President Trump’s announcement that he’s extending the moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico is leaving some ecstatic, and others scratching their heads.
The president spoke in Columbia, South Carolina, where Trump ally Lindsey Graham is facing a strong challenge for his Senate seat.
“In a few moments I will sign a presidential order extending the moratorium on offshore drilling on Florida’s Gulf Coast; and expanding it to Florida’s Atlantic Coast as well as the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina,” the president said.
That drew applause from Florida’s 1st District Congressman Matt Gaetz – a staunch Trump supporter – and from Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.
“We sent a letter to the White House, asking for the extension,” said Robinson. “Basically saying the prohibition of offshore drilling in Florida [is] incompatible with our culture, with our economy, with our way of life.”
But can Trump, or any president, issue such an order on a subject that Congress must decide? Former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson – a Florida Democrat – says he cannot, calling the announcement “another Trump election year head fake.”
“We’re not going to be safe until Congress passes a permanent ban on drilling off of Florida’s coast,” Nelson said. “If [Trump’s] really sincere, he’d say, ‘I’m going to offer this legislation to the Congress and I will support it and sign it.’”
Nelson and then-Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican, worked together on the existing ban that is scheduled to expire in 2022. The size of the existing buffer varies, depending on the coastline.
“One hundred-twenty five miles from Pensacola/Panama City,” said Nelson. “And if you go straight west from Tampa, it’s about 235 miles. And if you go straight west from Naples down in South Florida, it’s closer to 250 miles.”
Trump is actually proposing to change the overall “Five-Year Oil Drilling Plan,” says Nelson. Looking back, he said there was resistance among many Republicans as he and Martinez shepherded the original measure. But Nelson says things changed in 2010.
“The Deepwater Horizon oil spill so messed up Northwest Florida’s beaches, and lost an entire season of tourists,” said Nelson. “The public has said, ‘We don’t’ want any oil drilling off of Florida; and that’s now reflected among bipartisan members of Congress.”
Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson – who as chairman of the Escambia County Commission ten years ago was the county’s point man for the spill – says the disaster remains fresh in a lot of people’s memories.
“We have a significant amount of shoreline on Pensacola Bay, and it showed the oil spill came all the way into Pensacola Bay,” said the mayor. “From our standpoint, the most important thing we can think is that there should be no drilling in the eastern Gulf.”
There are some who contend that Trump is making a case for his environmental record in the crucial Sunshine State. Others, not so much.
“Even if he had the authority to do it, it would still be pandering for votes in Florida,” Zelden said. “And by the way, Georgia and South Carolina as well,” said Charles Zelden, a political scientist at Nova Southeastern University.
“He’s simply trying to say what will play good in a battleground state,” Zelden said. “And Florida is most definitely not only a battleground state, but perhaps the most important one of the lot.”
As far as an actual bill to extend the deadline on the original drilling moratorium, former Sen. Bill Nelson says any movement likely would come with a change of administrations.
“The clock is ticking down for 2022; if you have a change of administrations you will see the new Biden administration push such a law, and should be able to get it through the Congress.”
Trump’s move underscores the steps he’s to take to improve his reelection prospects, along with helping Senate Republicans in tough races in South Carolina and Georgia. Florida has no U.S. Senate race in 2020.