By Jim Turner, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida waters were removed Tuesday from White House plans to open previously protected parts of the Atlantic Ocean and eastern Gulf of Mexico to offshore oil and gas drilling.
The move was hailed by Gov. Rick Scott, while drawing questions about whether the quick decision and manner of announcement by the Trump administration were done to further Scott’s political career.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, making a brief appearance Tuesday night at Tallahassee International Airport, credited Gov. Rick Scott, who was by his side, for the decision to remove Florida from the drilling proposal announced Thursday.
“The great state of Florida has expressed and the governor has expressed his desire not to drill and not to have production platforms off the coast,” Zinke said when asked why Florida waters were removed from the pending review while waters off neighboring states remain eligible. “We think we have the assets in this country onshore and offshore and the rest of the Gulf to meet the president’s desire for energy dominance.”
Zinke who flew into Tallahassee to talk with Scott, addressed the media for about seven minutes and then departed. The meeting was added late Tuesday to Scott’s schedule.
Scott last week issued a statement that opposed opening Florida waters beyond the nation’s outer continental shelf — a jurisdictional term describing submerged lands 10.36 statutory miles off Florida’s west coast and 3 nautical miles off the east coast — prior to the White House policy being released.
The initial proposal was widely condemned by Florida politicians from both parties. On Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — a Democrat expected to be challenged for his seat later this year by Scott — was quick to call Zinke’s action a “political stunt.”
“I have spent my entire life fighting to keep oil rigs away from our coasts,” Nelson said in a statement. “But now, suddenly, Secretary Zinke announces plans to drill off Florida’s coast and four days later agrees to ‘take Florida off the table?’ I don’t believe it. 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.”
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein made a similar comment, noting that Scott in 2010 had disagreed with then-President Barack Obama’s decision not to pursue eastern Gulf drilling. Bergstein alleged Scott and President Donald Trump, a political ally, manufactured “a crisis to try and help his (Scott’s) political ambitions.”
Zinke said the administration strategy was to open everything, then meet with local stakeholders and governors, and to balance those views against plans for energy independence.
“We are on a course to be the largest oil and gas producer in the world,” Zinke said. “We are going to be a net liquid natural-gas producer. And I can tell you from a former (Navy) Seal, I don’t want your kids ever to fight on foreign shores for a resource that we have here. But there are places where resources are sensitive, and there are places where we are not going to go forward with resources. One of them is off the coast of Florida.”
In 2017, Trump signed an executive order asking Zinke to consider opening the Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic to drilling.
Scott issued a statement Tuesday night thanking Zinke for coming to Tallahassee to hear his concerns about drilling.
“By removing Florida from consideration, we can now focus on how we can further protect our environment, including our proposal for record funding for the Everglades, our springs, our beaches and our state parks,” Scott said. “I will never stop fighting for Florida’s environment and our pristine coastline.”