A year ago this month, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke flew to the Tallahassee airport and in a hastily arranged press conference with Gov. Rick Scott announced that Florida would be exempt from the Trump administration's broad new plan to expand offshore drilling. The message and the timing was a boon for the Republican governor as he prepared to challenge Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, who had long opposed drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Now Zinke is gone, and with no real agreement on the exemption in place it falls to new Sen. Rick Scott to be as unequivocal and outspoken in opposing drilling as the incumbent he defeated in November.
The joint appearance in January 2018 was nakedly political, but it was good news for Florida and a seeming indication that the Trump administration had recognized that Florida's geography and economy made it - as Zinke pronounced then - "obviously unique" in any consideration of expanding federal offshore leasing areas. The announcement also had the effect of broadening the bipartisan base of opposition in Florida to offshore drilling. But just days after Zinke's Tallahassee trip, the head of the Interior Department agency that manages offshore leasing said the secretary's announcement was "not a formal action." And two months later, as other coastal states decried what they called Florida's special treatment, Zinke conceded during a House committee meeting that "Florida did not get an exemption" from the administration's drilling plan.
Zinke's resignation late last year in the face of numerous ethics investigations only further muddies the waters. The exemption was never codified into policy or subjected to formal public review. That has many wondering: Was there ever a deal, and is it enforceable? The Trump administration has yet to unveil a framework for carrying out its drilling plans, which was expected by the end of last year. U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-St. Petersburg, is so convinced an exemption doesn't exist that he plans to work in the new Congress to ensure drilling off Florida is banned by law.
Scott came late in his opposition to drilling. He supported offshore drilling when he first ran for governor in 2010. Unlike other coastal states, Florida under Scott did not oppose the Trump plan when first solicited for feedback, according to the Interior Department's proposal. That's all the more reason for the new senator to carry on Nelson's advocacy on the issue.
Under a bipartisan congressional deal reached in 2006 that was pushed by Nelson and signed into law by President George W. Bush, 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 the U.S. Navy and Air Force use for military training missions. Nelson previously filed legislation to extend the existing ban in the eastern gulf an additional five years, until 2027, along with a separate measure to make the ban permanent. This is the only course for guaranteeing that drilling rigs won't litter the Florida coast.
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Scott needs to be specific and unreserved about his opposition to drilling. He should work with other members of Florida's delegation on a bipartisan strategy to protect Florida's shores.