a joint statement calling the proposal “a political decision” that “flies in the face of decades of strong opposition … from Republicans and Democrats alike.”

They will “do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action,” the three governors said.

In Congress, leading Democrats on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee denounced the plan.

“The Trump Administration’s proposal to allow drilling off the coast in the Pacific region, despite the vocal opposition of local communities and every West Coast senator, represents an outrageous attack on our coastal economies, culture and environment,” Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, the top Democrat on the panel, said in a statement. “Washingtonians want to keep thriving on the coast, and I will fight to protect their jobs, communities and environment.”

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What’s next

Zinke, the Interior secretary, said he would maintain an open channel of communication, repeatedly reminding media on a call Thursday afternoon that the draft proposal was the first step in a long process. The five-year plan would take effect in 2019.

A former Montana congressman, Zinke said he was open to hearing from all stakeholders, including members of Congress and governors. But he has worked to lay the groundwork for eastern Gulf drilling for most of his first year in charge of Interior. He launched a working group with Defense Department officials to address issues related to interference with military exercises, and he lobbied against a potential amendment to the defense authorization bill from Nelson that would have extended the moratorium on offshore leasing on Florida’s Gulf Coast an extra five years.

After an initial public comment period starting Jan. 16, the Interior Department will release another proposal, followed by a second comment period, according to a news release. The department must also prepare an environmental impact statement.