Trump officials cast doubt on Zinke’s Florida offshore drilling exemption

Trump officials cast doubt on Zinke’s Florida offshore drilling exemption
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Trump administration officials have not yet decided whether to allow offshore drilling near Florida’s coasts, a key official said Friday, despite Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Watchdog opens investigation into Interior chief | Judge halts Pruitt truck pollution rule decision | Winners, losers in EPA, Interior spending bill amendments Interior watchdog launches investigation into Zinke over real estate deal House rejects proposal to boost Interior watchdog’s funding MORE’s statement otherwise.

Walter Cruickshank, the acting director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), did not back up Zinke’s statement last week that Florida is off the table for drilling.

“The secretary’s decision stands for itself, and we have no formal decision yet on what’s in or out of the five-year program,” Cruickshank told Rep. Jared HuffmanJared William HuffmanLots of love: Charity tennis match features lawmakers teaming up across the aisle Overnight Energy: Koch backs bill opposing carbon taxes | Lawmakers look to Interior budget to block offshore drilling | EPA defends FOIA process Lawmakers aim to use spending bill to block offshore drilling MORE (D-Calif.) at the House Natural Resources Committee hearing.

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Cruickshank said his agency is still conducting analyses on potential oil and natural gas drilling sites, including those near Florida.

“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,” he earlier told Rep. Darren SotoDarren Michael SotoPuerto Ricans in Florida play key role in Senate race Wasserman Schultz: Infants separated from their parents are in Florida immigrant shelters Dem to Trump: Stop 'holding these kids hostage to build your medieval border wall' MORE (D-Fla.), who, along with most Florida lawmakers and Democrats, wants to prevent drilling from coming to waters near Florida.

Zinke’s statement exempting Florida, Cruickshank added, “is not a formal action.”

Soto said, in a statement after the hearing, that Cruickshank’s comments were “shocking” and “very troubling.”

“Floridians have spoken loud and clear,” he said. “We cannot allow another oil spill to destroy our state's way of life."

Cruickshank’s statements contradict what Zinke said last week after meeting with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) on the topic of offshore drilling.

“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,” Zinke said in a Jan. 9 statement. “As a result of discussion with Governor Scott's and his leadership, I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”

The Interior Department later said that both the eastern third of the Gulf of Mexico and all of the Atlantic Ocean adjacent to Florida would be removed from the five-year plan for drilling rights sales that the Trump administration is currently working to write, covering 2019 to 2024.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said Zinke stands by his previous pledge, which was that he was "removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms."

"The secretary's statement stands," she said. "Cruikshank simply said BOEM will finish the legally required analysis of the planning areas, as is always done for all planning areas."

Asked directly whether the offshore areas adjacent to Florida were off the table, Swift declined to elaborate, saying she had “nothing additional to announce on the plan at this time.”

The original proposal, released earlier in January, said the administration was considering allowing drilling nearly everywhere along the Gulf, Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and almost everywhere off the coasts around Alaska.

Zinke’s announcement came as a relief to Florida, though leaders in other states demanded that they be removed from consideration as well.

But some in Florida were still skeptical. Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonElection security bill picks up new support in Senate Senators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Senate Dems build huge cash edge in battlegrounds MORE (D-Fla.), this week, put on hold confirmations for three Interior Department nominees, demanding that Zinke give him specific assurances regarding Florida’s exclusion.

He told reporters Thursday that the hold would remain “until they come out by showing that there is no drilling off of Florida.”

Nelson noted that Interior’s maps, both on the web and at public meetings on the drilling plan, still have Florida under consideration.

“They have the maps. Have you seen the maps? The maps have drilling on it," he said.

Miranda Green contributed.

This story was updated at 2:42 p.m.