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In a surprise statement undercutting Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s announcement last week that he would exempt Florida from President Trump’s offshore drilling plan, a senior Interior Department official said Friday that Florida’s coastal waters had not been excluded after all.
The Trump administration is moving to allow new offshore oil and gas drilling in nearly all United States coastal waters, lifting a ban on drilling imposed by President Barack Obama near the end of his term.
But after a meeting with Gov. Rick Scott of Florida on Jan. 9, Mr. Zinke had announced on Twitter that he was “removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.” The abrupt decision has sparked demands for exemptions from governors of other coastal states.
On Friday, the head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, the Interior Department agency that manages offshore leasing, said Mr. Zinke’s Florida decision was not final.
“It is not a formal action, no,” Walter Cruickshank, the bureau’s acting director, told a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources.
Instead, the bureau was pushing ahead with the required review of resources off the nation’s shores, including Florida’s, he said. A decision on whether to offer leases off Florida as part of the administration’s offshore program would come after that analysis.
“The secretary’s decision will be reflected in the proposed program decision,” Mr. Cruickshank said.
Mr. Cruickshank said he was not aware of anyone at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management who had been consulted about Mr. Zinke’s Twitter message about Florida before it was posted.
Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Department of the Interior, said Mr. Cruickshank’s remarks did not necessarily contradict the secretary’s decision.
He “simply said BOEM will finish the legally-required analysis of the planning areas, as is always done for all planning areas,” Ms. Swift said in an email.
In a statement, Representative Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona, the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, which is responsible for energy and mineral resources, criticized the confusion caused by what he called “an out-of-control administration with incompetent top leadership.”
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“Instead of carefully following laws and regulations, this administration writes policy on a napkin, announces it on social media and calls it a day,” Mr. Grijalva said.
The Trump administration’s handling of offshore drilling appeared to follow a pattern of seemingly spontaneous decisions that have left policies vulnerable to legal challenges, as has been the case with immigration and the shrinking of national monuments.
Environmental groups have vowed to fight the drilling plan.
With his unilateral announcement to exempt Florida from new offshore drilling, Mr. Zinke appeared to be bypassing the public and scientific review of potential offshore resources and environmental impacts that must follow any plan to commence offshore leasing.
Under its initial plan, before Mr. Zinke’s announcement about Florida, the Interior Department would open 25 of 26 regions of the outer continental shelf to drilling. That would leave only the North Aleutian Basin, the traditional territory of many Native Alaskans, off limits to drilling.
Mr. Zinke has been accused of wading into state politics in Florida, where the prospect of offshore drilling has been unpopular. Governor Scott is expected to challenge the Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, who has opposed offshore oil and gas development, for his Senate seat in November.
Speaking to reporters in Miami on Friday, Governor Scott said he was confident that Mr. Zinke would uphold the exemption.
“I know that Secretary Zinke has made a commitment,” he said, according to a transcript provided by the governor’s office, “and he’ll live up to his commitments.”
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