Last Updated at 12:39 p.m. ET
Just days after the Trump administration raised the possibility of starting offshore oil and gas drilling in places where it’s been banned for decades, a top U.S. official said he wouldn’t allow drilling in the one place that’s probably the most attractive to oil companies: Florida.
The announcement was welcome in Florida, where leaders of both parties oppose offshore drilling. But it was met with derision in other coastal states, many of them led by Democrats, where public officials have voiced similar objections.
Currently, coastal drilling is only allowed off of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and parts of Alaska and California. The U.S. Department of Interior says the existing policy keeps 94 percent of coastal waters off limits to drilling. The policy proposed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week would open up 90 percent of U.S. coastal waters to potential drilling in the coming years.
Many state officials balked at the changes, including Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who has been a loyal supporter of President Trump during and after his campaign. Zinke visited Scott in Tallahassee on Tuesday to hear his concerns before announcing that Florida would be excluded.
“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of discussion with Governor Scott and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms,” Zinke in a statement released on Twitter. Zinke also said the president directed him to consider “the local and state voice” in developing a new offshore drilling policy.
The term-limited governor, who will likely run for the U.S. Senate later this year, thanked Zinke for the meeting and the decision.
“By removing Florida from consideration, we can now focus on how we can further protect our environment,” Scott said. “I will never stop fighting for Florida’s environment and our pristine coastline.”
The federal reversal is certainly a political coup for Scott in Florida, but his likely Senate opponent, the incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, said the move is all for show.
“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,” Nelson said.
The fact-checking site Politifact notes that during his first campaign for governor in 2010, Scott never waivered in his support for offshore drilling -- a rare feat for a Florida politician at the time.
“We need to become energy independent. We can't do drilling until we do it safely," Scott told CNN during the campaign. But, “you don't put in a moratorium. Let's figure out how we can do it safely.”
In other states, though, Zinke’s sudden reversal set off a backlash. A dozen states had asked the federal government not to allow drilling off their coasts.
In South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, said he would ask the Trump administration for a waiver like Florida's.
“We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline,” McMaster said.
“New York doesn’t want drilling off our coast either,” tweeted New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Trump administration. “Where do we sign up for a waiver @SecretaryZinke?”
“Hey @secretaryzinke, how about doing the same for #Oregon?” asked Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
Brown joined her fellow West Coast governors, Jerry Brown of California and Jay Inslee of Washington state, in condemning Zinke’s original plan last week.
“This political decision to open the magnificent and beautiful Pacific Coast waters to oil and gas drilling flies in the face of decades of strong opposition on the part of Oregon, Washington and California -- from Republicans and Democrats alike,” the governors said in a joint statement.
“For more than 30 years, our shared coastline has been protected from further federal drilling and we’ll do whatever it takes to stop this reckless, short-sighted action,” they added.
On Tuesday, California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, also chimed in, using parts of Zinke's own statement.
“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,” he wrote to Zinke on Twitter. “If that's your standard, we, too, should be removed from your list. Immediately.”
(No new leases have been granted for drilling in federal waters off of California since 1984, but the state does allow oil operations in state waters closer to shore.)
A California congressman said Zinke’s stated reason for taking Florida out of consideration for future drilling also gave states like California ammunition for a lawsuit to block new drilling off their coasts, too.
“Taking #Florida off the table for offshore drilling but not #California violates the legal standard of arbitrary and capricious agency action,” wrote U.S. Rep. Ted Lieu, an attorney from southern California. “California and other coastal states also rely on our beautiful coasts for tourism and our economy. I believe courts will strike this down.”
But there’s another reason why Zinke’s decision came as a surprise: Florida is probably the most attractive place for oil companies to expand their drilling operations, explains Jennifer A. Dlouhy of Bloomberg.
“The eastern Gulf of Mexico was believed to be the most tempting new prospect for oil companies in the expansive Trump administration draft, because it is close to existing pipelines and processing facilities -- not to mention the refineries in Texas and Louisiana,” she writes.
“There’s also little mystery about whether those eastern Gulf waters contain oil and gas,” because oil companies found a “jackpot” of natural gas south of Pensacola three decades ago, Dlouhy added.
The Interior Department plan to expand offshore drilling covers leases sold by the federal government for 2019 to 2024. The agency will hold hearings and ask for public input over the next year and a half before finalizing the plan.