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Environmental attorney says Florida more vulnerable to offshore drilling after Ryan Zinke’s remarks

An environmental law professor said Thursday that Ryan Zinke saying last month that drilling off Florida’s coasts was “off the table” in reality gives the state no legal protections at all.

Alyson Flournoy believes the Interior Secretary’s comments may make it more difficult for the Office of Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to defend a final decision that excludes Florida from the White House’s announcement to consider allowing drilling nearly everywhere along the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and almost anywhere off the coasts around Alaska.

Flournoya professor with the University of Florida Levin College of Law, said Zinke’s January 4 statement at the Tallahassee airport with Gov. Rick Scott was not an official decision, and was without legal meaning, since it was made well before the conclusion of the 60-day comment period required for the proposal, which officials unveiled Dec. 29.

“An announcement on the fifth day of the comment period is jumping the gun,” Flournoy said Thursday during a conference call.

Ironically, Flournoy said Zinke’s premature declaration now makes Florida more vulnerable to offshore drilling than if he had merely kept his mouth shut since a final decision could be interpreted as being “tainted.”

“President Trump has directed me to rebuild our offshore oil and gas program in a manner that supports our national energy policy and also takes into consideration the local and state voice,” Zinke said after meeting with Scott.

“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique, and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver. As a result of a discussion with Gov. Scott and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”

Zinke’s decision to bypass Florida outraged legislators from both parties in states on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, citing the same argument as made by Scott. In addition to California Democrats, criticism rained down from Republicans, such as (former) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina’s Republican Gov. (and Trump supporter) Henry McMaster.

Interior Department officials seemed to be wary of the legal jeopardy that Zinke had put the agency when he refused to back up his statement ten days later when speaking at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee.

“Until such time as all those analyses are complete and we have all those comments to put in the record and consider, we will not have any indication of where the secretary wants to go,” said Walter Cruickshank, the acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, on Jan. 19.

The original plan announced by the Trump administration would reverse the Obama-era order placing 94 percent of the Outer Continental Shelf off-limits to drillers. Obama’s 2017-2022 plan would be replaced by the new program when finalized.

Tampa Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor encouraged Floridians to oppose Trump’s proposal by contacting the Interior Department before the 60-day comment period ends March 9.

Castor is also co-sponsoring a bill in the House, from Naples Republican Frances Rooney, to make permanent a moratorium on offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.

Environment Florida State Director Jennifer Rubiello said removing Florida doesn’t mean it’s entirely out of danger. An oil spill in a neighboring state could still end up on Sunshine State beaches, she said.

“That’s why we’re working to reject this reckless plan in its entirety,” Rubiello added.

Written By

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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