Not a Drill: Oil and Gas Exploration Dead in the Water for Governors

Scott Keeler/Tampa Bay Times via AP

Florida Governor Rick Scott and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announce there will be no new offshore drilling in the State of Florida

The Trump administration’s draft five-year plan for leasing most continental shelf areas for oil and gas drilling met with equal parts of horror and consternation from most Republican and Democratic coastal governors. “Responsibly developing our energy resources on the Outer Continental Shelf in a safe and well-regulated way is important to our economy and energy security, and it provides billions of dollars to fund the conservation of our coastlines, public lands, and parks,” Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said in a January statement announcing the plan. (Note that safety has been the least of the administration’s concerns: Zinke had already rolled back Obama-era offshore drilling safety regulations in late December.) 

So fearful was Republican Governor Rick Scott of Florida of this plan that he plunged into the fray and cut his own deal with the Interior Department to protect the Sunshine State’s multibillion-dollar tourist industry. Scott extracted a waiver from Interior that would exempt the state’s coastal waters from offshore exploration all the way through a possible Trump second term. Though President Trump apparently complained about the move, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision no doubt suited Mar-a-Lago’s weekender-in-chief just fine.

Although a coup for a red state Republican governor with U.S. Senate dreams, Scott’s cynical ploy galvanized his colleagues against drilling. The governors of Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Virginia—three Republicans and four Democrats—signed a joint letter in mid-January opposing the plan and complicating the administration’s calculations by requesting a Sunshine State style-exemption.

Republican Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts emerged as a vocal proponent of building that rarest of entities, a bipartisan gubernatorial coalition to oppose the president’s designs rather taking an every-state-for-itself approach. “I’ve done it on my own, I know the [congressional] delegation has done it on their own,” Baker said Monday on a Boston public radio talk show. “But I would like to see if we can’t bring some of the other Republican and Democrat governors along and maybe with them with [congressional] delegations along up and down the East Coast.”

Baker added, “while the argument here about [offshore drilling] is the possibility and the opportunity associated with an economic policy … there are also big economic issues here and not just for us.” He continued, “if you think about the coastal states … many of them have very active, important economic interests that are related to the continued ability to work collaboratively with others on scalloping, lobstering, crabbing and fishing, and recreational activity.”

Baker has apparently decided that he can now afford to stick his neck out on energy and the environment. Although the former health-care industry executive and other governors jockeying behind the scenes failed to persuade Congress to come up with an Affordable Care Act compromise, the purple wall of opposition rising against the offshore drilling means that he can assume a higher profile national role in a fight against Trump.

Although only Baker and six colleagues signed the January letter, all of the other eastern seaboard governors save the departing Republican Governor Paul LePage of Maine, a Trump stalwart, and Republican Governor Nathan Deal of Georgia, who supports the move but has environmental concerns, have come out forcefully against the federal proposal.

Areas off Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, California, and Alaska currently are open to drilling. Yet even the Last Frontier supports drilling in only certain areas and opposes opening up other wide swaths of coastal waters to new exploration.

Drumming up offshore drilling support in reliably sites red states may not be as easy as Trump’s Interior Department supposes. An interesting test for the president is unfolding in South Carolina where Republican Governor Henry McMaster and former Governor Mark Sanford (now on Capitol Hill representing South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District) are both firmly opposed. There has also been vigorous pushback particularly from small business owners in the tourism and seafood industries.

With so many states clamoring for exemptions, the Trump administration’s decision to capitulate to Florida, with the taint of presidential self interest permeating the deal, the Interior Department may have a tough time explaining in the inevitable court battles ahead why Florida was only the coastal state to merit this carve-out.

The debate over offshore oil and gas drilling is the first major clash of the Trump-inspired energy-environmental wars. This battle doesn’t just pit the states against the federal government; it also pits the fossil fuel actors that quickly seized the regulatory levers of government against the renewable energy forces that were empowered during the Obama years. Unlike the new federal centurions, governors in Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and elsewhere have firmly embraced renewable energy in the oceans in the form of wind farms.

Turbines are not benign; they come with their own environmental negatives as any ornithologist can attest. But they are unlikely to produce the kind of environmental devastation that a Deepwater Horizon-style oil spill can unleash, or produce the greenhouse gases that imperil life on Earth.

Governors are never disinterested actors but the statewide grand coalitions of politicians, environmentalists, business people, and ordinary citizens that are emerging are early signs that effective pressures can be brought to bear even on an administration that has been impervious to compromise, science, or technology. The president can rail about the opposition of the “coastal elites” to his energy policies. He can ignore the natural environment. But he should not underestimate the psychic pull of the seashore for coastal Americans. It won’t be difficult for to rally these denizens to protect their unique ecological heritage.

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