As election looms, Trump alters course on offshore drilling

Trump's course change could help Republican candidates from states with bipartisan opposition to offshore drilling

President Donald Trump exits from the stage as  Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hands out pens the president used to sign an executive order extending a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.  (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump exits from the stage as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis hands out pens the president used to sign an executive order extending a moratorium on oil and gas drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Posted September 8, 2020 at 6:53pm

President Donald Trump on Tuesday backed a federal freeze on oil and gas drilling off the coasts of Florida, South Carolina and Georgia, marking an election year departure from his administration’s previous efforts to significantly expand offshore fossil fuel extraction in the region and nationally.

The announcement in Jupiter, Fla., north of Palm Beach, appears to be an expansion of what already exists: a moratorium on oil and gas leasing, the precursor to drilling, in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and a smaller portion of the central Gulf through June 30, 2022.

The White House said the withdrawal extends that moratorium until the same date in 2032 and “does not apply to leasing for environmental conservation purposes, including the purposes of shore protection, beach nourishment and restoration, wetlands restoration, and habitat protection."

In a roughly 20-minute speech, Trump touted the work of Republican allies and signed an executive order that he said expanded the ban to the three states and the Atlantic coast of Florida, which is not included under enacted law. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, threw pens from the signing ceremony to members of the crowd who were largely unmasked and not social distancing.

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It is not clear why Trump said the order only applies to those three states, all of which have Republican governors, when there is bipartisan opposition to oil and gas drilling in every state between Maine and Florida.

Made in a swing state two months before a presidential election, the speech marked a reversal from the Trump administration’s pattern on the subject of oil and gas leasing, which the administration has consistently sought to expand nationwide.

Expanding drilling

The Trump administration moved to increase drilling opportunities in federal waters after taking office in 2017, when Trump signed an executive order to expand oil and gas drilling in federal waters and halt the designation of new marine sanctuaries unless they included “a timely, full accounting” of “any energy or mineral resource potential” of the area.

In January 2018, the administration moved to open oil and gas drilling in nearly all federal oceans, including the Arctic, the entire Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and the Atlantic, where oil rigs are a rare sight.

And in mid-August, the Interior Department, which oversees federal oil and gas leasing, including in federal waters, proposed offering leases for oil drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a pristine and ecologically fragile preserve.

The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress included language in a 2017 tax bill that allowed the Interior Department to create plans for lease sales in a 1.56 million-acre section of ANWR known as the "coastal plain." Under the law, Interior is required to conduct at least two lease sales of 400,000 acres by 2024.

That day, speaking on Fox News, Trump said: "In theory, I should go down as a great environmental president.”

Trump on Tuesday touted the U.S. as the “No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world” before signing the order.

“You see that you also see it when you pump the gas into your car and you're paying sometimes a lot less than $2 lately,” Trump said of the global oil glut, which has pushed gas prices down nationally to a little more than $2 a gallon. “So we're doing well, and we have so much of it I don't know.”

Sens. Rick Scott, R-Fla., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is running for reelection, said they supported the freeze.

The president’s executive order mirrors a proposal from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who pushed this Congress to extend the drilling ban in the eastern Gulf for a decade.

Nancy Mace, a South Carolina Republican state legislator running for the seat held by Rep. Joe Cunningham, D-S.C., was also at the rally in Florida.

“I think you're doing very well from what I hear,” Trump told Mace, who opposed offshore drilling in the state legislature. “You’ve got to win that one that's an important one, we're behind you 1,000 percent.”

Cunningham anchored much of his 2018 campaign running against offshore drilling, and his bipartisan legislation to block it passed the House in September 2019.