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Federal Off-Shore Drilling Plan May Include Waters off the Florida Coast

Deep Water Horizon oil rig on fire

TALLAHASSEE – The U.S. Senate last week confirmed that David Bernhardt would be Ryan Zinke’s successor as Interior Secretary, clearing a procedural hurdle in releasing the department’s proposed five-year off-shore oil and gas development plan.

Since the Trump Administration announced in 2018 that it would allow the federal off-shore drilling ban to expire and open almost all U.S. Outer Continental Shelf waters to offshore drilling, Florida’s elected leaders have been bracing to oppose any sale of oil and gas leases in federal waters off the state.

Despite assurances early last year from Zinke to then-Gov. Rick Scott that Florida would not be included in the expanded drilling plan, the Sunshine State’s exclusion was never made “official” and many fear that guarantee left with Zinke.

Interior’s new five-year plan, which will chart policy through 2022-27, reportedly lifts the 1988 Eastern Gulf of Mexico [EGOM] drilling ban, in addition to the general off-shore ban adopted in the wake of the 2010 Gulf Horizon disaster.

It will offer the most off-shore oil leases ever auctioned by the federal government for oil and gas exploration, including a proposed 1.5 million-acre lease in the EGOM. While the lease is more than 100 miles from Florida’s coast, it would be the first offered for sale in the EGOM in more than 30 years.

The oil industry has long lobbied to open the waters off the Panhandle – near existing operations off Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi – to exploratory drilling.

Of particular interest is the 50-mile long, 20-mile wide Destin Dome, 25 miles off Pensacola, which Chevron USA maintains could be the northern Gulf’s largest “untapped” gas field.

Many fear the Trump Administration will open up this area as well as others off Florida to drilling. Florida’s two U.S. Senators, Marco Rubio and former Gov. Scott, have both issued statements opposing such an expansion with Rubio submitting a bill to extend the EGOM drilling moratorium to 2027.

Rubio last week said Bernhardt assured him the plan won’t expand energy exploration off Florida’s coast, but that the EGOM drilling ban would be lifted – a step many see as an incremental concession to eventual expansion.

“He is well aware of Florida’s unique and vulnerable coastal character and that most Floridians are opposed to allowing offshore drilling off of the state’s coasts,” Rubio said of Bernhardt in a statement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he is certain President Donald Trump will respect Florida’s wishes and anticipates “accommodations” in the five-year plan to do that. If not, he vowed to “be raising Cain.”

“We’re just not a state for that,” he said during an appearance Monday in Tampa. “For other states, there may be a different calculation. But for us, our entire state is coastline. You have a mishap; it has a cascading effect. Whatever jobs would be created could be undercut by chilling tourism.”

In October, the Florida Gulf Coast Business Coalition, an alliance of 2,000 coastal business owners, chambers of commerce and community leaders, said expanding offshore drilling would threaten more than 300,000 jobs and $17.5 billion in gross domestic product generated by Florida fishing, tourism and recreation.

DeSantis, who signed an executive order in January committing the state to “adamantly oppose all off-shore oil and gas activities off every coast in Florida,” said as “an oceanfront homeowner in Florida,” Trump “understands” why Floridians oppose off-shore drilling.

A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released in March showed 64 percent oppose off-shore drilling off the state.

In November, 69 percent of voters approved Amendment 9, banning drilling for oil in state waters, which extend three nautical miles from the Atlantic coast and nine nautical miles along the Gulf of Mexico.

This piece appeared in the Watchdog.org and was reprinted by the Columbia County Observer with permission or license.

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