Donald Trump’s feverish war on the American wilderness compels us to celebrate an unexpected voice of conscience, rare as it might be.
Last week, Rep. Carlos Curbelo of Miami and 11 other House Republicans co-signed a letter asking Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to remove from the tax-reform bill a provision that will allow oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“For decades, Congress has voted to prohibit oil and gas development in the Refuge, with the overwhelming support of the American people,” the letter said.
“Support for this protection remains strong today. After years of debate, the Arctic refuge stands as a symbol of our nation’s strong and enduring natural legacy.”
To no one’s surprise, McConnell disregarded the plea of Curbelo and the others.
The Senate version of the tax-reform bill includes a green light for Arctic drilling, which was inserted purely to win the support of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a longtime advocate of oil and gas exploration on the fabled North Slope.
Drilling has nothing to do with the tax-reform debate, but McConnell needed Murkowski’s vote for the bill to pass.
Why would Curbelo, a congressman from South Florida, buck the GOP leadership over an environmental sellout in faraway Alaska?
There’s always a possibility that, despite being a Republican in the year 2017, Curbelo truly believes the Arctic refuge is worth preserving.
At the very least, he understands that coastal Florida could be the next battleground.
In April, Trump signed an executive order with a goal to expand offshore oil drilling in both the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, and evaluate the feasibility of energy exploration in certain marine sanctuaries.
The president’s review of leasing boundaries includes vast tracts in the eastern Gulf of Mexico that are currently protected.
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For decades drilling has been kept far offshore because of strong bipartisan opposition from many Florida lawmakers as well as business leaders, who dread the potentially devastating impact of oil spills on tourism and the marine industries.
Gov. Rick Scott, who’s running for the Senate next year, is one office holder who has offered no lucid opinion on Trump’s drilling plans, which is all you need to know about his priorities.
Scott’s future Democratic opponent, Sen. Bill Nelson, has been a perennial opponent of allowing oil rigs closer to the coastlines.
As for the reliably evasive Sen. Marco Rubio, he’ll do whatever McConnell wants him to do.
The administration says the Interior Department is studying other areas ahead of the Gulf, but don’t doubt for a moment that the energy companies are salivating over the chance to drill near Florida’s shores.
Here’s what Jack Gerard, the CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, said after Trump’s executive order: “We must particularly look to and embrace the future development of domestic oil and natural gas in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico.”
Ironically, only a week after Trump’s announcement, the Florida Legislature was ratifying a plan to distribute $300 million in compensation funds for several counties in the Panhandle that got economically crushed by the BP spill.
More than 200 million gallons of crude oil spewed into Gulf waters — a nightmare come true for beachside communities, and it didn’t suddenly end after the 87th day, when the broken well was more or less capped.
Among the places where tourism took a hit were the Keys, part of Curbelo’s House district. While Democrats have accused him of supporting the administration’s aggressive energy agenda, he has firmly opposed efforts to allow oil exploration any closer than the current 125-mile coastal limits in Florida.
He also co-founded the Climate Solutions Caucus, which includes 30 other House Republicans who actually treat climate change as a reality.
Given Florida’s catastrophic vulnerability to oil spills, it makes sense that Curbelo would be alarmed by his own party’s strategy of sneaking another fragile region — the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — into the Senate tax package. The precedent should scare every tourist town along the Gulf and Eastern seaboards.
If McConnell’s ploy survives the House-Senate conference committee, the drilling approval for the Alaskan refuge will appear in the final tax-overhaul bill. Then Curbelo gets to vote again, and he’ll have a hard choice to make.
March with his party, or stand with his conscience.