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Decision to exempt Florida from offshore drilling prompts bipartisan uproar

In this May 13, 2010 file photo, pelicans float on the water with an offshore oil platform in the background in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif.
In this May 13, 2010 file photo, pelicans float on the water with an offshore oil platform in the background in the Santa Barbara Channel off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)
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The Trump administration's decision to exempt Florida from expanded offshore drilling kicked off a frenzy Wednesday in other coastal states, with governors from both political parties asking: Why not us?

"We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline," South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R), who backed President Trump in his state's competitive 2016 primary, said in a statement.

"Not Off Our Coast," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) wrote in a tweet. "We've been clear: this would bring unacceptable risks to our economy, our environment, and our coastal communities."

The Florida carve-out, announced Tuesday by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, created new doubts about the fate of the entire offshore drilling decision — and immediately became another challenge for Republicans as they work to hold off Democrats in the midterm elections. Nine of the 11 states that opposed the drilling order have gubernatorial races this year, and many of the most competitive contests for the House of Representatives will unfold in districts that touch coastline.

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)

By Wednesday afternoon, state attorneys general, joined by environmental groups, were suggesting that Zinke had undermined the entire drilling rule with his high-profile visit to Tallahassee, where he heaped praise on "straightforward, easy to work for" Gov. Rick Scott (R) — a political ally whom Trump has repeatedly urged to run for the U.S. Senate.

"The Administrative Procedure Act requires there to be a reasonable rationale behind agency decisions, and that they can't be arbitrary and capricious," said Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, referring to a 1946 law governing major regulatory changes. "So, saying Florida is exempt because Rick Scott is straightforward and trustworthy? That Florida's coastlines are unique? That seems to be the definition of arbitrary and capricious."

Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said the governor had not contacted the White House about the issue but had expressed his concerns to Zinke in face-to-face meetings in October and on Tuesday, as well as in multiple phone calls.

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," Zinke said. "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."

The White House declined to say whether Trump was personally involved in the decision to exempt Florida. Two senior aides, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they were not aware of any efforts on his behalf.

"Secretary Zinke has been directed to develop a 5-year program for development in the Outer continental shelf," deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley said in a statement. "The Secretary is currently in the process of speaking to stakeholders, like Governor Scott yesterday, to determine the most responsible and environmentally sound path forward. All states have different concerns and needs which is why this is an ongoing process with a built-in 60-day comment period."

The decision has been subject to a torrent of ridicule and anger from coastal governors and senators who wonder why their states have not been exempted. In a conference call with reporters, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) unloaded on Zinke and Trump, saying that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D-Va.) had asked for an exemption and heard nothing back.

"Is it because the governor of Florida is a Republican and the Virginia governor and governor-elect are Democrats?" Kaine said. "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 the environmental risk there, but he's not worried about environmental risk in Virginia?"

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) called the decision "outrageous," saying in an interview that she had contacted Zinke with hopes of having a similar conversation but had not heard back.

"Our tourism is as important to Oregon as tourism is to Florida," she said, adding that drilling would also be a detriment to her state's natural resource industries.

To Brown, it appeared that Trump was either trying to bolster Scott's political prospects, helping his own standing in a key swing state for 2020 or "protecting his real estate holdings in Mar-a-Lago."

"What else am I supposed to think?" Brown asked.

The commentary about Trump's properties was bipartisan. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), a former governor who represents his state's Atlantic coastline, suggested during an interview with CNN that the president held one standard for states where he vacationed and one for the rest of the country.

"It smacks of what we never want to see in politics which is: Is it self-serving?" Sanford said. "I mean, you can't say, 'I don't want to see an oil rig from Mar-a-Lago' as you look out from the waters of Palm Beach, but it's okay to look at an oil rig out from Hilton Head or Charleston, South Carolina."

But most of the opposition to both the drilling order and the Florida exception came from Democrats. In an interview, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that the standards Zinke applied to Florida — the importance of tourism and coastal industries — were "standards that California can meet." He also suggested that Zinke had given states strong grounds to challenge the drilling decision and that industries hoping to develop energy off the coast should not necessarily expect it to happen.

"This puts some of that into doubt," Becerra said. "We want to make it clear to everyone in California that things have not changed as a result of this announcement."

Democrats, who view Scott as the GOP's best challenger to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), added to the chorus by suggesting that they would turn the decision into a liability. Before the carve-out, Nelson had been urging bipartisan legislation to halt the entire offshore drilling order.

"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."

In a separate statement, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called Scott "a self-serving con-man" and said Trump had helped "manufacture a crisis to try to help his political ambitions."

Scott spokesman John Tupps said in a statement that the governor's success in getting the exemption had been a clear win for the state.

"Senator Nelson and anyone else who opposes oil drilling off Florida's coast should be happy that the governor was able to secure this commitment," Tupps said. "This isn't about politics. This is good policy for Florida."

Scott is not the only Republican governor who would stand to benefit politically from an exemption. In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) is up for reelection this year in a Democratic-leaning state and has been an outspoken opponent of offshore drilling.

"The governor has made it extremely clear that he opposes this kind of exploration off our coastline and that will never change," Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said Wednesday."The administration will continue making the case to the federal government that Maryland's bays and beaches are vital to the health and economy of our state and region."

She added that Hogan previously asked the state's attorney general to take "any legal action necessary."

In 2016, Hogan was one of several high-profile Republicans who refused to support Trump for president. Instead, Hogan wrote in the name of his late father, who had been the first Republican congressman to call for the impeachment of President Richard M. Nixon.