The Trump administration’s plan to open most of the U.S. outer continental shelf to offshore drilling began to unravel this week, after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared the Florida coast off-limits to fossil activity in a bid to mollify state governor and potential Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott.
“After talking with @FLGovScott, I am removing #Florida from the draft offshore plan,” Zinke tweeted, following a brief meeting at Tallahassee airport. “Local voice matters.”
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Asked what prompted the administration’s abrupt change of course, Zinke said: “The governor,” the Washington Post reports. He stated Tuesday that “Florida is obviously unique”, given what the Post describes as its “multi-billion-dollar tourism business built on sunshine and miles of white sandy beaches”.
But that uniqueness was lost on state governors and U.S. senators of all political stripes, setting off “an uproar along the coasts” that “could open Zinke’s plan to legal challenges, as well as political ones,” InsideClimate News states.
“New York doesn’t want drilling off our coast either. Where do we sign up for a waiver @SecretaryZinke?” tweeted Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY).
“Hey @secretaryzinke, how about doing the same for #Oregon?” asked Governor Kate Brown.
“.@Secretary Zinke: California is also ‘unique’ & our ‘coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.’ Our ‘local and state voice’ is firmly opposed to any and all offshore drilling,” added state Attorney General Xavier Becerra. “If that’s your standard, we, too, should be removed from your list. Immediately.”
“Taking Florida off the table for offshore drilling but not California violates the legal standard of arbitrary and capricious agency action,” tweeted Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA). “California and other coastal states also rely on our beautiful coasts for tourism and our economy. I believe courts will strike this down.”
And Rep. Mark Sanford (R-SC), another opponent of offshore drilling, suggested a tiny-handed push from the White House behind Zinke’s action. “I mean, you can’t say, ‘I don’t want to see an oil rig from Mar-a-Lago as I look out from the waters of Palm Beach, but it’s OK to look at an oil rig out from Hilton Head of Charleston, SC,’” he told CNN Newsroom.
While one U.S. senator said Zinke’s action may have violated legal requirements covering federal offshore areas, 10 others introduced a bill to ban offshore drilling along stretches of the U.S. east coast, and 37 Democratic senators called the plan “an ill-advised effort to circumvent public and scientific input” in a letter to Zinke. “We object to sacrificing public trust, community safety, and economic security for the interests of the oil industry,” they wrote.
ICN’s coverage includes a detailed look at the action states can take to oppose a drilling plan that could bring up to 65 billion barrels of oil or equivalent into production, and the “long road ahead” to get it through environmental reviews and public comment periods. But much of this week’s reporting focused on the politics of Zinke’s meeting with Scott.
“Zinke’s startling concession to Scott was seen by many as a politically inspired gift aimed at bolstering his chances of being elected to the U.S. Senate,” where Donald Trump “is keen to rebuild the razor-thin Republican majority,” InsideClimate notes. “Trump reportedly would like Scott to run against the incumbent, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, a vocal opponent of drilling.”
On Wednesday, Politico headlined its daily Morning Energy blog with the observation that “it pays to be Rick Scott”. And it reported on Nelson’s response, describing the side deal as “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.”
The very impulsiveness of that play may cause serious problems for Zinke. David Hayes, a former senior Interior Department official under Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, told ICN the plan “echoes past proposals that have run into a buzzsaw of state opposition,” The decision on Florida “should have his lawyers cringing,” he said, adding that “it smacks of an impulsive, undisciplined, arbitrary process.”
Sierra Weaver, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center, told Politico that Zinke may have put the plan in legal jeopardy by announcing his decision via Twitter. “Taking Florida out of the standard process by a 7 PM tweet seems pretty arbitrary,” she said. “They have to go through the process in a rational way and make a rational decision.”
“That’s exactly the kind of thing that can get a program struck down, is a bunch of arbitrary decisions like this,” agreed University of Virginia Law Professor Michael Livermore. “There’s a whole statute that explains how you’re supposed to make these decisions, and because you feel like it, or you like the governor, is not one of the reasons.”
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