Pro-Trump boaters take to the waters along southern Collier County on May 23.
June 6, 2020 by David Silverberg.
This year’s Memorial Day weekend began on Saturday, May 23 with hundreds of boaters in Southwest Florida launching a “Making Waves” boat parade to show their support for President Donald Trump and his re-election.
They had clear sailing on pristine waters from Naples Bay to Marco Island.
The irony is that if they get their wish and Trump is re-elected, those waters won’t be so pristine anymore.
That’s because if Trump is re-elected the eastern Gulf of Mexico will be opened to oil exploration and exploitation. In a second Trump administration, any future flotilla will have to dodge tankers, tugs, barges, tenders, lighters, shuttles, seismic testing boats and drilling ships among other vessels. Most of all, they would be maneuvering amidst immense drilling rigs. And the water will be slick with debris, pollution and—most of all—oil.
This is not fantasy or some conspiracy theory.
In 2019, after considerable confusion and mixed signals from the Trump administration whether the eastern Gulf would be opened to oil lease sales, Congress concluded, “the Trump Administration intends, if the President is reelected, to include the Eastern Gulf of Mexico in its final Five-Year Program and to hold lease sales in the Eastern Gulf as early as 2022.”
That’s stated in a July 16, 2019 report from the US House Natural Resources Committee. It goes on to say: “Given the widespread belief that a tweet from [Interior] Secretary [Ryan] Zinke declaring Florida off-limits to offshore oil and gas leasing was issued to support Florida Governor Rick Scott in his Senate race, the Committee is concerned that the Administration is playing similar games with its 2019–2024 program and intends to wait until after the 2020 presidential election, in which Florida may be a key swing state, before revealing an unpopular plan to lease off of Florida’s shore.”
Those are pretty strong words for a relatively obscure congressional report accompanying a piece of legislation.
What is more, they were not the statements of cranky Democrats taking potshots at Trump. In fact, they were issued to explain a piece of legislation introduced by a Republican.
And that Republican was Southwest Florida’s own Rep. Francis Rooney (R-19-Fla.).
The bill is pretty simple: it “permanently extends the moratorium on oil and gas leasing, preleasing, and related activities” in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. It prohibits sale of leases, oil exploration, drilling or extracting oil along Florida’s Gulf coastline in perpetuity.
That moratorium had been in place in one form or another since 1982, maintained by congressional action and presidential decisions, which applied not just in Florida but in a wide variety of waters around the North American continental shelf, including Alaska. However, in one of his earliest acts, in April 2017 Trump issued an executive order opening up American waters to oil exploitation. The order was challenged in court but the Trump administration proceeded with planning for the sale of oil leases beginning in 2022 when the current moratorium expires.
Rooney was elected in 2016 on the same platform—literally, they stood on the same stage—as Trump. What was more, Rooney and his construction companies had extensive ties to the oil and gas industry and much of his fortune resulted from work for it. One of his earliest political donors was the consortium building the controversial XL Pipeline. And even Rooney’s origins are in Oklahoma’s oil patch.
So perhaps Rooney had a better sense than most people of what was involved in offshore oil exploitation and how it would affect Southwest Florida’s tourism, hospitality, and retail businesses and overall quality of life. After all, he lives on the water in Naples’ Port Royal.
That’s why it was particularly interesting when, after Trump’s executive order, regardless of his other activities, Rooney began working to protect the Gulf coast from oil exploitation.
But in this effort Rooney was opposed by the oil industry, which wants the option to drill everywhere and anywhere, and his fellow Republicans, in particular the powerful Rep. Steve Scalise (R-1-La.), the Minority Whip in the House.
It’s worth noting the unique role of Louisiana in this: politically, the state and the oil industry are virtually one and the same. Offshore oil exploitation has brought great wealth and employment to the state and the people involved in the industry. However, it has also brought pollution and the occasional disaster, most spectacularly the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout and the subsequent nearly five month-long oil spill—really more of an oil eruption.
In Congress, Rooney couldn’t make headway on maintaining the moratorium and one day he confronted Scalise directly, as he related to a small group of constituents meeting at the Alamo gun range and store in Naples in 2018.
“I was on the House floor with Steve Scalise and I got in his face and I said, ‘You’re telling me that the industry won’t go for protecting the Eastern Gulf in Florida? What industry are you talking about? I’m talking about tourism. I’m talking about why we’re all here, okay? Just because Louisiana is a pit, doesn’t mean we want to become a pit. Okay?’” said Rooney.
Nor could Rooney make any headway with Trump’s Interior Department. He found that officials in the Department of Defense supported maintaining the moratorium because they trained pilots over the eastern Gulf. “…So the military is our ally on this,” he said. “The Department of the Interior is not. They want to ‘drill-baby-drill.’ They are Republicans, right?”
While Republicans were in power, Rooney and the moratorium made no progress.
Vessels service offshore oil rigs. (Photo: USCG)
Enter the Democrats
Then, in 2018 the House changed hands and suddenly Rooney faced a new Democratic power structure and a new Speaker of the House—Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-12-Calif.).
On the first day of the session, Jan. 3, 2019, he introduced HR 205 with Rep. Cathy Kastor (D-14-Fla.), who represents Hillsborough County in the Tampa area, as his first co-sponsor. The legislation gained momentum, picking up other members of the Florida delegation from both parties as co-sponsors until by June he had nine Democrats and nine Republicans.
Pelosi agreed to move the bill forward and on Sept. 11, the same day he called on his Republican colleagues to acknowledge climate change in an essay in Politico magazine, Rooney also saw his bill passed in the House. All of Florida’s representatives, both Republican and Democratic, voted for it with only one dissenter, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-3-Fla.).
