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Florida to Be Spared In Offshore Drilling Expansion, Zinke Says

Sen. Bill Nelson alleges move was aimed at helping rival score political points

The Interior Department may waive royalty fees paid by oil and gas drillers operating offshore and on federal land.
The Interior Department may waive royalty fees paid by oil and gas drillers operating offshore and on federal land. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

A plan to open Florida’s tourism-dependent Atlantic and Gulf coasts to offshore oil and gas drilling was dropped by the Trump administration on Tuesday after a bipartisan backlash that also threatened to complicate a must-pass fiscal 2018 spending bill.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, whose department on Jan. 4 revealed a draft five-year plan for expanding the sale of federal offshore drilling leases to the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans, as well as the eastern Gulf of Mexico, announced Tuesday night on Twitter that Florida’s two coasts would not be included in the expansion.

“After talking with Gov. Rick Scott, I am removing Florida from the draft offshore plan,” Zinke said in the tweet. Zinke had been in the state to talk with the Republican governor, a likely 2018 Senate hopeful, after Scott expressed strong opposition to the new offshore strategy.

In a subsequent news release, Zinke said the Trump administration’s two purposes in advancing a new offshore strategy were to unleash U.S. energy resources while also listening to local and state voices about the effort. Those words may haunt Zinke; Florida is not the only state or local government opposed to the new plan.

While state government in Alaska has long advocated drilling in the Arctic, where the Obama administration strictly limited the sale of leases because of the sensitive and challenging environment, the Trump administration plan was met with vociferous and bipartisan opposition in Florida and Pacific coastal states, where offshore drilling has been banned for decades. The fatal and catastrophic BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 stiffened state and local resistance to such drilling.

Watch: Just How Realistic is Trump’s 2018 Legislative Agenda?

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The governors of California, Oregon and Washington issued a joint statement on Jan. 5 calling the proposal “a political decision” that “flies in the face of decades of strong opposition on the part of Washington, Oregon and California — from Republicans and Democrats alike.”

That statement included a promise to “do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action,” the three governors said.

Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson alleged on Tuesday that the administration’s proposal to sell leases off the Florida coast and its subsequent decision to drop the plan was meant to make Scott, considered a likely challenger for Nelson’s Senate seat, achieve political points.

“I have spent my entire life fighting to keep oil rigs away from our coasts,” Nelson wrote on Twitter. “This is a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott who has wanted to drill off Florida’s coast his entire career. We shouldn’t be playing politics with the future of Florida.”

Zinke’s announcement followed efforts by the Florida congressional delegation to add a rider to a spending fiscal 2018 spending bill that would make permanent an existing moratorium set to expire in 2022 on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

The right vehicle

A Florida Republican opposed to drilling off his state’s shores contended Tuesday that House leadership had committed to include a provision banning such drilling in a coming must-pass bill.

Rep. Matt Gaetz said early Tuesday afternoon that he and fellow Florida Republican Rep. Francis Rooney had been promised by Speaker Paul D. Ryan that the drilling ban would hitch a ride on a must-pass spending measure — either in a stopgap or longer-term bill to keep the government open past Jan. 19.

But Gaetz softened his description of Ryan’s commitment later in the day, saying the speaker promised that “in a must-pass bill, we would preserve the moratorium that protects the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The speaker did not specify what legislative vehicle that would be.”

That yet-to-be-introduced fiscal 2018 spending bill is the only must-pass game in town at the moment; the young year is likely to include other must-pass bills, but none are on deck.

Ryan’s office confirmed that the speaker agreed to to work with the lawmakers to find a legislative avenue for the moratorium extension.

“Reps. Rooney and Gaetz requested that we help identify a future vehicle to extend the Eastern Gulf of Mexico moratorium and the speaker agreed to work with them,” Ryan spokeswoman AshLee Strong said in an email.

Not mentioned in the statement was a specific legislative vehicle for that effort.

A drilling moratorium extension would have added to the number of policy items to be included in upcoming spending legislation, including changes to immigration policy, children’s health care authorizations and efforts to bolster intelligence and defense activities.

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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