Less than a week after the Trump Administration proposed to open almost the entire U.S. coast to oil and gas drilling, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke backtracked and took Florida off the table for offshore oil and gas exploration. Now many are wondering why just Florida was given a pass.
Opposition by coastal states, both East and West, had already been strong, even before Secretary Zinke said on Tuesday that he supports Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott’s position that “Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”
“As a result of discussion with Governor Scott’s and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms,” Secretary Zinke said in a statement posted on Twitter.
But taking Florida off the table sparked even more backlash from nearly all other coastal states along the Pacific and the Atlantic, with governors and representatives demanding the states they represent be exempt, too.
Analysts see the administration’s move as opening a wider legal crack in the offshore drilling plan, with states and environmentalists waiting in the wings to start suing.
Potential lawsuits could further derail the timeline of the process that would turn this initial draft plan into a proposed final program. Mounting uncertainties over the timeline and legislation could deter oil companies from planning to spend big on exploration, while drilling along the coastal areas could be challenged by states and could increase risks for oil firms’ budget planning and possible legal expenses. Then there is the price of oil in a few years’ time to consider, as well as the fact that companies in the U.S. are increasingly earmarking investments into onshore shale at the expense of conventional offshore.
The administration was well aware that not all the areas being opened the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) will be areas in which drilling will take place. Still, the administration started with a vast initial plan, hoping to have the opportunity to narrow it down further along the drafting process, analysts believe.
However, the removal of Florida from the list of areas for consideration for oil and gas drilling, and not other states, is seen by governors of other states—¬and a former senior Department of the Interior official—as arbitrary and ripe for legal challenges.
Some analysts see the Florida case as politically motivated, but whatever the reasons, the governors of Oregon, Washington, New York, Virginia, and almost all others except for Alaska and Maine, demanded that their states be exempt, too.
“This proposal mirrors past proposals that have run into a buzzsaw of state opposition,” David Hayes, who was the Interior Department’s deputy secretary and COO during periods of the Clinton and Obama administrations, told Inside Climate News, commenting on the initial draft plan proposal.
But Secretary Zinke’s decision to take Florida off the table “should have his lawyers cringing,” Hayes said. “It smacks of an impulsive, undisciplined, arbitrary process,” he added.
“This is about playing politics with our coast,” Sierra Weaver, Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), said. “If it was anything but that, Secretary Zinke would have announced tonight that he was removing Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, where offshore drilling has already been rejected by local and state voices.”
According to Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and former deputy chief of staff in Obama’s Interior Department, Zinke’s Twitter announcement that Florida will be exempt undermines the process of the drafting of the final drilling plan.
“Offshore drilling decisions in the United States are, by law, supposed to be guided by science, public input, and a careful balancing of environmental and energy needs,” Lee-Ashley told Reuters.
The final program for lease sales is years away. The initial plan is just the first step in a lengthy process that requires 60- or 90-day comment periods after every step of draft proposals, environmental impact studies (EIS), proposed program, draft programmatic EIS, and proposed final program, until a program is approved and a decision recorded.
“The entire process usually takes two or three years,” Hayes told Inside Climate News. “BOEM’s website optimistically indicates that the agency expects to issue a final decision by the end of 2019,” he noted.
With states and environmentalists expected to strongly oppose and even sue, the timeline for the final program approval could be further pushed off, and it’s possible that there will be no lease sales—let alone drilling—in the next few years. This could further complicate oil companies’ decision making as they consider pouring investments into unexplored offshore areas and whether it will be economical, viable, and reasonable.