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Bill Nelson’s anti-drilling credentials come under scrutiny

He showed some flexibility in 2010 under the Obama administration.
Sen. Bill Nelson talks about oil drilling on the Senate floor on Jan. 10, 2018.
Published Jan. 17, 2018

WASHINGTON – Sen. Bill Nelson can rightfully claim he's fought to keep oil drilling away from Florida, but in 2010, he was less strident when the Obama administration floated plans, only to see them scuttled by the BP disaster.

The Tampa Bay Times reported in March 2010 that Nelson was OK with the Obama proposal and now those words have resurfaced as the Florida Democrat runs for re-election against probable opponent Gov. Rick Scott.

"WHOOPS! Bill Nelson Supported Offshore Drilling Under Obama," the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC associated with Mitch McConnell, said in an email blast to reporters this week that linked to a report by the conservative Washington Free Beacon.

Nelson's office denies he ever endorsed the plan — but he also didn't outright condemn it.

"I've talked many times to (Interior Department) Secretary (Ken) Salazar and told him if they drilled too close to Florida's beaches they'd be risking the state s economy and the environment," Nelson told us in 2010. "I believe this plan shows they heeded that concern.

"And it ought to derail the scheme in the Florida Legislature to drill three miles off-shore. Now I need to hear from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. And I want him to look me in the eye and assure me that this plan will not compromise national security by interfering with the unfettered space we have for training and testing our most sophisticated military weapons systems."

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that Nelson gave "tacit" approval to the Obama plan and environmentalists were not happy with him.

The Trump administration recently pitched its own offshore drilling plan but then, in a gift to Scott, said it would not target Florida, angering officials in other states.

That's led to Nelson accusing Scott, who was open to drilling in 2010, of playing politics with the issue. But expect Scott and his allies to point out Nelson showed flexibility too.

"Nelson never said he supported such a plan," insisted Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown. "He said Salazar's proposal – as compared to the 3-mile buffer proposed by the Legislature and the 45-mile buffer being proposed in the Senate – showed the administration was heeding some of his initial concerns, and he wanted the military to weigh in to help him make the case to keep the current moratorium intact, as is – which is what he's always supported.

"Three weeks later, Deepwater Horizon happened and all plans being proposed at the time were pulled from the table because everyone saw firsthand why drilling closer to Florida isn't a good idea."

Nelson teamed up with then Republican Sen. Mel Martinez in 2006 to pass legislation that's led to a moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf until 2022.

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