Administration Plays Favorites, Exempts Florida from Draft Drilling Plan

NJ officials call for same status, arguing state’s $44B tourism industry is just as sensitive to spills and drilling disasters

Miami FL
Florida has been dropped from a new five-year draft plan to allow offshore oil and gas drilling along the Atlantic coast, leaving New Jersey officials urging that it should be awarded the same treatment.

In a sudden move, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke showed up Tuesday in Tallahassee to exempt Florida from the plan unveiled just one week ago, citing the Sunshine State’s heavy reliance on tourism.

The quick turnabout is seen as the Trump administration putting politics above policy — given that Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican friendly with the president, is reportedly gearing up for a run against Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent.

“Mr. Secretary, it’s Jersey calling,’’ Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) wrote on Facebook. “Lives and livelihoods of millions of people depend on the Jersey Shore. How loud do we have to shout for you to hear us, too? (Will having three Trump golf courses help?)’’

Zinke proposed to open virtually all of the waters along the continental shelf — except one area off Alaska — to exploration in a new leasing program, the largest ever proposed in the United States. The plan is the first step in a long process that is subject to plentiful review and public comment.

The plan quickly drew protests, not only from officials and environmentalists in New Jersey as a threat to the state’s $44 billion tourism industry, but also from representatives from other states along the Eastern Seaboard, including Florida.

Gov. Chris Christie, a longtime foe of drilling off the Jersey coast, reaffirmed his opposition yesterday to the plan through his spokesman.

“If exceptions are being made for other states, the governor will certainly pursue the same type of exceptions for New Jersey,’’ said Brian Murray, his press secretary. “He also will consult with the attorney general on additional steps to continue his policy of protecting New Jersey’s coastline.’’

Christie was the first establishment Republican to endorse Donald Trump during his campaign, noted Jeff Tittel, a longtime critic of the governor and director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “If Trump is going to help any Republican governor opposed to drilling, it should be Christie,’’ Tittel said.

It is not certain the exemption announced by Zinke will stand, added Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. The plan was published in the Federal Register, and there is a rigorous public process for making changes, Zipf said.

“Just because Zinke sent out a tweet doesn’t mean Florida won’t be in the plan at the end,’’ she said. Zinke also announced the exemption on Twitter.

Meanwhile, the drumbeat to exclude areas from the new program grows louder. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster announced he will seek an exemption from the drilling plan, too.

“The Trump administration is correct in concluding that offshore drilling could have a devastating impact on Florida’s tourism industry and coastal economy,’’ said Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat. “Like Florida, New Jersey can simply not afford a spill off its coast or anywhere in the Atlantic.’’

The congressman urged the administration to revoke its sweeping offshore drilling plan. “Florida should not be given special status because the president is friends with Gov. Scott,’’ Pallone said.