With bipartisan fervor, Florida has fought against offshore drilling to protect the tourist-rich beaches and maritime industries that drive much if its economy.
But a president who won the state less than six months ago on his way to the White House might test that resolve.
Trump on Friday issued an executive order that eventually could open millions of coastal acres off U.S. shores, including Florida’s, to oil and gas drilling. The America First Offshore Energy Strategy directs Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to review the current five-year development plan on the Outer Continental Shelf.
“Our country is blessed with incredible natural resources, including abundant offshore oil and natural gas resources, but the federal government has kept 94 percent of these offshore areas closed for exploration and production,” Trump said during a signing ceremony at the White House. “This deprives our country of potentially thousands and thousands of jobs and billions in wealth.”
A White House memo released Friday afternoon suggests Florida is not an immediate target. Interior officials are being directed to review areas closed by the current five-year plan for sale of oil and gas leases in the Outer Continental Shelf, including the western and central Gulf of Mexico and the Mid- and South Atlantic.
But within hours of the order’s issuance, industry groups were talking about the possibility of drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
“Exploration in this area is critical to our national security, and we continue to see our neighbors in Mexico and Cuba pursue these opportunities,” said American Petroleum Institute President and CEO Jack Gerard. “The eastern Gulf is in close proximity to existing production and infrastructure, and opening it would most quickly spur investment and economic activity, which could create thousands of jobs and provide billions of dollars in government revenue.”
The Gulf of Mexico, which covers about 160 million off-shore acres, contains about 48.5 billion barrels of recoverable oil and about 141 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, according to Zinke. More than 97 percent of the nation’s current leases overseen by Interior are in the Gulf.
An association representing about 41,000 coastal businesses from Maine to Florida is gearing up to fight the prospect of oil and gas rigs in the South Atlantic.
Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, said Trump’s directive is far broader and aggressive than those of recent presidents, including Barack Obama, who pushed for similar reviews but opted not to move ahead.
“The Florida coast is going to be involved in this five-year plan,” Knapp said. “That is a major acceleration of the threat to the Atlantic Coast.”
Lawmakers will have a lot to say about how far Trump’s order could go, since it was Congress that adopted a 125-mile buffer off Florida’s Gulf Coast through 2022.
Florida lawmakers, who remember how the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill tarred Panhandle beaches, poisoned habitats and kept visitors away, will take issue with any expanded drilling they view as a threat to the state’s environment and economy.
“This announcement by the president will be like a big present for the oil companies,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said earlier this week on the Senate floor. “I hope the president thinks twice before putting Florida’s economy at such a risk. I hope he refrains from issuing this executive order, but if he doesn’t, this senator and a bipartisan delegation from Florida will fight this order.”
Nelson last month led a bipartisan coalition of Florida lawmakers urging Zinke to maintain the current moratorium on offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico for at least the next five years.
Joining Nelson on the letter to the Interior secretary were Democrats Kathy Castor, Charlie Crist, Val Demings, Ted Deutch, Lois Frankel, Alcee Hastings, Al Lawson, Stephanie Murphy, Darren Soto, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson, and Republicans Vern Buchanan, Brian Mast, Francis Rooney, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Daniel Webster.
In addition, Rep. Mark Sanford, a Tea Party congressman from South Carolina, responded to Trump’s order by introducing a bill to suspend drilling and all related activities off the East Coast for the next decade.
“One of every 10 jobs in South Carolina comes from tourism, and this means $13 billion in impact every year to our coastal counties alone,” he said. “Drilling would put this economic driver at risk.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican and Trump ally, has not weighed in on the order.
Shortly after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Scott said during his first run for governor in 2010 that he supported off-shore drilling as long as it could be done safely.
Asked where he stood on Trump’s order Friday, a spokeswoman for the governor said the directive still was being reviewed by his office.
State residents are increasingly opposed to off-shore drilling, according to the University of South Florida-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey. The annual poll showed support in 2014 for the activity, 44 percent to 39 percent. Last year, 47 percent opposed off-shore drilling, and 32 percent supported it.
Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, said he thinks the president might be surprised to find out how poorly the idea of offshore drilling resonates in the Sunshine State.
“Most Floridians are going to think that it’s more important to protect our beaches from the impact of an oil spill than to allow more energy development off the coast,” he said. “The Trump administration really misreads what’s important to Florida if they allow the Interior (Department) to start looking at leasing land off the Gulf Coast or even the Atlantic for drilling.”
Source: Naples Daily News