Rubio removes objections on U.S. Interior nominee

After seeking a guarantee of no drilling off Florida’s coast, Rubio’s office says it notified the Department of Interior last week that he was withdrawing his hold blocking a Senate vote to make Katharine MacGregor the Interior deputy secretary.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla.
Published Dec. 18, 2019

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is no longer holding up a vote to confirm President Donald Trump’s nominee to serve as the second in command at the U.S. Department of the Interior after previously raising concerns about her position on drilling off the Florida coast.

Rubio’s office says it notified the Department of Interior last week that the Florida Republican had resolved his hold blocking a Senate vote to make Katharine MacGregor the Interior deputy secretary. Rubio’s acquiescence followed a conversation with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, during which they discussed widespread opposition in Florida to offshore drilling and the importance of a bill Rubio is pushing to extend an energy exploration moratorium in the eastern Gulf of Mexico until 2027.

Rubio’s staff also met with MacGregor.

RELATED: Rubio urges Trump’s Interior nominee: No offshore drilling

“The most important thing we care about,” Rubio told reporters Monday in Washington, according to his staff, “is ensuring that we don’t have an Interior Department that’s out there advocating against our bill that extends the moratorium. I feel fairly confident that that will be the case.”

While expressing optimism Monday, Rubio noted that “obviously the way they [the Interior Department] make their decision is going to have to go through a formal rule-making process.”

Rubio’s decision to release his hold on MacGregor’s confirmation vote — a procedural move afforded Senators by the upper chamber’s parliamentary rules — was first reported Tuesday by E&E News.

Rubio’s initial hesitancy to MacGregor’s ascendance followed her involvement in 2017 in crafting a new five-year domestic energy exploration plan that proposed to open up more than 90% of U.S. coastal waters in the outer continental shelf to leasing by energy companies. That area, much of it protected under the administration of President Barack Obama, included federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean around Florida.

The plan — blocked temporarily this year by a federal judge — was poorly received in Florida. Almost immediately, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke flew to Tallahassee to declare in a press conference with then-Gov. Rick Scott that Florida was off-limits.

That declaration, however, fell outside the federal government’s official process for energy leases. And environmental groups have raised warnings about MacGregor’s connections with the oil industry since she joined the Interior Department in 2017.

On Tuesday, environmental watchdog group Documented released a list of dozens of meetings between MacGregor and energy executives and lobbyists that were pulled from her government calendar in 2017 and 2018. The list included a speaking engagement at a fall conference for the National Ocean Industries Association, a group of dozens of energy companies, including ExxonMobil and Halliburton.

“An analysis by Documented shows Sen. Rubio has cause for concern,” wrote Documented researcher Jesse Coleman. “During the first two years of the Trump administration, MacGregor held 62 meetings with groups lobbying to open more U.S. waters to offshore drilling. Many of these meetings were specifically about opening the waters off of Florida to drilling.”

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, called MacGregor “a friend of Big Oil in Washington.”

“I appreciate Senator Rubio’s initial hold on this nominee, but no matter what she says in reassurance, this administration simply can’t be trusted to protect Florida’s coasts,” she said.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment.

MacGregor is currently working in an acting capacity as she awaits Senate confirmation. It wasn’t clear Tuesday when a vote would take place.

In the meantime, Rubio is pushing legislation in the Senate to extend a moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf by five years, until 2027. The Democrat-controlled House recently passed legislation creating a permanent moratorium, but Rubio says he doubts the proposal would pass in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“At a minimum, we want the moratorium extended, and I think we’ll have a good conversation with Interior about it,” Rubio said of his hold on MacGregor’s confirmation vote during an interview early this month with the Miami Herald. “They’ve been open and cooperative in the past and so sometimes these holds are a good way to speed up these conversations.”