Trump drilling boost could boost Nelson's chances in Fla.

Trump drilling boost could boost Nelson's chances in Fla.
© Victoria Sarno Jordan

The Trump administration’s expansive offshore drilling proposal could boost Florida Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonPoll: 8 in 10 people in key states concerned about driverless cars Ted Cruz and Bill Nelson give NASA a reality check on privatizing International Space Station Overnight Defense: Senate confirms Haspel as CIA chief | Trump offers Kim 'protections' if he gives up nukes | Dem amendments target Trump military parade MORE (D) in his upcoming reelection fight.

Nelson is running for his fourth term in the swing state. His most likely rival is Gov. Rick Scott (R), though Scott hasn’t declared his candidacy.

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President TrumpDonald John TrumpCEO of American investment firm believed Michael Cohen could bring in GOP donors for deals: report NAACP slams NFL for gag rule on national anthem Pelosi: Republican meeting over informant will 'nix' possibility of bipartisan briefing MORE won the state in 2016 by a little more than 1 percentage point, suggesting Nelson could face a tough reelection. But Trump’s proposal to open nearly all of the United States’s coasts for potential drilling hands Nelson an opportunity to highlight his decades of efforts to fight drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, adjacent to Florida’s coast.

Nelson has called the proposal to allow drilling “an assault on Florida’s economy, our national security, the will of the public and the environment.” The move to open drilling gives him the chance to potentially paint his rival as a close ally of the president who isn’t capable of standing up to Trump, at the expense of Florida’s environment.

Scott quickly and forcefully came out against drilling near Florida and promised to push his case with the administration and press “the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration.”

But in a state with more than 1,300 miles of coastline, where the perennial threat of drilling rigs produces bipartisan anger, Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeWyoming approves first grizzly bear hunt in 44 years Massachusetts announces historic offshore wind contract GOP Senate primary heats up in Montana MORE’s drilling plan could help Nelson hang on to his seat.

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, an affiliate of the League of Conservation Voters, which recently endorsed Nelson for reelection.

“Sen. Nelson has been taking action to defend our shores for decades. Gov. Scott is definitely Johnny-come-lately to this issue.”

Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, said Nelson’s years of fighting offshore drilling will pay off in November.

“His positions on the issue have never changed,” she said.

Meanwhile, Scott’s main problem is likely to stem from his close ties to Trump.

Florida Republicans have consistently opposed drilling near the state, as evidenced by a flood of GOP opposition after last week’s announcement by Zinke. But that may not prove to be enough for Scott.

“When gas prices are up, people are in favor of drilling. But when they’re down, people are against it. And right now, gas prices are very low,” MacManus said. “And so this is the worst possible time for Republicans to have to face some kind of labeling as being pro-drilling in Florida.”

Florida’s sensitivity to drilling is also fueled by memories of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. The explosion and 87-day spill sent oil to Florida’s shores and cost the state billions, devastating its tourism industry because of the public’s perception of the oil spill’s impact.

The Gulf of Mexico hosts the vast majority of the nation’s offshore drilling activity. But the eastern third of the Gulf has long been off limits, due both to Florida’s opposition and military activity that could conflict with drilling.

Nonetheless, the oil industry sees the eastern Gulf as its top prospect. Drillers have a good idea of the oil and gas potential there, and the infrastructure for drilling is established.

Congress has banned drilling in the eastern Gulf through 2022. Zinke’s proposal last week envisions starting auctions for drilling rights there in 2023.

Zinke stressed to reporters that he is listening to objections from Scott and others.

“We’re going to listen to the voices of communities, of all of the stakeholders. So I look forward to having a dialogue with Gov. Scott.”

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders emphasized later in the day that the administration would listen to Scott, who has met with Trump multiple times.

“Our goal certainly isn’t to cross Gov. Scott. We have a great relationship with him,” she told reporters.

Nelson has taken a leading role in fighting drilling or anything he perceives as a slippery slope toward drilling since at least the 1980s, when he was in the House.

“Sen. Nelson has always been a staunch opponent of any effort to either open up Florida’s waters to offshore drilling or to undermine regulations,” Moncrief said.

“He’s been there from the get-go, which is not true of Gov. Scott.”

Scott has promised to meet with Zinke on the matter to try to get waters near Florida out of the drilling plan.

When Zinke opened up public comments on a potential new drilling plan last year, Scott’s Department of Environmental Protection raised concerns with drilling near Florida.

“The state remains concerned about the effects of [outer continental shelf] oil and gas activities on marine and coastal environments and the sensitive biological resources and critical habitats associated with them as well as the military activities critical to the nation’s security,” the department wrote in August.

Zinke’s plan proposes drilling on Florida’s Atlantic coast as well, a prospect that is seen as less likely, though it would hit similar opposition if it proceeded.

Scott’s opponents accuse him of flip-flopping on drilling.

In 2010, when he was governor-elect, Scott seemed to support opening that area up, saying he “absolutely” disagreed with then-President Obama’s decision not to pursue any eastern Gulf drilling through 2017.

“I believe we have to become energy independent,” he said at the time, according to the Miami Herald. “Offshore drilling is an option.”

Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone defended his record on drilling.

“The governor has been consistently clear that he would never support anything that would harm Florida’s environment,” she said.

Mac Stipanovich, a Republican consultant in Florida, said Scott’s ties to Trump might be his main issue when it comes to drilling.

“The governor and senator elections are going to be a referendum on Donald Trump. To the extent that Floridians can be further incensed by the offshore drilling decision against Donald Trump, then it will be to Nelson’s benefit and disadvantage the governor,” Stipanovich said.

“Scott may be a little more vulnerable to it, because he has lunch or dinner with some frequency with the president,” he said. “But he’s thus far failed to move the president on this important issue.”

Stipanovich said Scott has gone out of his way to show he’s opposed to drilling, but as a governor close to Trump, he’s still going to be expected to bring results.

“Other than dousing himself in gasoline and setting himself on fire, I think he’s doing what is expected of him,” he said.