In Florida, Democrats aim to wrap Trump in his offshore drilling plan

Plan to open Florida's coast to oil and gas drilling was put on hold, but it wasn't killed

People gathered in Pensacola, Fla. in 2010 for an event to protest  offshore oil drilling after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
People gathered in Pensacola, Fla. in 2010 for an event to protest  offshore oil drilling after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Posted January 30, 2020 at 7:00am

After the Trump administration proposed opening Florida’s coastal waters to oil and gas drilling, even elected Republicans there sent a loud message to Washington: Stay away from our coasts.

The proposal was set aside by the White House, but not disposed of.  And Democrats plan to keep voters in that battleground state reminded that the plan remains on a shelf at the Interior Department, ready to be put into effect in President Donald Trump’s second term if he is reelected.

With 29 electoral votes at stake, Florida Democrats are betting that offshore drilling could swing independent or undecided voters.

“Florida Democrats will be reminding voters of Trump’s broken promises on offshore drilling,” says Juan Peñalosa , executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “The state is unique in the sense that the environment and our economy go hand-in-hand.

Following a directive from Trump, the Interior Department announced a plan in 2018 to expand oil and gas drilling across nearly all U.S. waters, including in the Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico, sparking widespread backlash, including from coastal states that voted for Trump in 2016. After pushback from Florida politicians, Ryan Zinke, who was Interior secretary at the time, said Florida would be excluded from the plan.

Zinke credited Rick Scott, the state’s Republican governor at the time, for changing his mind. Scott went on to defeat incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson, a longtime opponent of drilling, for one of the state’s Senate seats.

Still there

But Florida was still part of the plan when it was paused by Zinke’s successor David Bernhardt because of  a legal dispute over drilling in the Arctic. 

Environmental advocates fear it could be revived if Trump wins in 2020 for a second and final term.

“President Trump and Secretary Bernhardt won’t fool voters in Florida by saying they’ve paused their radial offshore drilling plan,” Alex Taurel, conservation program director at the League of Conservation Voters,said. “We and others are going to be reminding folks that President Trump proposed the most radical expansion of offshore drilling in history that could decimate Florida’s beaches.”

Florida voters across the political spectrum oppose offshore drilling, and Trump is on the “wrong side” of the issue, Taurel said, adding that it will be “a major albatross around” Trump’s neck in Florida in November.

Voters’ opposition

In 2018, about 69 percent of Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment making permanent a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the state’s waters — 10 miles off the Gulf coast and three miles off the Atlantic. But the ban does not apply to federally controlled waters, which start where state waters end. Florida’s economy relies heavily on beach tourism and residents are weary of the specter of an oil spill and the damage that could do businesses, nature and beachfront properties.

“They have not said emphatically that they will not drill off Florida’s coast,” Peñalosa says of the Trump administration.

A White House spokesman declined to comment and a spokesman for the Interior Department referred CQ Roll Call to Bernhardt’s statements to the Wall Street Journal in 2019, that a court ruling striking down a separate administration plan for drilling in Alaska had been “discombobulating to our plan” to open up other waters to exploration. He said the administration was expecting a lengthy appeals process on the Alaska case, the decision from which would determine which waters Interior could open for drilling. 

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., leaves the Senate Democrats' lunch on Thursday, June 24, 2010, with a photo of the oil spill affecting the Florida coast.
Then-Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., left  a party meeting in 2010 with  a photo of the oil spill from Deepwater Horizon affecting the Florida coast.

The president’s GOP supporters in Florida also worry about the status of the plan. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., in December held up the confirmation of Katharine MacGregor, Trump’s pick to become Interior deputy secretary, over the issue.

Rubio said he’s aware there’s a “possibility” that the administration could revive the offshore drilling plan after the 2020 elections.   “And so we’re continuing to be concerned about it,” Rubio told CQ Roll Call in December.  “I feel good about it — I know where the President is — but you can never be too careful.”  

Trump won 48.6 percent of the Florida vote in 2016, beating Hillary Clinton by just 1.2 percentage points.

The Republican National Committee, the Florida Republican Party and Trump’s reelection campaign didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

‘Inept’ Democrats

A GOP consultant, however,  downplayed how much the offshore plan could lure swing votes away from Trump and Republican candidates.

“We will see what the Democrats do…they’ve proven themselves to be inept,” Alex Patton,  a Republican political consultant and pollster in Gainesville, Fla., said. 

Patton says he’d advise GOP candidates to play defense on the offshore drilling and instead remind voters of the strong economy under Trump, an issue voters care about more. 

Still, he acknowledged fear of offshore drilling could spell trouble for Trump and GOP candidates if a disaster, such as a massive oil spill, occurs  in coming months and reminds voters of the risks of having rigs off their coasts.

“Right now I don’t see it being a driver, but that doesn’t mean it can’t change in the next months,” Patton said. “Florida is one of those states that is so close; nothing matters but everything matters.”

Climate change

In a state prone to hurricanes and heavy storms, Florida voters are also keenly aware of climate change caused by carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels like oil and gas.

A poll released by the Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication in June found 71 percent of Florida voters support government action to combat climate change. About 74 percent, the survey found, would be more likely to support a candidate for political office who favors a transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.

“It’s a potential issue that could become explosive for the president,” said Richard Conley , an assistant professor of  political science at the University of Florida. “We’re such a swing state…we have hurricanes …and changing demographics.”

Many in the state are still recovering from recent ferocious storms such as Hurricane Irma in 2017, which, according to AccuWeather,caused about $50 billion in damage nationwide, and Hurricane Michael in 2018, which devastated the Florida panhandle.

The risks associated with combination of dangerous hurricanes and offshore drilling operations are frightening for coastal Floridians.

Katrina

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana in 2005, followed a few weeks later by Hurricane Rita, damage to offshore drilling operations left the coast was littered with “tens of thousands of drums, storage tanks, and other containers holding oil, chemicals, and other hazardous materials thousands” leading to leaks oil, fuel and other hazardous materials according to NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration.

And for many Floridians, the memory is still fresh of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster  that gushed 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, severely damaging wildlife and hurting the seafood and tourism industry in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and on the Florida panhandle..

“We saw what that did in Louisiana,” Conley said.

Although they’ve pushed back on any plans to expand offshore drilling into Florida’s waters, both Rubio and Scott have shied away from pinning on Trump any damage such plans could do to Republicans and the president in Florida in November.

“It’s not about politics, it’s about making sure we don’t have offshore drilling,” Scott said in December when asked about how the plan could impact the election.

The Democrats’ pitch to voters will be that GOP lawmakers will not stop Trump from reviving his offshore drilling plan, and that the only way to block him would be to vote for Democratic candidates who will protect the coastal waters.

Said Carlos Curbelo, the former GOP lawmaker who represented the Miami area and lost his seat despite a strong record on climate action: “Any shifts in perceptions and attitudes among swing voters could be decisive.”