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Interior Secretary Zinke may have hurt, not helped, Florida on oil drilling, critics say

Law professor makes argument with Rep. Kathy Castor.

WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's splashy announcement that Florida was "off the table" for new oil drilling plans may legally taint that possibility, a law professor argued Thursday.

"Now that the public record includes this very public, premature and unequivocal statement by the secretary, any final decision that excludes Florida is actually more vulnerable to challenge than if he had said nothing," said Alyson Flournoy, a University of Florida environmental law expert who spoke on a conference call arranged by Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.

She said Zinke's comment are not legally binding and step on the Interior Department's decision making process. The agency, which has floated a five-year drilling plan that affected numerous states, must consider all comments during a 60-day period that began Jan. 4.

Zinke went to Tallahassee on Jan. 9 and made his declaration alongside Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican close to the Trump administration and preparing a run for U.S. Senate.

"Other states that challenge any eventual decision or the oil and gas industry … can point to this moment and claim that the secretary did not fully consider their comments because he had already made up his mind."

She added: "This is not to say the agency can't ultimately make the final decision that excludes Florida. And that if the agency is very careful and builds a record that supports the decision … it could rebut these arguments. But I am saying, were I in the agency's legal department, there is no question I would view these comments at the very least as a problem I have to work to overcome."

The Interior will have to convince a court that contrary to Zinke's remarks, no final decision was made and all relevant factors and comments were considered, Flournoy said.

Democrats sent up alarms after an Interior official told a House panel on Jan. 19 that no final decisions had been made, despite Zinke's comments. The official also said Zinke's statement about Florida "stands for itself" and noted Florida had been treated differently in the past. Zinke has echoed that in interviews.

"It was the right move to remove Florida's coastline from consideration," Zinke said.

But there is now legal cloudiness — other experts have made the same conclusion as Flournoy — and politics are at play with Democrats effectively accusing Zinke and Scott of colluding to help Scott's Senate run.

"Our coast is at risk," said Castor, who has offered legislation for a permanent ban drilling off Florida's shores.