Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has declared he is “taking Florida off the table” for new offshore oil drilling, but that concession leaves plenty of opportunities for rigs around the Sunshine State.
Zinke’s announcement on Twitter this week offered few details about the scope of his proclamation.
“Right now his promise is just empty words,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida who has long opposed offshore drilling. “What exactly does ‘off the table’ mean? The whole eastern Gulf, half of it? One hundred twenty five miles off the coast? Does it mean both coasts of Florida? Does it mean just one? What about the Straits of Florida?”
The Interior Department has months to decide — and its formal answer could be far from the big drilling blockade Zinke’s Tuesday tweet conjured up.
Oil companies are hoping there’s plenty of wiggle room. Although Zinke last week opened the door to selling offshore drilling rights in more than 90 percent of U.S. waters — from the California coast to the Atlantic seaboard — the eastern Gulf of Mexico was a top industry target.
The territory contains oil, is located right next to existing pipelines that can ferry that crude to shore and is close to refineries that can process it.
Energy companies already discovered a jackpot of natural gas roughly 30 years ago in the Destin Dome, located about 25 miles south of Pensacola, Florida. And the same geological trends that have yielded major oil discoveries in other parts of the Gulf could be replicated in its easternmost reaches.
Florida generally controls three miles of state waters hugging its coastline. And federal law bans oil and gas development in a 100- to 125-mile buffer zone off Florida’s west coast. But the Interior Department proposal unveiled last week opened the possibility of selling drilling rights in a small pocket of the eastern Gulf that is open for business right away plus auctions of territory throughout the region after the ban’s scheduled expiration in 2022. B
Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said Tuesday that Zinke’s declaration encompassed the entire eastern Gulf of Mexico “planning area,” which extends about 125 miles off the shore. But the agency can always insist that it does not make formal policy announcements on Twitter and later take a narrow view of what waters around Florida should truly be “off limits.”
Zinke’s declaration still “could potentially leave room for the agency to include highly prospective areas of the Eastern Gulf of Mexico in the final plan,” Kevin Book, managing director of Washington-based ClearView Energy Partners LLC.
“The secretary’s tweet makes it likely, in our view, that subsequent drilling plans will remove Florida, but it raises an important question: How will Interior define ‘Florida?’” Book said.
A broad definition would include all three of the offshore planning areas that surround the state — encompassing the Florida Straits, south Atlantic waters and the eastern Gulf.
Oil industry leaders have framed Zinke’s tweet as less than official. The National Ocean Industries Association described the Interior secretary’s announcement as “considering limiting areas offshore Florida.”
“On the official side, nothing has been done to curtail the scoping process. Nothing has changed as far as the requirements; nothing has changed as far as the ability to finish the process out,” said the group’s president, Randall Luthi. “Until Interior says differently, we’re in the middle of an administrative process, and that’s how we’re going to treat it.”
The Interior Department will have a chance to outline more specific details later this year when it issues its formal proposal for selling offshore oil leases, after taking public comments and conducting environmental review on last week’s draft.