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Ban drilling off Florida’s Gulf coast forever | Editorial

The House has voted to permanently ban oil drilling off the Gulf Coast. Now the Senate should approve it.
Oil can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip, as a large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in April 2010. [Associated Press]
Published Sep. 16

The U.S. House has moved to protect Florida tourism and America’s military readiness by voting to permanently ban oil drilling off Florida’s Gulf coast. With just one exception, the state’s House members sent the right message about Florida’s priorities last week by supporting the permanent ban. Now it falls to the Senate to follow the House’s lead, and Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott should be leading the charge to protect the state’s precious coastline.

The legislation, Protecting and Securing Florida’s Coastline Act, passed with a vote of 248-180, with just 22 Republicans joining 226 Democrats in favor. Sponsored by Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples, and cosponsored by 12 other Florida lawmakers from both parties, the measure reflects the broad bipartisan support in Florida for protecting the state from an environmental disaster. Only one of Florida’s 27 House members - Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville - voted against the bill. Perhaps Yoho should visit Pinellas County’s beaches and reconsider his position what oil drilling would put at risk.

Rooney was right to hail the bill as “an important first step” in convincing President Donald Trump to remove Florida from any new drilling plans. Under a bipartisan congressional deal reached in 2006, drilling is barred within 235 miles of Tampa Bay and 125 miles from the Panhandle until June 2022. The areas off-limits include a wide swath of the eastern Gulf the U.S. Navy and Air Force use for military training missions. But the Trump administration’s announcement in January 2018 that it would allow new offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all U.S. coastal waters, including in the Gulf of Mexico, reflects the inadequacy of a temporary ban. Only a permanent exclusion gives Florida the certainty it needs while establishing a reliable corridor for military training.

The legislation also removes a cloud of uncertainty stemming from the assurances of then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke only days after the administration announced its drilling plan that Florida would be off the table. Skeptics saw the move as a political attempt by the Trump administration to help then-Gov. Scott in his winning campaign to unseat Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson. Motivations aside, Zinke’s pledge was never codified into policy, and Florida’s status remains unsettled.

Rooney’s bill is better than a Senate alternative by Rubio that would ban drilling in the eastern Gulf but only through 2027. Scott has co-sponsored that bill, but a five-year extension is far less than what the former governor heralded when appearing with Zinke before the Senate campaign. Citing a congressional source, the Miami Herald reported that the White House issued a veto threat on Rooney’s bill because of concerns over a permanent ban in the eastern Gulf.

A permanent ban should be the starting point in the Senate. Florida’s House delegation spoke virtually with a single voice, reflecting even in these hyper-partisan times the broad public opposition in Florida to drilling off the coast. The state’s tourism and fishing industries, coastal environment and appeal to new residents could be decimated by a single offshore accident. Scott understood that as a Senate candidate, and he should bring that same unwavering commitment to the Senate’s drilling debate. With an election next year, Trump will be looking to make as many friends as possible in Florida. There’s no reason to concede the eastern Gulf.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news

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