WASHINGTON ― Florida Gov. Rick Scott isn’t the only East Coast Republican who wants a say on whether vast new stretches of federal waters should be open to oil and gas drilling. GOP lawmakers from other states that have shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean ― even some who support offshore drilling ― say the decision ultimately ought to be made by local officials.
The Trump administration last week said it intended to open nearly all U.S. waters, including huge swaths of the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans, to oil exploration. The announcement drew immediate outrage from both Democrats and Republicans, who expressed concern about possible environmental damage, like oil spills, and the potential harm to tourism.
But then, after Scott lobbied against the move, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced on Tuesday he was removing Florida’s coastal waters from consideration for future offshore oil drilling. The state, Zinke said, is “unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”
Democrats, among others, immediately speculated that the exemption was approved in to help get Scott elected to the Senate. Although the term-limited governor has not yet announced whether he will challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) in 2018, he is expected to jump into the race.
“This is a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott who has wanted to drill off Florida’s coast his entire career,” Nelson said Tuesday. “We shouldn’t be playing politics with the future of Florida.”
Zinke’s decision to exempt Florida from the administration’s offshore drilling plan also raised questions as to why other states with unique coastlines and a reliance on tourism ― like California or South Carolina, for example ― don’t deserve the same treatment.
Sensing an opening, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) on Wednesday requested the same consideration from the Trump administration, noting that his state relied on a $20 billion tourism industry that spanned hundreds of miles on marsh coast.
“We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty, and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline,” McMaster said Wednesday.
Though both Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) support drilling in waters off the state’s coast, they suggested that local officials ought to be involved in the final decision.
“I don’t mind opening up drilling if states can opt out,” Graham said Wednesday, adding that he would “follow [McMaster’s] lead” on the matter.
Scott said he wanted communities in coastal parts of his state “engaged more in the process” before proceeding.
“I have said I’m willing to wait until we get more buy in from our coastal folks,” he told HuffPost.
There has already been significant pushback among those communities, however. The city of Charleston and other coastal areas in the Palmetto State might sue the government if any permits are issued for oil and gas exploration off South Carolina’s coast, The Post and Courier newspaper reported.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said he wanted to explore the possibility of drilling off the coast of North Carolina as long as local communities received a portion of revenue and oil rigs were positioned far enough so as to not be visible. But he, too, said the federal government should defer to local officials.
“I think it’s up to the states to decide,” Tillis said. “I think it’s perfectly alright for the states to say [to the] federal government, ‘I don’t want to do it.’”
Other GOP senators like Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), disagreed. The oil drilling advocate said he was “disappointed” with the Trump administration’s decision to exempt the state of Florida from the offshore drilling plan.
“These rigs will not impact tourism. I mean, you can’t see them from the shore,” Kennedy told HuffPost on Wednesday. “The decision is the decision, but in my personal opinion, all waters in the outer continental shelf, both deep water and shallow, should be subject to drilling.”
The Trump administration’s plans to boost offshore drilling also came up several times during a Wednesday hearing on a bill that would make it easier for oil and gas companies to obtain permits to incidentally harm and kill marine mammals.
During the hearing, Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) accused Democrats of being entirely opposed to domestic oil and gas production. “If that’s their position then they should be honest and ban the internal combustion engine, or return our country to dependence on third-world dictatorships,” he said.
Oil drilling has been banned within 125 miles of Florida’s gulf coast since 2006. The moratorium, which Nelson helped champion, is set to expire in 2022.
As the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill demonstrated, a ban off one particular state won’t necessarily prevent spilled oil from another region reaching its shores. In all, the oil that spewed from the Deepwater rig, located some 40 miles off the Louisiana coast, was found along 1,313 miles of coastline in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida and Texas, scientists detailed in a study published last year. By the end of 2013, cleanup crews had collected more than 106,000 tons of oily material from along the Gulf Coast.
In a post to Twitter on Tuesday, Zinke wrote that “local voices matter.” But by moving forward with a new offshore leasing proposal, the administration is seemingly sidelining the concerns of those who spoke out against offshore drilling as part of the current five-year plan.
The Obama administration instituted temporary bans on drilling in both the Atlantic and the Arctic’s Beaufort and Chukchi seas through 2022, thereby limiting offshore drilling to the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska’s Cook Inlet. And in the final weeks of his presidency, Obama used his executive authority to put in place permanent protections — a move Trump acted swiftly to reverse.
Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center ― which led the charge to have Atlantic waters removed from the current five-year plan ― said Tuesday that state and local leaders in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia have also rejected offshore drilling. And if Zinke’s decision wasn’t political he would have also removed those coastal waters from the plan, she added.
“The fact is that an oil spill doesn’t know or care where one state ends and another begins ― and Florida remains at risk, just like all states in the Mid- and South Atlantic,” Weaver said in a statement.