WASHINGTON — Political theater or not, the takeaway in January was clear: Florida would not be part of a broad Trump administration proposal to expand offshore oil drilling.
"Florida is obviously unique," Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared Jan. 9, standing at the Tallahassee airport with Gov. Rick Scott. "For Floridians, we are not drilling off the coast of Florida, and clearly the governor has expressed that it's important."
Scott, a Republican poised to run for U.S. Senate, emphasized that Florida was "off the table" and his office later boasted in a press release, "Gov. Scott fought to protect Florida's coastline."
But in the months since, Zinke has made confusing public remarks, fueling critics who contend Florida isn't in the clear.
"Florida did not get an exemption," Zinke said Thursday before the House Committee on Natural Resources, after being questioned by a California Democrat opposing any plans affecting her state. But then Zinke explained why Florida was effectively exempt, noting bipartisan political opposition and a moratorium on eastern Gulf drilling until 2022 that prohibits activity within at least 125 miles.
A couple of days before that, Zinke was before a Senate panel and stated that, "Florida is different" — only to moments later say, "Florida is still in the process."
Led by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, whom Scott is likely to challenge in November, critics accuse the Trump administration of playing games. "It's becoming clear that no one really knows what offshore drilling deal
Secretary Zinke cut with the governor of Florida, including Zinke himself," Nelson said. "More and more, it's beginning to sound like no deal really exists and, as feared, it's all one big political sleight of hand."
Sen. Marco Rubio, who came out against the Trump plan, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Lawmakers from other coastal states, meantime, have demanded their own exemptions from the administration's five-year plan and bills have been introduced from New York to California to hinder oil and gas exploration.
On, Tuesday, the Interior Department said nothing had changed.
Zinke "said Florida did not get an exemption because there is no such thing as an exemption," spokeswoman Heather Swift told the Tampa Bay Times. "The process is designed to be a winnowing process that involves several public meetings, comment periods and drafts. We have nothing new to announce at this time."
The public comment period ended March 9 and drew protests in various locations.
Scott's office said Tuesday he remained confident Zinke will "honor his commitment" and that the Interior Department "reaffirmed the Secretary's commitment." It would be stunning for the administration to undercut Scott, who is close with President Donald Trump.
But the muddy nature of Zinke's comments continues to raise questions.
During a Tuesday meeting of the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission, which meets once every 20 years, former Senate President Don Gaetz, a Panhandle Republican, noted Zinke's contradictory words in advocating for a November ballot measure to permanently ban drilling off Florida's coast.
However, that would apply only to state waters, which extend 3 miles off the east coast and 9 off the west. The proposal passed nearly unanimously and faces a final vote next month.
Democrats and Republicans in Washington have proposed legislation for a permanent drilling ban in the federal waters off Florida.
At the same time, a group of Gulf state lawmakers has been meeting privately to review the 2022 moratorium, officially the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act of 2006, and talks include the oil industry, which is eager to expand its footprint in the Gulf. President Barack Obama outraged environmentalists in 2010 when he moved to lift the ban, a move cut short by the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.
"At the very least I would like to have another five year-extension," said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who is part of the group. "But I would like to see it permanent."
He said colleagues from pro-drilling states such as Louisiana and Alabama want to open up parts of the gulf and there have been "discussions" about coupling that with permanent protections for Florida. A spokeswoman for the GOP-controlled House Committee on Natural Resources would not name the members and said the "content, dialogue and specifics" of its meetings "are off the record."
Even if Zinke's Jan. 9 comment remains true, it could raise legal questions, argued a University of Florida environmental law expert in a conference call last month with reporters that was arranged by U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa.
"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," said the expert, Alyson Flournoy.
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."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.