Waters Near Florida Still Being Considered for Oil Drilling

(Bloomberg) -- Despite Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Jan. 9 declaration that Florida is "off the table" for offshore oil drilling, that activity is actually still on the table.

The acting director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management made clear Friday that Zinke’s decision, announced on Twitter and described to reporters in the Tallahassee airport, doesn’t stop a formal process of considering whether to sell drilling rights in waters near the Florida coast.

"It is not a formal action," Walter Cruickshank told a House subcommittee. That means waters around Florida, including the south Atlantic and eastern Gulf of Mexico, remain under consideration. "They are still part of the analysis until the secretary gives us an official decision otherwise."

Required analysis is still under way on the bureau’s draft proposal outlining 47 possible auctions of drilling rights in more than 90 percent of the U.S. outer continental shelf. That includes an ongoing public comment period, nearly two dozen meetings nationwide and required environmental analysis.

"Until such time as all of those analyses are complete and we have all of those comments to put into the record and consider, we will not have any indication of where the secretary wants to go," Cruickshank said. "We are following the process and the secretary’s decisions will be reflected in the proposed program decision."

Zinke said he was "removing Florida from the draft offshore plan" after a Jan. 9 meeting with the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott. Zinke cited Florida’s status as "unique" and "heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver," while also commending Scott as a "straightforward leader that can be trusted."

Representative Darren Soto, a Democrat from Florida who led the lease plan questioning Friday, suggested Zinke’s comments may foster a false sense of security among Floridians worried about drilling rigs near the coast. 

"Many Floridians now believe that we’re off the table -- that there’s going to be no offshore drilling because of that statement -- and that’s not true," Soto said.

Federal law defines the process the government must follow and the factors that must be considered when deciding what parts of the Outer Continental Shelf to lease for oil and gas development. The Interior Department generally issues a broad initial outline of possible sales -- what Zinke unveiled earlier this month -- but then follows that up later with a narrower interim proposal and a final sale schedule that can be even smaller.

Political considerations may make it impossible for Zinke to walk back his promise, ClearView Energy Partners Managing Director Kevin Book said. But the Interior Department could still use a creative definition of "Florida" to allow sales in eastern Gulf of Mexico waters, the most tempting new territory for oil companies in the Trump administration’s offshore draft.

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