IN JANUARY, Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) claimed a big political win, wrangling a surprise meeting with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and immediately obtaining a special exemption for his state from the Trump administration’s expansive offshore drilling plan. It was a well-choreographed drama meant to boost Mr. Scott’s impending campaign for the U.S. Senate — and it has now been exposed in all its cynicism.
Politico reported Tuesday that Mr. Zinke and Mr. Scott’s staffs had been planning the secretary’s seemingly last-minute trip for days, beginning shortly after the Interior Department announced its new offshore drilling policy. Reporters were not told about the meeting until an hour before the public announcement, in which Mr. Zinke said that new drilling off Florida was “off the table,” and state officials were taken similarly by surprise. Held in the Tallahassee airport, the event appeared to have been hastily arranged. In fact, the whole episode seems to have been designed to demonstrate Mr. Scott’s power and influence, by having him appear to summon the interior secretary to his state and bring him to heel in an afternoon.
Mr. Zinke has given no other state such attention. His Florida announcement drew quick complaints from state officials from South Carolina to Massachusetts and California to Washington state. Many of these states have unique interests in preserving their coastlines, as Florida does. None have been told that new offshore drilling is “off the table” for them — months after Mr. Scott got immediate, in-person service from Mr. Zinke. As lawmakers from these states charged that Mr. Zinke was using his power arbitrarily, the secretary insisted that Florida had not yet received any formal waiver from the Trump administration’s offshore drilling plan. Yet he has simultaneously assured Florida reporters that “what I said is no new oil and gas platforms.”
We do not oppose more offshore drilling. The United States consumes vast quantities of oil and will for decades to come, even if it gets more serious about cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. The nation can export the risk of extracting that oil to other countries, many with less effective oversight, or it can allow well-regulated drilling here, profiting in the process. But any policy shift should be orderly and fair, with each state given an equal opportunity to object.
Florida’s special dispensation raises implications that are far weightier than whether a couple of oil platforms will appear off Santa Barbara, Calif., or Virginia Beach. Mr. Zinke’s behavior suggests that major government policy will be made on his whim, according to whether petitioners have ingratiated themselves with the Trump administration or which political ally requires a favor. With the Florida drilling episode in mind, it is hard not to see the same thinking at work as Mr. Zinke has exempted sections of his home state, Montana, from oil and gold mining. As capricious, clan-based government advances, the public good is forgotten.