Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly said Rhode Island’s attorney general did not sign a joint letter written by state attorneys who opposed the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plan. The story has been updated.
As Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke prepared to travel to the Carolinas to discuss offshore drilling, state attorneys general condemned the Trump administration’s plan to expand development of oil and gas in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans as “outrageous” and “reckless.”
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh (D), one of a dozen state attorneys general on the two coasts to co-sign a letter Thursday that called on Zinke to cancel the proposal, said, “We intend to sue if they go forward with this, unquestionably. We’re going to do everything we possibly can to stop it.”
Three state attorneys general interviewed by The Washington Post said they were irked by the deal Zinke struck with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R), which exempted the state from the drilling plan. They said the agreement pointed to how arbitrary the drilling plan is, because the decision was made without the benefit of an analysis or clear process.
In their letter and personal interviews, the attorneys general of North Carolina, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Virginia told a similar story. Drilling and potential spills could harm beach tourism and fishing industries that are comparable in value to Florida’s, they say.
In an interview with CNN after the deal was struck, Zinke cited his credentials as a geologist with an undergraduate degree from the University of Oregon and said “Florida is different” as justification for granting a special exemption to the state. “The coastal currents are different. The layout of where the geology is.”
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (D) didn’t buy it. “Once again you see a department that hasn’t provided any reasoning for its decision that makes sense,” she said. Said Frosh: “It’s outrageous. Maryland has everything Florida’s got except Mar-a-Lago,” President Trump’s luxurious private club on the coast of Palm Beach, Fla.
But there are indications that Trump was not a fan of the Florida deal. Axios reported the president “turned on” his Interior secretary, and individuals with knowledge of the situation said Zinke was called to the White House last week to explain himself. Those individuals said that despite Trump’s irritation, Zinke’s job was not in danger.
The agreement with Florida, though, may be in danger, according to a professor at the University of Florida whose specialty is environmental law. “It’s highly unusual for an agency head to announce a decision before the regulatory process is complete,” said Alyson Craig Flournoy, a professor at the University of Florida law school.
Florida’s exemption could be voided if Zinke is dismissed from his job, Flournoy said. “Or he could change his mind tomorrow. What makes it a more vulnerable decision is that the courts look for reasoned decision-making based on records.”
“If a decision-maker says I’ve already decided before hearing from the oil and gas industry and conservation groups about what the appropriate plan is, that’s a premature announcement,” Flournoy said. “An opponent of the final plan can certainly raise that if Florida is excluded. They could say the decision was not based on science and data. He said it on day five after the plan was announced.”
The four state attorneys general who spoke with The Post said they are considering court actions that could seize on deficiencies in the Florida agreement if the administration’s proposal survives the lengthy, possibly year-long path to finalization.
Each of the four said the staffs of attorneys generals on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts started burning the phone lines as soon as Zinke made the announcement about the administration’s plan to expand drilling to 90 percent of the U.S. outer continental shelf in early January. They said their conversations hit a fevered pitch days later after Zinke exempted Florida.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein (D) took the lead in organizing the letter, giving each of its signors a chance to explain why offshore drilling was bad for their coasts. Only the attorneys general of Georgia, South Carolina and Florida on the Atlantic coast did not sign, along with those of Washington on the Pacific coast and Alaska on the Arctic coast. With the exception of Georgia, Maine and Alaska, the governors of coastal states have strongly opposed drilling.
The offices of North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) declined requests to confirm a meeting this weekend with Zinke, but The Hill newspaper was one of several that reported the secretary’s travel plan. Zinke’s office also did not answer a request to confirm any pending talks. Zinke posts his schedule on Interior’s website, but it hasn’t been updated since September.
“This is a really big deal,” Healey said. “It’s the reason our office has been opposing this reckless plan since last year. It threatens our $7.3 billion commercial fishing industry. The decision to open up ocean waters to oil and gas drilling … is bad for our state’s growing clean energy economy. We simply can’t risk having drilling rigs just a few miles offshore.”
The top attorneys general in Maryland and Virginia had their own pressing concern: the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest estuary that supports a massive recreation and fishing industry, including a fragile blue crab population. Frosh said it would not take an oil spill on the scale of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster to destroy juvenile blue crabs such as those that will hatch this spring.
“You could kill an entire crab year population, not with a Deepwater Horizon spill but a minor spill,” he said. It would mean that juveniles would not be around to grow and continue the species. “You wipe out the crab population for one year and you could endanger the whole species.”
Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) mentioned the bay and its fragile watershed that includes the James and Potomac rivers nearly the moment he began talking.
But he expanded the threat to the Virginia coastline and Hampton Roads and its “multibillion-dollar tourism industry.” Virginia is also home to the largest naval base at Norfolk. “All of those could be threatened by offshore drilling, the livelihoods of so many Virginians [are] tied to the health of our waters. A lot of people seem to have forgotten that the Deepwater Horizon spill happened.”