Florida’s waters have been off limits to drilling for decades. A plan announced last Thursday opened the door to changing that.
Tuesday evening, that door closed again.
After a brief meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott at the Tallahassee airport, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced that Florida waters would be “off the table” in a five-year plan to greatly expand offshore drilling.
If you looked at the maps included in the Interior’s 380-page draft plan, one thing that jumped out is which large area of Florida waters would have been open to drilling first.
Not in the Gulf. Not right away, at least. The waters from the Panhandle all the way down to the Everglades would have remained off limits at least until an existing moratorium ends in 2022.
Not the Keys or South Florida. In the draft plan, only a sliver of those waters were in potential drilling areas.
The largest area of Florida waters to go from off limits to open for drilling in 2020 would have been … from Melbourne to Fernandina Beach.
It remains unclear what oil companies would have done if given the opportunity to drill in our liquid backyard. What is clear is that having drilling off your shores isn’t a magic economic bullet for what happens on your shores (see Louisiana and Alabama) and it can be devastating (see Deepwater Horizon).
There are few things that can still bring together politicians from both sides of the aisle. But in Florida, this is one of them.
To his credit, Scott didn’t hesitate to break ranks with the White House. Even before the plan was officially unveiled, the governor sent out a statement.
“I have already asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration,” he said.
A cynic might say this response is all part of Scott’s preparation to run for Senate against Bill Nelson. But I’ll give him credit. Whatever his motivation, he was unequivocal in his reaction.
All over the state, there was strong and swift reaction.
Nelson, a Democrat who has opposed efforts by presidents of both parties to expand drilling off our shores, called this plan “an assault on Florida’s economy, our national security, the will of the public and the environment.” Even U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis, whom President Trump endorsed for governor, quickly broke with the White House on this one.
Some Florida mayors weighed in. When the plan was announced last Thursday, the Times-Union contacted the office of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and asked if he would be taking a position on the new proposal. There was no response.
In fairness, the mayor was busy leading football pep rallies, appearing on the NFL Network, making a bet with the Buffalo mayor and answering questions on local sports talk radio.
I was starting to think to get a response, maybe we needed to ask football questions.
Did you see signs of this Jags’ defense back in training camp drills? Speaking of drills and drilling …
When we got a statement Tuesday afternoon, Curry said: “The President and Congress have not sought my input, but when they do, I will join Governor Scott and Senator Rubio in calling for continuing to ban offshore drilling here in Florida. One need only study the economic impact of our beaches and coastal communities to understand that we cannot afford to change this policy at this time.”
In the past, Curry hasn’t necessarily waited for the president and Congress to seek his input before taking a stance on national issues. Without being asked, he has sent a letter to Florida’s congressional delegation about Syrian refugees and tweeted about things such as the Paris Accord.
And in this case, the federal government did seek input.
“The president made it very clear that local voices count,” Zinke told reporters Tuesday night.
The proposal is open to public comment for 60 days. Given what the Interior secretary has done with actual public comments recently — dismissing the overwhelming majority that spoke up against shrinking some National Park Service sites — it is particularly important for people in power to voice concerns about their areas.
That’s what has happened in many place, with many different groups. The draft plan includes the waters off dozens of coastal national parks — from Maine’s Acadia to Washington’s Olympic (and, in our backyard, from Cumberland Island National Seashore to the forts of St. Augustine.)
These aren’t just pretty or historic places.
The National Parks Conservation Association says that more than 72 million people visit these areas each year, spending $3.7 billion and supporting more than 45,000 jobs. Partly because of impacts like this, more than 100 communities on the East Coast have passed formal resolutions opposing drilling off their shores.
In Florida, where tourism is a $90 billion economic engine, many of Jacksonville’s neighboring cities have taken official stances.
Considering that this isn’t the last time this will come up, wecould do that, too.
We don’t even have to wait for the president and Congress to ask for our input.