State Politics

Is Florida on or off the table for oil drilling? Democrats want a clear-cut answer

Florida Democrats on Friday seized on remarks from a Trump administration official that no final decisions have been made on oil drilling.

“BREAKING: Key administration official admits Florida is not ‘off the table’ for drilling,” read an email blast from Sen. Bill Nelson, who has battled with Gov. Rick Scott over the issue in the days since Scott was credited for getting the state exempted from a broader plan on offshore drilling.

But it’s not quite that clean.

During a House Natural Resources Committee hearing Friday, Walter Cruickshank, the Trump administration’s director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, was pressed by a California Democrat on the Florida exemption and said that “we have no formal decision yet on what’s in or out of the five-year program.”

But Cruickshank repeatedly said Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s statement about Florida “stands for itself” and noted Florida had been treated differently in the past.

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Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke Andrew Harnik AP

After that exchange, Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, sought clarity. Cruickshank said the entire program would be evaluated but again said Zinke’s statement stands and would be taken into account.

“Cruikshank simply said [the bureau] will finish the legally required analysis of the planning areas, as is always done for all planning areas,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift told the Tampa Bay Times.

Still, Democrats and environmentalists took the dim view, even though Cruikshank seemed to be trying to massage the bad politics the Florida carve-out has created, with officials in other coastal states wanting to be exempt, too.

“The administration is playing hokey pokey with Florida’s coasts,” said Jennifer Rubiello of Environment Florida. “First they put them in, then they take them out, and now this morning we hear they aren’t out after all. We’re getting shaken all about.”

Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, called for legislation to permanently ban drilling off Florida’s coast.

“The moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico is scheduled to end in 2022 and Congress must enact a law to ban offshore drilling off of the Florida coast once and for all,” she said. “Extending this moratorium will ensure that there is no question that Florida is off the table from drilling and not at the mercy of politicians like Gov. Rick Scott and President Donald Trump who have flip flopped on the issue.”

Gov. Rick Scott Steve Cannon AP

Democrat Nelson is running for reelection and is expected to face Republican Scott. Nelson doubled down on the assertion that Florida was not being protected.

“This confirms what we all suspected: There is no deal to protect Florida from drilling. What we saw last week was just political theater, and the people of Florida should be outraged,” Nelson said. “Drilling off of Florida’s coast is a real threat to our state, and we should all be working together to protect our coasts — not playing politics with an issue that’s so important to our future.”

Zinke flew to Tallahassee on Jan. 9 and met with Scott, then told reporters that Florida is “off the table.” Though roundly praised, the meeting carried political notes as it provided Scott, who had been previously open to drilling, environmental credentials heading into an expected Senate campaign.

Following an appearance Friday afternoon at a National Guard event in Miami, Scott said he hadn’t heard Cruickshank’s comments but was clear on the commitment he had from Zinke.

“Secretary Zinke is a man of his word. He’s a Navy Seal. He promised me that Florida would be off the table and I believe Florida will be off the table,” Scott said.

“By the way, with offshore drilling, our entire Florida delegation is against it,” Scott added. “This shouldn’t be about politics. We should be happy with what Secretary Zinke did. We should be happy he took oil drilling off the table.”

Miami Herald reporter David Smiley contributed to this report from Miami.