From there it went to the Republican Senate where it was introduced the next day by Florida’s two Republican senators, Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. There it has languished to this day.
Why? Because with Republicans in charge, the odds were stacked against it: Senate Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) wasn’t inclined to move it and the Trump White House threatened to veto it. The Interior Department, the fossil fuel industry, the offshore drilling industry and the Republican leadership are against it.
Rooney has kept working for its passage.
“I’ve been working with Senators Rubio and Scott, as well as others whose support will be needed to advance HR. 205 in the Senate,” Rooney stated in response to questions from The Paradise Progressive. “They’re making sure that the Senate realizes the military, economic, and ecologic significance of banning offshore drilling east of the Military Mission Line” (the geographic line in the Gulf where the military trains)
There are possibilities that the legislation could still advance: “We’re keeping all options on the table for ways to advance HR 205, as stand-alone legislation, or as a potential amendment to other legislation. I’m optimistic that we can still be successful in this congressional session,” he stated.
On May 29, The Paradise Progressive asked the following questions about HR 205 of Sens. Rubio and Scott in a message to their offices:
- Since its arrival in the Senate, have you taken any actions to advance this bill?
- Do you plan to take any actions to move this bill to full consideration by the Senate before the end of the year?
- If you plan to take any actions, what do you plan to do?
As of this writing, no response has been received.
Logic and illogic
Conventional political logic would dictate that if you’re a sitting president who must win the state of Florida to be re-elected, you do something that will make you popular in that state and gain you votes—like supporting HR 205. That would mean an endorsement from the president, breaking the legislation out of committee and getting it enacted into law before the general election on Nov. 3.
“The people of Florida have made it clear that they don’t want offshore drilling in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico,” stated Rooney. “It endangers our tourism and real estate-based economy, and it adversely affects military readiness. There will be a political price to pay if the will of the people is ignored. The Trump administration can move this forward if they want to protect Florida.”
True enough. But conventional political logic has not been a hallmark of the Trump administration and it’s not in evidence now.
Of course, there are bigger issues dominating the landscape at the moment than drilling for oil off Southwest Florida—like whether America will remain a democracy and whether racism can be uprooted. Still, oil is an issue that particularly matters to the people, the region and the environment.
“It’s my hope that our next representative will exhibit the same commitment and have the successes that we’ve had over these last four years in fixing our water and protecting our environment,” stated Rooney, who is retiring after this term.
But with all of the Republicans vying for his seat pledging their blind obedience to Donald Trump, that’s not likely.
However, one person who has paid attention to the topic of offshore drilling is Democratic presidential challenger former Vice President Joe Biden.
On March 15, Joe Biden debated Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Washington, DC. In a discussion of climate change Biden said: “Number one, no more subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, no more drilling on federal lands, no more drilling, including offshore, no ability for the oil industry to continue to drill, period, ends, number one.”
Subsequent analysis indicated that Biden meant no new offshore drilling; not that he would close down existing wells. But that was good enough for Florida’s Gulf coast.
However, this was not something that was going to be taken lying down by the offshore drilling industry.
On Tuesday, May 26, the National Ocean Industries Association (NOIA), the organization of the offshore oil industry, hit back by releasing a study, “The Economic Impacts of the Gulf of Mexico Oil & Natural Gas Industry,” warning of dire consequences if there was no new leasing or permitting in the Gulf of Mexico. Projecting out to the year 2040 it predicted losses in oil extraction, jobs, industry spending, gross domestic product and government revenues. It pointed out that the industry is a pillar in the state economies of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Texas.
Florida is not yet on the list—but it is certainly in the industry’s sights.
And incredibly, like a raid deep into enemy territory, on May 27 an article reprinted from the Lafayette Daily Advertiser of Lafayette, La., of all places, appeared in Naples, Fla., in an across-the-page headline on the front of the Naples Daily News Business section: “Gulf drilling restrictions could prove damaging.” It put forward NOIA’s propaganda without comment or question.
With this the industry proved that it really did have a long reach—right into Rooney’s own eyeballs and the heart of the opposition.
Joe Biden at the moment in his debate with Bernie Sanders when he uttered the words “no more drilling, including offshore.” (Image: CNN)
Analysis: Boatin’ for Biden
“I’m thankful that the Florida delegation, with the exception of one member, came together in a bipartisan way to pass HR 205 out of the House,” stated Rooney to The Paradise Progressive. “This shows the strong commitment that Floridians have to protecting our waters, our economy, and our military preparedness.”
Many Floridians do indeed have a commitment to Florida’s natural environment and they will keep working to protect it. But it’s also very clear that the only hope Southwest Florida—indeed, all of the Florida Gulf coast—has to protect its shores, its environment and its current economy is the election of Joe Biden as president.
Floridians of all political persuasions will get no succor or satisfaction on this issue from President Trump or his administration. He and his minions are just waiting for his re-election to pounce and then it’s “drill-baby-drill.” And the offshore oil and gas industry will certainly show no mercy.
So those in the flotilla of south Collier County boaters who took to the water on Memorial Day weekend should think very carefully about what they’re wishing for. If they really got their wish and Donald Trump was re-elected, the Florida waters and beaches they so enjoy will likely become a dystopian hellscape of oil rigs, ships and slicks.
But of course, that’s not the future that has to be. Perhaps just enough Floridians will realize that their best interests, the interests of their state, their country, their environment and their future lies in electing Joe Biden.
And then they’ll vote.
Liberty lives in light
© 2020 by David Silverberg