The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beaches line the coast like pearls. Other states ask why Florida’s are more special.

The governors of several coastal states reacted with alarm after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke granted Florida Governor Rick Scott a waiver on Jan. 9. (Video: Reuters)

Within minutes of the Trump administration’s proposal to open the Atlantic coast to oil and gas drilling, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), one of only two coastal governors who had remained silent about the long-anticipated plan, finally spoke up. In a statement, Scott said he opposed the proposal and requested a meeting with its architect, Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke.

On Tuesday, the two met, and in a turnabout that stunned governors, attorneys general and conservationists in other coastal states, Zinke exempted Florida from his department’s dramatic expansion of drilling leases across 90 percent of the U.S. outer continental shelf, including the Gulf of Mexico, Pacific Ocean, Atlantic Ocean and parts of the Arctic Ocean.

Why is offshore drilling again banned in Florida? Well, it’s a red state.

Now, governors concerned about drilling and its potential effect on the environment, beaches and tourism industry, which is worth billions of dollars, are asking why Florida is so special and vowing to wage a fight against new drilling, in court if necessary.

Zinke tweeted a statement that offered little explanation, describing Scott “a straightforward leader that can be trusted” saying that “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”

California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, immediately objected. “California is also ‘unique’ and our ‘coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,’ ” Becerra said in a statement that parroted Zinke. “Our ‘local and state voice’ is firmly opposed to any and all offshore drilling. If that’s your standard, we, too, should be removed from your list. Immediately.”

What sets Scott apart from other coastal politicians is his ambition, widely reported by news organizations throughout Florida, to challenge Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and become an ally to President Trump in Congress. “It’s an option I have,” Scott said of running for Nelson’s seat.

Nelson has been as outspoken in his opposition to Atlantic and gulf drilling near Florida as Scott has been silent. The Trump administration’s acquiescence to Scott’s request was criticized by some as politics, saying it allowed the governor to position himself as a friend of the environment, even as local government officials, planners and environmentalists adamantly say he has never been.

Before January, Scott showed little interest in the developing proposal to drill off Florida’s coast. A map handed out by Interior officials in a briefing to congressional staffers on the proposed five-year drilling plan and included in a draft report indicated that the Scott administration formally took no position when asked by Interior in the summer of 2017.

A letter to Interior from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection in August said “the state remains concerned” about the drilling proposal, arguing that waters off Florida have “high environmental and economic value” and are “an essential component for developing and sustaining military readiness.” But the agency did not explicitly oppose offshore drilling in the letter.

“I have spent my entire life fighting to keep oil rigs away from our coasts. But now, suddenly, Secretary Zinke announces plans to drill off Florida’s coast and four days later agrees to ‘take Florida off the table’?” Nelson said in a statement Wednesday. “I don’t believe it. This is a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott, who has wanted to drill off Florida’s coast his entire career. We shouldn’t be playing politics with the future of Florida.”

“Senator Nelson and anyone else who opposes oil drilling off of Florida’s coast should be happy that the governor was able to secure this commitment,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said in an email. “This isn’t about politics. This is good policy for Florida.”

Trump signs order authorizing offshore oil drilling (Video: The Washington Post)

Scott’s office said the governor raised the issue personally with Zinke during a Capitol Hill meeting in October.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he doubted Zinke’s “local voice matters” justification for exempting Florida and suggested the agency sided with Scott because the governor is a Trump ally and Florida is home to the president’s so-called Winter White House.

“Is it because the governor of Florida is a Republican and the Virginia governors are Democrats?” Kaine said, reprising his role as chief Trump critic as Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate. “Are they putting Florida off-limits because President Trump has a vacation property, Mar-a-Lago, on the Atlantic coast of Florida and he worries about environmental risk there, but he’s not worried about environmental risk in Virginia?”

In a Wednesday interview with The Washington Post, Zinke said he first met Scott when his state and the federal government were preparing for Hurricane Irma, then a second time when the two worked on Everglades restoration. Zinke said he felt a personal connection with the governor, so when Scott contacted him in writing he felt an obligation to respond.

