With David Bernhardt preparing to become the next U.S. Interior secretary, it falls to Florida’s congressional delegation to ensure Bernhardt’s agenda does not put the state’s coastline at risk. That begins with holding the former energy lobbyist to his predecessor’s promise that Florida would be exempt from the Trump administration’s broad new plan to vastly expand offshore drilling. That is essential and one of several priorities the secretary should have for Florida.
With bipartisan support, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee voted 14-6 last week to send Bernhardt’s nomination to the full Senate, and a floor vote is expected tonight or Thursday. As deputy secretary since August 2017, Bernhardt was the department’s point man in shepherding the proposal for expanded drilling. The Trump administration announced in January 2018 that it would allow new offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all U.S. coastal waters, opening up more than a billion acres, including in the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Straits and along Florida’s Atlantic coast.
Both of Florida’s then-senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, opposed the plan, along with a bipartisan group of Florida’s House members. Within days, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke backtracked, declaring that Florida’s environment and tourist economy made it “obviously unique” and crediting lobbying from then-Gov. Rick Scott. Skeptics saw the move as a political attempt to widen Scott’s appeal as he prepared to challenge Nelson, and Scott narrowly won. Whatever the motivation, the about-face was never codified into policy or subjected to formal review. And Zinke was driven from office last year in the wake of numerous ethics investigations, which leaves Floridians hoping someone remembers his promise.
Unlike other coastal governors at the time, Scott failed to oppose the Trump administration’s drilling plans when they were first proposed. Now he needs to be clear and forceful in insisting the Interior Department keeps its promise. 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 the U.S. Navy and Air Force use for military training missions. Aside from Bernhardt eliminating Florida from the drilling plan, Congress needs to pass legislation to make the existing ban in the eastern gulf permanent. This is the only way to keep oil rigs from sprouting along the Florida coast.
Bernhardt failed to offer senators any assurance during his confirmation hearing that the administration is rethinking its drilling plan in any significant way. He committed, though, to listen to state concerns and cautioned that the blueprint was early in the formative stage, suggesting that the final new drilling area could be smaller in size.
That’s not good enough. Drilling off Florida is a threat to the state’s ecosystem, economy and essential role in maintaining the nation’s military readiness. The state’s congressional delegation needs to speak with a single voice on this point. And it needs to ensure that Bernhardt is committed to playing an appropriate, responsible role in advancing other federal-state priorities, from Everglades restoration to the management of national parks and wildlife areas. These are concerns that transcend partisan politics in Florida, and the Trump administration needs to be reminded by a chorus of Floridians that includes Rubio, Scott, Gov. Ron DeSantis and every U.S. House member.