Nelson, governors want answers on Zinke’s Fla. about-face

Source: Geof Koss, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, January 12, 2018

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is questioning whether Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision yesterday to suddenly withdraw federal waters off Florida from the department’s five-year leasing plan violated administrative law.

Nelson, who repeatedly derided Zinke’s move as a “political stunt” in a Senate floor speech this afternoon, outlined questions in a letter to the secretary, noting the general public is now being asked to comment on something “vastly different” from what was published in the Federal Register on Monday.

Nelson asked for details on what the secretary meant when he said Florida drilling is “off the table,” including whether that means an extension of the current moratorium in the eastern Gulf of Mexico beyond the current statutory limit of 2022.

The senator also wants to know whether waters off Florida’s Atlantic Coast are included and whether seismic testing for oil and gas would be allowed.

The Democrat, who is up for re-election this fall and expects a challenge from Florida GOP Gov. Rick Scott, told E&E News he had a “bunch of questions” over Zinke’s reversal.

“What does this mean?” he asked. “But I think the subtext is, is there some violation of the procedures of the federal administrative law by doing something that was so obviously a political reason?”

Nelson declined to offer an opinion on whether Zinke’s actions violated ethics rules or laws, but called it “clearly a political stunt designed to help Gov. Scott.”

During his floor speech, Nelson noted that the announcement from Zinke — made on Twitter — followed a 20-minute meeting with Scott at Tallahassee International Airport.

Nelson’s letter seeks answers from Interior by the end of the week. The department did not respond to a request for comment.

Zinke’s statement said, “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”

Nelson said he would introduce legislation today to permanently ban drilling off all of Florida’s coasts. Asked whether he would consider holding up Interior nominees over the issue, Nelson responded, “To be determined.”

But he noted that he once held up an Interior official during the George W. Bush administration over its desire to drill off Florida.

Equal treatment

Lawmakers and governors from coastal states who oppose drilling quickly argued for the same treatment Zinke afforded Scott.

“If he made an exception for Gov. Scott, I’m wondering if he’s going to make an exception for the new governor of New Jersey, or the governor for Virginia, the governor of Delaware, or the governors of Oregon, California and Washington state,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters today. “You know, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said Zinke’s action “smacks of naked political favoritism” and is illegal.

“Exempting Florida but not another large coastal state like California has no rational basis, is an abuse of discretion, and is arbitrary and capricious,” he said in a statement, referencing the legal standard courts often use when weighing federal actions.

New York Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo wrote on Twitter: “New York doesn’t want drilling off our coast either. Where do we sign up for a waiver @SecretaryZinke?”

California Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown said today he hoped to obtain a dispensation similar to Florida’s. “We’re certainly going to ask for that here,” he said at a news conference unveiling his proposed state budget for 2018-19. “I’m hoping they’ll be responsive.

“The Trump administration has been responsive on disasters. And now we see they’ve set the precedent in Florida, and we’ll try to get the same exemption for California on offshore drilling.”

South Carolina’s Republican Gov. Henry McMaster today said he was seeking a meeting with Zinke to preserve his state’s coast.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has long supported offshore drilling, told reporters today that states should be able to “opt out” of leasing.

“I want to hear what my state says, but I don’t mind opening up drilling if states can opt out and those states who want to stay in should get some revenue,” he said. Informed of McMaster’s statement, Graham said he would follow the governor’s lead.

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) defended Zinke’s moves on Florida.

“Remember that when he laid down that draft plan, it was exactly that, it was a draft plan,” she told E&E News this afternoon.

“There is a period of comment now for all of the states,” she said, “and basically anybody to weigh in, and it’s from those comments that the secretary will then move forward to define what this next five-year plan is.”

Murkowski dismissed Nelson’s criticisms of Zinke’s meeting with Scott.

“I think the secretary had far more information than just a 20-minute meeting in order for him to develop this draft, the review, the analysis that went into it,” she said.

Reporters Kellie Lunney and Debra Kahn contributed.