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Offshore Drilling Exemption for Florida Outrages Maryland Officials

The New York Times

Earlier this month, the Trump Administration announced that it would open up the entire Eastern Seaboard to offshore drilling – including at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

“Offshore energy production will reduce the cost of energy, create countless new jobs, and make America more secure and far more energy independent,” Trump said.

Immediately after the announcement, the Republican governor of Florida, Rick Scott – leader of a politically important swing state where Trump maintains a waterfront mansion -- met with Trump’s secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke. The governor voiced his strong objection to the offshore drilling near his state, because oil spills and unsightly oil platforms might put Florida’s tourism industry at risk.

Zinke quickly switched positions, and announced that Florida – but only Florida – was exempt and would not have offshore drilling.


Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, a Democrat, was among many elected officials who objected that their coastal states also have economically vital tourism industries. So if Florida is protected from drilling, their states should be, too.

“That was clearly a very partisan political decision that was made,” Cardin said. “It was so transparent, I don’t think even the administration would argue anything other than that.  And that’s outrageous.  There are a lot of governors along the East Coast who object to drilling off of their coast. And yet the president and Mr. Zinke hadn’t even solicited their views.”

Among those protesting loudly was the Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, who expressed his objections in a letter to the Trump Administration, during a phone conference call with Ryan Zinke, and in a newspaper Op Ed.

Hogan’s Secretary of Natural Resources, Mark Belton, said in an interview that the governor is considering suing the Trump Administration to try to protect Ocean City and the Chesapeake Bay from potential oil spills.

“I think we are going to continue to use every available step that the process allows,” Belton said. “And certainly the governor is not opposed to using steps outside of the process. As he’s shown in the past, he has a willingness to take legal action against the federal government where he feels that it endangers Maryland’s environment and has a negative impact for our citizens.”

A confusing twist was thrown into the debate on Sunday.  The news website Axios and The Hill reported that President Trump was angry at Zinke for going rogue and cutting a deal to protect Florida without White House approval.  Other officials at the Department of the Interior said no decision had been made about Florida, although their boss, Zinke, publicly announced the opposite.

Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland told me these kinds of mixed signals make the administration difficult to deal with on a variety of fronts.

“On every issue from drilling off the Atlantic coast, to trying to get a budget agreement – this administration is in total chaos,” said Van Hollen, a Democrat.  “We’ve seen President Trump say that he’s the great negotiator, that only he can bring people together and get things done. It’s just the opposite. He is creating total chaos.”

Van Hollen said he’s considering introducing budget language for the Department of Interior that would bar the spending of any federal funds to study or permit offshore drilling.

“Certainly one approach is to say that no funds would be available to pursue this idea of drilling off the Atlantic Coast,” Van Hollen said. “So if we can get enough Senators from those coastal states to support that position, we have a chance of moving forward.”

Diane Hoskins, drilling campaign director at the ocean advocacy group Oceana, said that political opposition to the administration’s drilling plans appears to be growing.

“Almost every governor along the entire West Coast and East Coast have come out against this plan,” Hoskins said. “Over 160 municipalities nationwide have voice their opposition to this plan, and over 1,200 local, state and federal bipartisan officials.”

The real decision point will come in November, when voters decide which party should control Congress. A change in political leadership would allow a vote on legislation to ban offshore drilling that is co-sponsored in the Senate by Cardin, Van Hollen and 18 other Democrats. 

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.