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 ZinkeEnergy development will likely land one bird on the Endangered Species list Montana lawmakers cheer recommendation to ban mining north of Yellowstone Overnight Energy: Navajo coal plant to close | NC dam breach raises pollution fears | House panel to examine endangered species bills 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 HuffmanMcCarthy joins push asking Trump for more wildfire aid in California California wildfires prompt deficit debate in Congress The Hill's 12:30 Report 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 SotoTrump's Puerto Rico tweets spark backlash Election Countdown: What to watch in final primaries | Dems launch M ad buy for Senate races | Senate seats most likely to flip | Trump slump worries GOP | Koch network's new super PAC Puerto Rico governor vows to support pro-statehood candidates in 2018 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 NelsonNelson campaign to donate K from Al Franken group to charity Political shenanigans mask true problems in Puerto Rico The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by United Against Nuclear Iran — The Hill interviews President Trump 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.