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: Zinke joins Trump-tied lobbying firm | Senators highlight threat from invasive species | Top Republican calls for Green New Deal vote in House Zinke, Lewandowski join Trump veterans’ lobbying firm Is a presidential appointment worth the risk? 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 HuffmanOvernight Energy: Court rules for Trump in environmental case over border wall | House bill would stop Alaska refuge drilling | Ads target Dems over Green New Deal Lawmakers introduce bill to ban drilling in Alaska wildlife refuge Overnight Energy: EPA enforcement numbers at historic low | Dems push resolution to back Paris climate agreement | Top lawmaker demands Interior nominee's schedules 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 SotoRecord profits put new bull’s-eye on tech giants Hispanic Dems announce task forces for 116th Congress Puerto Rico statehood supporters pin hopes on House action 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 Nelson2020 party politics in Puerto Rico There is no winning without Latinos as part of your coalition Dem 2020 candidates court Puerto Rico as long nomination contest looms 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.