What do Interior Department changes mean for SWFL?

Dec. 16, 2018 by David Silverberg

On Dec. 15, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced his retirement. His acting replacement is David Bernhardt.

The changeover has implications for SWFL, particularly for offshore oil drilling. Under the Trump administration, the Department of Interior has been consistently uncooperative in protecting SWFL shores.

Whether that situation changes in the future and whether SWFL officials can succeed in changing federal policy will be the question as a new Interior secretary is named and confirmed.

The background

On April 28, 2017, President Donald Trump issued an executive order opening offshore tracts to oil exploration, ending a moratorium enacted by President Barack Obama. Florida was subsequently exempted from the executive order and then put back on in a rapid and often contradictory series of policy changes. The exemption was widely seen as being motivated by the need to keep Florida in the Republican camp and boost Gov. Rick Scott’s senatorial chances.

During this time, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19) lobbied his fellow Republican lawmakers and the Interior Department to make the moratorium permanent, according to a May 30, 2018 talk that Rooney gave to an invitation-only audience at the Alamo gun range and store in Naples. Rooney primarily used a military argument against oil exploration, saying that oil rigs off the SWFL coast would interfere with naval and Air Force exercises.

“They fly airplanes a hundred feet over the water, supersonic, they launch Polaris missiles, they launch things out there that land at Eglin [Air Force Base], a big forest behind Eglin, all kinds of stuff, so the military is our ally on this,” Rooney said of the Defense Department.  “The Department of the Interior is not.  They want to ‘drill- baby-drill.’  They are Republicans, right?”

Rooney had hoped that language could be inserted into the 2018 Defense Authorization Bill that would reinstitute the moratorium and he teamed up with Florida’s Rep. Kathy Castor (D-14) to introduce an amendment to that effect. However, on May 23, 2018 Republicans refused to allow the amendment to be considered.

“House Republicans blocked my bipartisan amendment to ban oil drilling off the coast of Florida late last night – meaning they will not allow a vote at all,” said Castor at the time.

During the 115th Congress, Rooney’s efforts against offshore drilling were also repeatedly blocked by fellow Republican Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.-1), the House majority whip, and an advocate for the oil and gas industry.

Analysis: Changes at Interior, the House

Despite Zinke’s resignation, SWFL’s situation does not bode well:

  • David Bernhardt, who is in line to lead Interior and a potential secretary of the department, is a former fossil fuel lobbyist. After serving as chief counsel for the Interior Department under President George W. Bush, he joined the Washington law/lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, where he represented fossil fuel companies. He gives no indication of being a friend of the environment or opponent of offshore drilling.
  • There is no indication that Interior’s “drill baby drill” approach has in any way diminished or will diminish in the future.
  • There is no reason to expect that the newly elected Republican slate of officials will oppose offshore drilling. Gov.-Elect Ron DeSantis won his office due to support from President Donald Trump and can be expected to further Trump’s offshore drilling agenda. With his record of climate change denial and support of the Trump agenda, Sen.-Elect Rick Scott is unlikely to oppose offshore drilling.
  • Rooney, who was unable to advance an offshore opposition agenda when he was part of the Republican majority in the House will now be in the minority and will likely continue to be opposed by the rest of his Republican colleagues, particularly Scalise, who will now be serving as House Minority Whip.
  • Lastly, if a more permanent replacement is nominated to replace Zinke he will likely be committed to the president’s agenda of offshore drilling, not just in Florida but along the entire seacoast of the United States.

Conclusion:

On a more hopeful note, the new, Democratic House is likely to be more sympathetic to environmental concerns and may serve as a brake on offshore drilling efforts.

At the same time, citizen activism can provide grassroots opposition to the relentless drive of this administration to open offshore waters to oil exploration and drilling, perhaps slowing or even stopping its progress.

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