SOURCE: Politico

DATE: June 10, 2020

SNIP: The Trump administration is preparing to open the door to oil and gas drilling off Florida’s coast — but will wait until after the November election to avoid blowback in a swing state whose waters both parties have long considered sacrosanct, according to four people familiar with the plan.

Drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico would fulfill a long-sought goal of energy companies, giving them access to potentially billions of barrels of oil that have been off-limits since the federal government withdrew leases it had sold in 1985. But even the possibility of drilling is a politically explosive topic for Floridians, who worry that oil spills would devastate their tourism-based economy in a reprise of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

President Donald Trump, who has set “energy dominance” as a key national goal, has eased regulations on offshore drilling put in place by the Obama administration. Interior has spent years working on a proposed drilling plan that would expand oil companies‘ access to waters around the country’s coastline, including a draft plan issued in 2018 by the Trump administration that considered opening the federal waters off both of Florida’s coasts.

That plan also included an expansion of offshore drilling in California, a move that would escalate the ongoing battles between the state and the administration over environmental issues since Trump took office. The people did not know whether the final proposal will include that section of coastline as well.

The Trump administration’s efforts to open up additional stretches of shoreline to oil and gas production have run into opposition from both Republican and Democratic governors of coastal states. Former Trump Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had initially issued a draft plan to open the eastern Gulf once the current federal drilling moratorium ends in 2022 — but then walked that back in 2018, when he promised Florida’s then-governor, Republican Rick Scott, that the state’s coasts would remain off-limits. (Scott is now a U.S. senator.)

But with 3.6 billion technically recoverable barrels of oil and 11.5 trillion cubic feet of gas estimated to sit beneath the sea floor off Florida’s west coast, large, well-financed companies would probably be interested in lease sales for eastern Gulf acreage, especially if they faced little competition for the new acres, one of the industry sources added.

The offshore drilling plan, details of which remained closely guarded, has been developed by Bernhardt, Deputy Secretary Kate MacGregor and acting Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Casey Hammond, the people familiar with the proposal said. Details around the timing could still change before its release, they added.

Interior documents obtained by POLITICO show lobbyists, including former Louisiana GOP Sen. David Vitter, requesting in March 2018 that the agency open Florida’s waters for exploration. Three months after Interior released its draft leasing plan in 2018, former Interior Assistant Deputy Secretary Todd Willens forwarded to Joe Balash, Interior’s then-assistant secretary for lands and minerals, a letter of introduction for Vitter sent from former GOP Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg, another lawmaker-turned-lobbyist at the political strategy and consulting firm Mercury LLC.