“Quite frankly, Gov. Scott called me and [also] expressed in writing a desire to have a meeting,” he said. That meeting was the first “in what I believe will be a series of conversations” with other governors, the secretary said. “I will no doubt talk to every governor. It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re Republican or Democrat. This is going to be a long process. This is going to be at least a year with public comment. We have to get it right, look at the geology, look at the science.”

Trump’s proposal to expand drilling across the entire outer continental shelf comes less than eight years after one of the worst environmental disasters in U.S. history, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 people and spilled 215 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, fouling beaches from Louisiana to Florida.

In a statement thanking Zinke for safeguarding Florida from potential oil spills, Scott proclaimed that “I will never stop fighting for Florida’s environment and our pristine coastline.” Meanwhile, environmentalists are counting down his final days in office, hoping the next governor will be a stronger environmental steward.

As Hurricane Irma bore down on Florida last fall, local officials, academics and even some of Scott’s political allies noted how his administration did little to prepare for the impacts of climate change and sea-level rise in a state with one of the nation’s longest coastlines.

“It’s more than an absence of leadership. There’s harm being done by denying the problem,” said Eric Buermann, former general counsel to the Republican Party of Florida and a former board chairman for the South Florida Water Management District. “He’s chilled the discussion, so that those who would want to do something about it feel ostracized. . . . I’m a Republican. He’s a Republican. He’s a nice guy. There’s nothing negative I have to say about the human being. It’s just that the policy is 180 degrees off course.”

State newspapers have reported that early in his administration, Scott discouraged the use of words such as “climate change” and “global warming” in official state documents, accusations that the governor denies.

Until Zinke gifted Scott with a key talking point about his stewardship, Scott had few environmental accomplishments other than a grant to help restore the Everglades.

As Zinke said, beach tourism on the coast drives Florida’s economy, but the same is true of Maryland and Virginia, where Ocean City and Virginia Beach are major tourist draws. And the Chesapeake Bay, the largest freshwater estuary in the United States that flows to the Atlantic, drives the economies of both states.

Beaches line the Atlantic coast like a string of pearls: Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head in South Carolina, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Bethany Beach in Delaware, Atlantic City and its surrounding areas in New Jersey, Jones Beach on Long Island in New York and Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts.

“Singling out Florida while rejecting identical requests for exclusion from North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and the entire West Coast violates” federal law, said Sierra Weaver, a senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center. She cited the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act and the Administrative Procedure Act that govern the development of the offshore leasing program, saying they “define a specific process that the Interior Department must follow and standards it must apply in making” such a decision.

“If he made an exception for Governor Scott, I’m wondering if he’s going to make an exception for the new governor of New Jersey, or the governor of Virginia, or the governor of Delaware,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who criticized Zinke’s decision, saying it appeared to be a politically motivated.

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. The bottom line is that that order is very, very controversial,” Hoyer said. “It’s going to be I think a very, very political, patently political, swamp political, to do something for the governor of Florida — who’s a Republican — and not do something for governors who have similar concerns.”

Many of the other Atlantic coast governors who oppose drilling are Republican. Along with Scott, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, all conservatives, have all stated their opposition.

A Zinke spokeswoman, Heather Swift, said she’s “unaware of any official scheduling requests that have come to the department” from other governors at this time, but “some could have come in overnight.”

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) said that’s not for lack of trying. Rather than provide a comment, his spokesman pointed out two tweets from Cooper indicating that he reached out to Zinke for a meeting in recent days and reaffirming his opposition to drilling.

Before Zinke met with Scott, Hogan threatened legal action, according to his spokesman. “Protecting our environment and precious natural resources is a top priority for Governor Hogan and exactly why he has made clear that he opposes this kind of exploration off our coastline,” said spokesman Douglass Mayer. Hogan directed his attorney general “to take any legal action necessary against the federal government to prevent this possible exploration,” Mayer said.

Dino Grandoni and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.