Congress

Florida lawmakers seek assurance offshore drilling plan is dead

Scott and Rubio try to leverage Trump's nominee as deputy Interior secretary to extract a no-drilling commitment from administration

Scott and others in the Florida delegation are seeking assurances that the Trump Administration won’t revive a proposal to allow oil and gas drilling off their state’s coasts. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Rick Scott plans to meet this week with Katharine MacGregor, who is nominated to become Interior deputy secretary, as his fellow Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has a hold on her nomination, all to seek assurances that the Trump administration won’t move to allow oil and gas drilling off their state’s coasts.

Although the Interior Department said it was suspending its offshore drilling plan after widespread outcry, including from a bipartisan coalition of Florida lawmakers, Scott and Rubio’s actions show the delegation is not leaving anything to chance.

Scott will meet with MacGregor to get her commitment to “protect” Florida’s coasts, his spokeswoman Sarah Schwirian told CQ Roll Call. 

[Offshore drilling ban proposed by bipartisan group of Florida lawmakers]

“Senator Scott has been clear that he is against oil drilling off Florida’s coast and will continue to work to protect Florida’s environment,” Schwirian said in an email. “Senator Scott feels comfortable, based on conversations with Secretary Bernhardt, the Interior Department and the White House, that his agreement with Secretary Zinke will be honored and Florida will remain off the table for oil drilling.”

Ryan Zinke was Interior secretary when, following a directive from President Donald Trump, the Interior Department announced a plan to vastly expand oil and gas drilling across nearly all U.S. waters, including parts of the Atlantic and off Florida’s coasts. Zinke was replaced by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt earlier this year.

That plan was met with aggressive resistance, including from Republican lawmakers in coastal states such as Florida, Georgia and South Carolina that voted for Trump in 2016. 

Scott was Florida’s governor at the time and convinced Zinke to exclude the state from the plan. In November 2018, when Scott was elected senator, Florida also voted 68 percent for a constitutional amendment permanently banning oil and gas drilling in the state’s waters.

Earlier this year, the administration suddenly suspended its effort to expand drilling across U.S. waters. The Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It’s not clear how MacGregor, who is already serving at Interior in an acting role, could stop the revival of the plan as many in the environmental community fear could happen after the 2020 elections.

Meeting with her, however allows the lawmakers to tout their efforts to protect the state’s coastal waters when they meet with constituents. Rubio’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, although according to news reports, he is delaying her confirmation over the issue.

Bipartisan front

The administration’s decision to shelve the drilling plan did not stop Florida lawmakers from pushing bills to protect the state’s waters from drilling. 

Those bills included legislation by Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz that would direct federal agencies to strengthen their planning for and response to oil spills, and would make permanent an existing moratorium on oil and gas drilling off Florida coasts. It is co-sponsored by three Florida Republicans: Matt Gaetz, a staunch Trump defender; Vern Buchanan and Francis Rooney.

“Of course our delegation remains united in bipartisan opposition to offshore drilling,” Wasserman Schultz said through an aide Tuesday. “However, I have no trust in this Administration to follow through on anything, and they could restart the pre-leasing process at any moment... The Trump Administration simply cannot be trusted to protect our coasts, which is why our delegation has been united in support of legislatively prohibiting drilling off our pristine coastline.”

Another bill sponsored by Rooney would make permanent the moratorium on drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico east of the Military Mission Line. The House passed the bill in September with bipartisan support, and Rooney says he hopes Rubio and Scott can get it approved in the Senate and to Trump’s desk.

“We are united in protecting Florida’s economy and ecology from the threats of drilling in the Eastern Gulf,” Rooney said. “Offshore drilling off the coast of Florida would create an industrial coastline less appealing to visitors, hinder our military readiness, and adversely affect our environment.”

The Republican-controlled Senate hasn’t taken up those bills.

Neither Scott nor Rubio sits on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which held MacGregor’s confirmation hearing in November, and therefore they did not get to seek commitments from her at that hearing.

MacGregor spent 10 years on Capitol Hill as an aide for former Virginia Republican Rep. Eric Cantor and later as a senior staffer at the House Natural Resources Committee under then-Chairman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who is now ranking member. 

She helped write legislation aimed at opening more federal lands to mineral and energy extraction, a priority for Bishop. 

“I take seriously the call to protect our healthy natural environment and the species that depend upon it, just as seriously as I take the call to foster economic growth through the multiple use of, and sustained yield from, our public lands,” MacGregor said at her confirmation hearing.

“If confirmed, I will do my best to ensure that we strike the right balance in a way that will provide conservation stewardship, enhance the safety of our communities, increase energy security, and allow rural communities to thrive,” she said.

The committee voted 14-6 in November to advance her nomination.