President Donald Trump brushed back critics of his record on the environment in the crucial swing state of Florida Tuesday during a visit to Palm Beach County by signing a presidential order that extends and expands a ban on drilling off the state’s coastline.
The order — which Trump signed atop a stage not far from the mouth of the Loxahatchee River — extends by 10 years the life of a moratorium that prohibited drilling in federal waters off Florida’s Gulf Coast until 2022. He said it also expanded the ban to include the Atlantic Coast off Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
“Thanks to my administration’s pro-American energy policies, we can take this step and the next step while remaining the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world,” Trump said, appearing at the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum.
Trump’s order — announced during an official White House event intended to stress his environmental bona fides — followed a report in June by Politico that his administration, once the Nov. 3 election is past, would move to expand drilling in protected federal waters off Florida’s Gulf coast. Drilling is widely opposed by Florida voters, more than two-thirds of whom voted two years ago to enshrine a ban on drilling in the state Constitution.
But even before Trump made the announcement, Democrats began criticizing his motives and warning that executive orders can be easily overturned. In a video conference with reporters Tuesday morning, Congresswoman Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, said the expected Trump order banning drilling was a self-serving campaign ploy.
“He obviously knows it’s a politically devastating issue to support drilling off of Florida,” she said. “You can not believe anything he says.”
The order also drew criticism from the National Oceanic Industries Association, the offshore drilling industry’s lobbying arm.
“Our preference should always be to produce homegrown American energy, instead of deferring future production to countries like Russia and Iran,” the association said in a statement.
Trump’s brief South Florida visit — followed by a trip to battleground North Carolina — came as he faces a tight contest for must-win Florida against Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. An NBC News/Marist poll published Tuesday showed the two deadlocked with 48% to 48% in the state. (Biden’s running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, is scheduled to visit Miami Thursday.)
“Just months ago, Donald Trump was planning to allow oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida,” Biden tweeted Tuesday afternoon. “Now, with 56 days until the election, he conveniently says that he changed his mind. Unbelievable. You don’t have to guess where I stand: I oppose new offshore drilling.”
Environmental issues have taken a backseat in Florida this year to the coronavirus pandemic, which is easily the most pressing issue for voters heading into the Nov. 3 election. But drilling — and presidential promises to prevent it from encroaching on Florida’s environment — are staples of campaign season in Florida.
It was particularly acute for both Democrats and Republicans just two years ago, when a severe red tide led to a massive fish kill off the southwest coast of Florida and toxic blue green algae that formed on Lake Okeechobee was released down estuaries toward both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
When he released his 2020 budget last year, Trump all but ignored requests from Florida Republicans to spend $200 million toward Everglades restoration projects intended to reduce the flow of foul waters to both coasts and help restore the River of Grass. But he reversed himself within a few weeks. And he has included another $250 million for the Everglades in his proposed 2021 budget.
“The left’s agenda isn’t about protecting the environment. It’s about punishing America,” Trump said Tuesday in Jupiter. “Instead of focusing on radical ideology, my administration is focused on delivering real results.”
Trump also touted his authorization last month of the Great American Outdoor Act, bipartisan legislation passed this summer by Congress that will pump billions of dollars into maintenance and repair of U.S. National Parks and steer $900 million each year paid by oil companies toward conservation efforts. Linda Bilmes, a Harvard professor who served on the U.S. Department of Interior National Parks Advisory Committee, has described it as the “biggest land conservation legislation in a generation.”
Still, Trump’s environmental record remains a source of speculation given his criticisms of green energy, focus on “energy independence,” and derision of climate change as a “hoax.”
Less than three years ago, his administration announced plans to open up a massive swath of coastal waters to drilling on Jan. 4, 2018. Initially, that plan included Florida’s Gulf Coast. But days later, then-U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke flew into Tallahassee, where he announced during what appeared to be a hastily arranged press conference at the airport that Florida would remain off-limits to oil drilling.
Documents later obtained by Politico showed that the Trump administration had worked with then-Gov. Rick Scott’s office for days to schedule the event. Scott, at the time, was running to unseat U.S. Sen Bill Nelson.
This summer, the Department of the Interior denied the Politico report that Trump’s administration was talking about expanding oil drilling off Florida’s coast after the election, calling it “fake news.”
Regardless, as Trump on Tuesday talked about his efforts to restore the Everglades and protect the environment, environmentalists questioned his record. Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, noted that the Trump administration has rolled back more than a hundred environmental laws and regulations, including standards to make cars and power plants more efficient.
“For Donald Trump, who claims Florida as his home, to continue to deny climate change and its impacts is tantamount to abandoning the state,” Glickman said. “There’s huge implications to Florida, and every part of our economy — real estate, tourism, agriculture — is jeopardized by his lack of action.”
McClatchy DC White House correspondent Francesca Chambers contributed to this report.