WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump acted Friday to expand offshore oil drilling, a move that could affect Florida, which seven years ago this month reeled from the BP oil catastrophe. Bipartisan opposition from state leaders was already building.
The "America First Offshore Energy Strategy" could turn back bans in the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as parts of the Gulf of Mexico.
Specifically, the executive order will reverse part of a December effort by President Barack Obama to deem the bulk of U.S.-owned waters in the Arctic Ocean and certain areas in the Atlantic as indefinitely off limits to oil and gas leasing. That also put restrictions on additional oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
The order could open to oil and gas exploration areas off Virginia and North and South Carolina, where drilling has been blocked for decades.
Action could be years away, however. The Interior Department will have to conduct a review and industry demand for more oil leases is currently low because of low prices and onshore production.
"It's a great day for America workers, unleashing American energy and clearing the way for thousands and thousands of high-paying American energy jobs," Trump said from the White House. "Our country is blessed with incredible natural resources, including abundant offshore oil and natural gas reserves."
But the move raised concerns in Florida, which has long battled attempts to expand drilling. The 2010 gulf oil disaster had dramatic effects on the environment and tourism.
"When Deepwater Horizon exploded, Floridians saw firsthand the catastrophic consequences of offshore drilling," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg. "Spills don't just devastate ecosystems. Local economies that depend on the health of our environment and clean water also feel extreme pain. I urge the Trump administration to reverse course and put the well-being of our coastal communities above oil industry profits."
Jennifer Rubiello, state director of Environment Florida, said: " The president's action opens the door to expanded drilling into our public waters, including drilling that could threaten waters in the eastern Gulf of Mexico — a move that goes against the values a majority of Floridians share: that our oceans and beaches should be preserved, not sold off to the highest bidder."
Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson on Thursday filed legislation to block any changes, though prospects of passage are slim in a GOP-controlled Congress. In 2006, Nelson and then Republican Sen. Mel Martinez partnered on a deal to keep drilling off the gulf coast through 2022, and Nelson has sought to extend that to 2027.
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida did not respond to a request for comment about Trump's executive order.
But other Republicans, including U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan of Sarasota, have mounted opposition. "Florida's coastal communities depend on a clean and healthy ocean and we shouldn't jeopardize the state's economy or environment by gambling on operations that lack adequate safeguards," he said.
The American Petroleum Institute welcomed the measure and singled out the gulf.
"Exploration in this area is critical to our national security, and we continue to see our neighbors in Mexico and Cuba pursue these opportunities, said API President and CEO Jack Gerard. "The Eastern Gulf is in close proximity to existing production and infrastructure, and opening it would most quickly spur investment and economic activity, which could create thousands of jobs and provide billions of dollars in government revenue."
Trump's order will also direct Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to conduct a review of marine monuments and sanctuaries designated over the last 10 years.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke told reporters that the department oversees some 1.7 billion acres on the outer continental shelf, which contains an estimated 90 billion barrels of undiscovered oil and 327 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered natural gas. Under current restrictions, about 94 percent of that outer continental shelf is off limits to drilling.
Zinke, who will also be tasked with reviewing other drilling restrictions, acknowledged environmental concerns as "valid," but he argued that the benefits of drilling outweigh concerns.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this account.