The Trump administration’s abrupt reversal on its foolhardy plan to allow more oil drilling off Florida’s coastlines is a win for the Sunshine State, regardless of whether it is based more on politics than environmental concerns. Drilling poses a unique threat to the state’s environment and economy and to the country’s military readiness, and it should not have even been considered. Gov. Rick Scott deserves credit for persuading the administration to quickly change its mind, and Sen. Bill Nelson and other longtime drilling opponents should keep pushing to extend the congressional ban on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made the announcement during a hastily arranged meeting on Tuesday with Scott at the Tallahassee airport. The two emerged after 20 minutes to tell reporters who were notified an hour before that Florida would be scrapped from the Interior Department’s plan to issue new offshore drilling leases.
The administration’s plan, released last week after months of review, called for 47 lease sales in 25 of the 26 offshore planning areas by 2024, including 12 lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico. Ten of those sales in the gulf would be in areas not currently off-limits. A congressional agreement from 2006 bars drilling within 125 miles of the Florida Panhandle and 235 miles of Tampa Bay. But that agreement expires in 2022, after which Trump proposed two lease sales in the eastern and central gulf. The plan also called for three lease sales in the south Atlantic area, which extends to Florida, and one lease sale in the Florida Straits.
Zinke attributed the change of mind to coastal damage from Hurricane Irma in September and ongoing pollution in Lake Okeechobee, which have little if anything to do with a decision on drilling, especially given the lengthy environmental analysis the Interior Department included as part of its 380-page proposal. It’s more plausible the administration was trying to aid one of the president’s stronger supporters by giving Scott some political cover as he entertains challenging Nelson this year. Scott and other elected leaders in both parties joined Nelson — a longtime, vocal opponent of offshore drilling — in objecting to the president’s plan.
This is politics, of course, but it doesn’t detract from the victory of removing this threat from the state’s coastal areas. That’s why other coastal governors have been howling in reaction to the administration’s decision to protect Florida. Aside from the damage to the economy and the environment an oil spill would bring, drilling platforms and operations also pose a threat to military training activities off the Florida coast. The Pentagon, in a letter to Congress last year, said it "cannot overstate the vital importance of maintaining" the moratorium in the eastern gulf.
Scott, Nelson and others deserve praise for voicing their opposition. But offshore drilling is too at odds with the interests of this state to leave protections up to the political winds of the moment. While numerous Atlantic states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, expressed their opposition to drilling off their coasts, Florida "did not state" its position on the plan when asked for feedback, according to the Interior Department’s proposal. That’s all the more reason that this announcement needs to be reinforced by Congress. Nelson previously filed legislation to extend the existing ban in the eastern gulf an additional five years, until 2027. He filed new legislation Wednesday to make that ban permanent, and Congress should also fashion a ban on the Atlantic coast of Florida and in the Florida Straits.
The administration’s decision is a victory for Florida that state leaders need to build on through congressional action. In an era of bitter partisanship, state leaders from both political parties aptly channeled the public’s opposition to drilling and produced a solid win. The Trump administration made clear it is doing this for Scott, which is fine. But Nelson’s decadeslong defense of the Florida coasts also deserves praise, and there should be continued vigilance by everyone.