Zinke defends Florida offshore drilling exemption

Zinke defends Florida offshore drilling exemption

Interior Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Interior drilling auction sees few bids | Big oil targets Florida in offshore drilling fight | Puerto Rico utility says all customers now have power Oil industry targets Florida in new offshore drilling advocacy push Fewer than 1 percent of offshore drilling tracts auctioned by Trump receive bids MORE said he decided to exempt Florida from a plan to expand offshore drilling because the state is "different" compared to other states.

Speaking to the Senate Natural Resources Committee about the Interior Department's proposed fiscal 2019 budget Tuesday, Zinke said his announcement in January to remove Florida from the list of coastal states that might see expanded drilling is due to a unique variety of factors affecting the state.

"Now, Florida’s different for three reasons. One is that every member, both sides of the aisle, wrote me an immediate letter, said, ‘We don’t want it,' " Zinke said responding to a question for Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingTrump draws bipartisan fire over Brennan The Hill's 12:30 Report Sen. King ‘reasonably confident’ Russia is behind fake Facebook accounts MORE (I-Maine) on why Florida was exempt and Maine was not.

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"Second is your governor. Governor of Maine is for it. And third, Florida has a federal moratorium in place until 2022, which no other state has."

Zinke added that he initially left Florida on the of state waters under consideration for drilling because otherwise "it would have been arbitrary and capricious." But he added that the final decision on Florida was "still in the process."

Interior announced that it would be considering expanding offshore drilling leases in public waters in the outer shelf in January.

Zinke said at the Tuesday hearing that the final proposal, which would detail which coastal state waters will be included in the plan, would be released in the fall.

King also challenged the secretary on news that the Interior Department was looking to drop the royalty rates it collects on oil sold through current offshore leases.

An Interior advisory panel recommended that the department reduce royalty rates by a third in February, a decision that has faced heavy criticism.

Zinke said that the recommendations were still being weighed and no formal decision has been made. 

"I haven’t made the decision because I have not looked at it in detail," said Zinke.

When King asked if Interior had data to support that the reduction was necessary in order to execute the open leases, Zinke responded, "I would say there’s an argument."

"An argument is not data. In other words, there’s been no economic analysis to justify this massive cut?" King asked Zinke in return. "These are the resources that belong to the people of the United States. We’re taking money out of the pockets of taxpayers."

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellSenators share their fascination with sharks at hearing Poll: Majority of Americans support Roe v. Wade The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Protests and anger: Washington in turmoil as elections near MORE (D-Wash.) pressed Zinke on the budget's proposal to extract oil and gas resources rather than expanding on renewables.

Interior's renewable energy program is the only energy program facing cuts in the proposed budget.

Zinke said the reason for the cuts is that demand for renewable energy was expected to drop.

"Did I not just hear you say in offshore oil drilling there’s low demand, but yet you’re increasing the budget in those areas? So I’m just confused with the overall energy policy," Cantwell told him.

Zinke told Cantwell he had higher hopes for offshore drilling.

"I think it’s going to be a bellwether of interest [in] offshore vs. onshore," he said.