By Jennifer A. Dlouhy and Jennifer Jacobs
Trump signed a memo effectively extending a moratorium on leasing drilling rights off Florida’s Gulf Coast, while also ruling out leases in Atlantic waters from Florida to 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.
Trump’s appeal comes as he courts voters in Florida, a winner-take-all state that has 29 votes in the Electoral College and is crucial in deciding presidential contests. Polls show Trump’s skepticism of climate change and some of his rollbacks of environmental regulations are unpopular 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.
Political Hot Potato
Trump’s offshore drilling move drew an immediate condemnation from conservationists as well as Biden.
“Just months ago, Donald Trump was planning to allow oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida,” Biden said on Twitter. “Now, with 56 days until the election, he conveniently says that he changed his mind. Unbelievable. You don’t have to guess where I stand: I oppose new offshore drilling.”
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.
By spring 2019, however, 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 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.”
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 expires in 2022 without action from Congress.
Instead, on Tuesday, Trump acted 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. President Dwight Eisenhower used the approach to protect coral reefs near Key Largo, Florida, in 1960, and 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. President Barack Obama used the tactic during his final month in the White House to thwart oil development in Arctic waters.
Trump was critical of Obama’s decision to indefinitely withdraw more than 100 million acres of Arctic waters from future oil leasing. In 2017, he 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.
Trump’s announcement, which rules out new leasing in the areas through June 30, 2032, was a disappointment to oil companies and industry advocates that view the eastern Gulf of Mexico as a tantalizing prospect — likely flush with reserves and close to existing pipelines and infrastructure, including refineries in Texas and Louisiana.
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.
Trump’s expanded moratorium “is the wrong approach at the wrong time,” said Lem Smith, a vice president with the oil industry’s leading trade group, the American Petroleum Institute. “A ban on responsible energy development in the eastern Gulf and the South Atlantic puts at risk hundreds of thousands of new jobs, U.S. energy security advancements and billions of dollars in critical revenue for states.”