Trump Extends Offshore Florida Drilling Ban
(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump announced an expanded ban on offshore oil development near the coasts of Florida and the southeast U.S. as he made a case for his environmental record in the must-win Sunshine State.
The president said that he was issuing an order to extend a moratorium on offshore drilling on Florida’s Gulf Coast, and expanding it to the state’s Atlantic coast as well as the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina.
“This protects your beautiful Gulf and your beautiful ocean, and it will for a long time to come,” he said in a speech in Jupiter, Florida.
Trump also touted other environmental accomplishments and praised America’s “crystal-clean” air and water. He highlighted efforts to protect the Florida Everglades and stem harmful algal blooms known as red tide that can unleash toxins into the air and cause respiratory illnesses to nearby communities. He also celebrated his State of the Union promise to plant a trillion trees by 2030 to help combat climate change.
Trump’s appeal comes as he woos voters in Florida, a winner-take-all state that has 29 votes in the electoral college and is key to deciding presidential contests. Trump’s environmental record -- and skepticism of climate change -- is also a detriment in the state.
Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden both have 48% support in the state among likely voters, according to a NBC News/Marist poll released Tuesday. Among registered voters, Trump leads Biden 48% to 47%. Four years ago, Trump won Florida by slightly more than 1 percentage point.
Even before the president started speaking Tuesday afternoon, he drew criticism from conservationists as well as Biden, who said Trump’s environmental record is nothing to crow about.
“Trump has called the climate crisis a hoax,” Biden said in an emailed statement. “He has eliminated rules designed to keep our air and water clean. And, dangerously, he has opened up additional public lands, both on land and offshore, to the possibility of new oil and gas drilling, a deeply unpopular threat to Florida’s natural environment and tourism-based economy.”
The issue of offshore drilling has been a political hot potato for Trump. Shortly after taking office, he ordered the Interior Department to consider scheduling new sales of drilling rights along U.S. coastlines, with an eye on annual auctions of territory in the western and central Gulf of Mexico, Arctic waters north of Alaska, and the mid- and south-Atlantic. The agency responded in January 2018 with a draft plan opening the door to selling drilling rights in more than 90% of U.S. coastal waters.
But by spring 2019, administration officials had decided to delay their plan to expand oil leasing until after the 2020 election, worried that the president and Republicans in the southeast U.S. would lose votes if they pushed forward with selling new drilling rights in the Atlantic, Arctic and Pacific oceans.
Florida leaders have cautioned that oil spills could cripple the state’s tourism economy and South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster had urged Trump to rule out drilling near the southeast U.S.
“I applaud this announcement today, which is a result of the many conversations we have had over the years and is a huge win for Florida,” Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott said in a statement.
Environmentalists downplayed Trump’s pronouncement, casting it as an election-year stunt that would not offer enduring protections to Florida’s coasts.
“Offshore oil drilling is dirty and dangerous and Trump’s message sounds more like political speech than a move toward permanent protection,” said Diane Hoskins, a campaign director for Oceana Action. “These coasts do need real protections and we hope the president formally withdraws his current proposal otherwise, it’s hard to see how this statement has any benefit to coastal economies.”
It was not immediately clear Tuesday how Trump was moving to insulate the area from drilling.
An existing federal law bars the government from selling new leases in an area of the eastern Gulf of Mexico about 150 miles from the Florida coast but that moratorium is set to expire in 2022. Trump cannot extend the existing eastern Gulf leasing ban without Congress.
Trump could act alone by invoking an obscure provision in a 67-year-old federal law that empowers presidents to withdraw U.S. waters from oil and gas leasing. Former President Dwight Eisenhower used the approach to protect coral reefs near Key Largo, Florida, in 1960, and former President George H.W. Bush did the same to block oil leasing along the West Coast, Northeast U.S. and southern Florida for a decade.
But after former President Barack Obama indefinitely withdraw some 120 million acres of Arctic waters from future oil leasing in his final months in the White House, Trump repealed the declaration and ordered his Interior Department to sell drilling rights in the region anyway. The Justice Department is now defending the move before a federal appeals court.
Eastern Gulf of Mexico is a big draw to oil companies because it is close to existing pipelines and infrastructure, including refineries in Texas and Louisiana. The area also is believed to have major oil and gas reserves. Energy companies already discovered a jackpot of natural gas roughly 30 years ago -- at least 700 billion cubic feet and as much as 3 trillion cubic feet -- in the Destin Dome, located about 25 miles south of Pensacola, Florida.
© 2020 Bloomberg L.P.
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