Conservation

With Reversal on Florida Offshore Drilling, Zinke Highlights His Selective Hearing

What's good news for the state can also be seen as yet another example of political favoritism by the current administration.

This week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that Florida will be exempt from his plans to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. The decision most likely means a safer future for Floridians and its coastal wildlife, including Piping Plovers, Reddish Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and other winged inhabitants of the Sunshine State. 

Zinke's reasoning for the decision, however, has raised questions on how and why the current administration chooses to exploit or preserve natural resources. On January 4, Zinke released a draft five-year program for offshore energy development that would open more than 90 percent of the outer continental shelf to drilling, reversing an Obama administration order that blocked drilling in much of that same area. The proposal calls for 47 lease auctions from 2019 to 2024, including the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, which have been closed to oil and gas activity for decades. Then, just five days later, after a meeting with Florida Governor Rick Scott, who had concerns about drilling off his coast, Zinke announced that the state would be excluded from the plan, saying he did so out of consideration for “local and state voices.”

But politicians all along the coasts spoke out against the proposal, citing an oil spill’s potential to devastate coastal ecosystems and tourism-dependent economies. Moreover, the appeal from Scott’s office came as somewhat of a surprise—it didn’t request an exemption from the drilling expansion last year when the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) asked coastal state leaders to help shape the plan. Governors of 12 states, including the Republicans from Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, used that opportunity to ask that their shores be kept off-limits. (The governors of Alabama, Alaska, Georgia, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, and Texas welcomed the proposal.)

“Offshore drilling is harmful in lots of places,” says Julie Wraithmell, interim executive director of Audubon Florida. She praised the Florida exemption, as well as the work done by Scott, Senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, and the members of Florida's congressional delegation to make it happen. But she also adds her state isn't special. “If the secretary’s office is saying directly that Governor Scott’s argument made a legitimate case for excluding Florida, there are certainly governors from other states with compelling arguments, and I hope they’ll be given the same consideration.”

Indeed, since the Florida announcement, other leaders have asked why their states weren’t given the same treatment. Politics might be the biggest answer. Critics see Zinke’s Florida waiver as a handout to Scott, who is considering a run for the U.S. Senate in a swing state. Scott had stated his opposition to the offshore-drilling expansion on Twitter and requested a meeting with Zinke, who promptly flew to Tallahassee, talked with Scott, and told reporters that—thanks to the governor’s leadership—the Interior would exempt Florida. Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson, who supported the moratorium against drilling in the Eastern Gulf and would be Scott’s opponent if he runs for Senate, called it “a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration.” The Sierra Club likewise said it was “a purely political move to aid the ambitions of Rick Scott.” Some even suspect the move could be aimed at protecting the president’s Mar-A-Lago resort in Palm Beach.

This isn't the first time this administration has demonstrated selective hearing when it comes to voices that count toward natural-resource policies. President Trump disregarded concerns from the local Gwich’in people when he signed a tax bill in December allowing extraction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, breeding ground for the caribou herd that sustains the tribe’s way of life. Republicans in office also lauded the President for listening to local voices and input when he slashed two million acres from Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument and nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante. But the rollback last month defied the wishes of area tribes, ran counter to the majority of Utahns in a survey who wanted the monuments left untouched, and brushed aside the 99 percent of public comments that were opposed to shrinking or eliminating the monuments. Meanwhile, the administration has been a willing audience to fossil-fuel companies. Oil and gas executives have enjoyed face-to-face access to Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and President Trump has made their wish list his own. 

If the proposed drilling plan is upheld in other states, the program could have serious implications for birds. BOEM’s Pacific region, which encompasses California, Oregon, and Washington, is home to six federally threatened or endangered bird species, including the endangered Short-tailed Albatross and threatened Marbled Murrelet. According to the draft, another five listed species live in BOEM’s Atlantic region, along with seven off Alaska’s coast and eight in the Gulf of Mexico. (All habitat would likely be subject to environmental assessments prior to leasing.) History further shows that oil spills can have lasting effects on wildlife. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, for example, cost $62 billion and killed more than an estimated million birds. The survivors may face complications as well: Even a light oiling on feathers makes birds burn more energy during migration, threatening their reproductive success.

Although Florida’s birds remain safe for now, Zinke’s decision to exempt the state might backfire. Some legal experts say it could be ruled “arbitrary and capricious,” in violation of federal law. The secretary says he’s open to meeting with other concerned coastal governors, Republican or Democrat, and stresses that this is a draft drilling plan, subject to public comment. If the past few days are any indication, he’s in for an earful. 

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