Trump Just Let Florida Block Offshore Drilling. That’s a Scandal.

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Mike Pence with Florida governor Rick Scott. Photo: Joe Burbank/TNS via Getty Images

Last week, the Trump administration unveiled a plan to allow new oil and gas drilling in virtually all of our nation’s coastal waters. There is no plausible argument for how this policy serves the public interest.

As the Deepwater Horizon spill demonstrated in 2010, extracting fossil fuels from beneath oceans doesn’t just pose grave environmental risks to surrounding waters, but also profound economic risk to coastal communities. And, of course, the long-term survival of human civilization likely requires humanity to leave many easier-to-extract oil reserves in the ground.

The White House has argued that it is worthwhile to lease out 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for drilling, anyway, because doing so will provide America with much-needed revenue and energy independence. These rationales are laughable.

This administration does not care about maximizing federal revenues. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has claimed that Obama-era rules restricting offshore drilling cost Uncle Sam $11.5 billion — a tiny fraction of the $1.5 trillion the president’s tax plan just removed from government coffers. As for “energy independence”: Thanks to the fracking boom, the U.S. already produces 91 percent of the energy it uses. And (unfortunately for the climate) there remains an abundance of inland natural gas to extract.

But while there is no public interest in expanding offshore drilling, there is a major oil-industry interest in doing so: When you extract oil and natural gas offshore, you can export it more quickly and more affordably than when you do so on land.

Predictably, most states do not see maximizing energy companies’ export profits as a good reason to expose their coastlines to the risk of a catastrophic oil spill. The governors of Florida, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, California, Oregon, and Washington — a bipartisan group of coastal state leaders — have all voiced opposition to expansion of offshore drilling plans.

On Tuesday, the administration announced that it respected “local and state” voices on this issue, and therefore, had decided to spare Florida — and only Florida — from its new drilling policy.

“I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,” Zinke said in a statement after meeting with the Sunshine State’s Republican governor, Rick Scott. “I am removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms.”

The leaders of other coastal states were, understandably, perplexed. Florida is not “unique” in having coastal economies that are deeply reliant on tourism, or voters who overwhelmingly oppose offshore drilling. In his statement, Zinke did stipulate that Governor Scott was a “straightforward leader that can be trusted.” But one would think that the Trump administration wouldn’t see the Republican governors of South Carolina and Maryland as evasive leaders that cannot be trusted.

On Tuesday, California attorney general Xavier Becerra informed the White House that Florida was not, in fact, the only state whose economy would be adversely affected by an offshore ecological disaster.

The administration’s indifference to California’s concerns is of a piece with its broader policy of punishing states that vote for Democrats. But the fact that the White House has proven more sensitive to the concerns of Florida than the (even redder) state of South Carolina requires further explanation.

The most innocent interpretation of this discrepancy is that the administration is using policy as a tool for bolstering Rick Scott’s Senate bid. Scott is widely expected to challenge Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson next fall, and Zinke’s decision provides the governor with a “win” on an issue of bipartisan concern. Delivering such a victory to Scott could also, theoretically, help the GOP retain the governor’s mansion next fall.

Nelson, for one, believes that the decision was a “political stunt” designed to remove him from office.

“I have spent my entire life fighting to keep oil rigs away from our coasts,” the senator said in a statement. “But now, suddenly, Secretary Zinke announces plans to drill off Florida’s coast and four days later agrees to ‘take Florida off the table’? I don’t believe it. This is a political stunt orchestrated by the Trump administration to help Rick Scott.”

Still, it’s not like Republican governors in other states wouldn’t benefit from securing a concession from Washington — certainly, Maryland’s Larry Hogan, who’s running for reelection in a blue state this fall, could use such a feather in his cap.

Thus, some liberals see an even more sordid explanation for Florida’s exemption than mere political favoritism: There’s a rumor that someone with special influence over this White House might have a financial interest in keeping Florida’s coastline pristine. As former head of the government’s ethics office — and current ALL-CAPS #Resistance tweeter — Walter Shaub notes:

Now, it remains entirely possible that the administration gave Florida a break for Rick Scott’s sake, and not Mar-a-Lago’s. It’s also possible that more exemptions will follow. Regardless, the White House’s offshore drilling policy is a scandal.

It is not acceptable for the president to exempt a state from his energy policy for the sake of protecting his golf resort — or for that of aiding his ally’s campaign. But it would be just as unacceptable for Trump to subject all states, equally, to an offshore drilling policy that virtually no voters want, for the sake of rewarding his energy industry donors.

Trump Let Florida Block Offshore Drilling. That’s a Scandal.