- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 4, 2018

The White House on Thursday rolled out a preliminary plan to ramp up offshore drilling, potentially opening up nearly all of American’s federal waters to energy development — and in the process picked a fight with a key Republican ally.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott says he’s vehemently opposed to the Interior Department’s proposal to dramatically expand oil drilling off U.S. coasts, including Florida. The state is one of nearly a dozen that has said it objects to the plan, which constitutes one of the most sweeping reversals to date of an Obama-era energy policy.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said the blueprint would open 25 of 26 planning areas off America’s coasts to drilling. Waters off the West and East coasts, in the Gulf of Mexico, and off Alaska’s shores will be opened to oil exploration; only one area, the North Aleutian Basin near Alaska, will be left alone.

“We’re going to become the strongest energy superpower,” Mr. Zinke said in explaining the five-year plan, which would stretch from 2019 through 2024.

In total, about 90 percent of total U.S. offshore acreage could now be opened for drilling, if the draft plan goes into effect. By contrast, the Obama administration had cordoned off about 94 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf as part of its broader effort to limit fossil fuel development, especially on federal lands and waters.

Mr. Zinke said the vast difference in approaches to offshore drilling has financial ramifications. In 2008, the Interior Department pulled in $18 billion in offshore drilling leases. By 2016, that had fallen to just $2.6 billion.

“We can do better,” the secretary said, adding that the administration currently plans to hold 47 separate lease sales over the coming years.

Not surprisingly, environmentalists and Democrats eviscerated the proposal. But criticism also came from fellow Republicans such as Mr. Scott, who aren’t keen on the federal government leasing off huge swaths of water off the coast.

“I have already asked to immediately meet with Secretary Zinke to discuss the concerns I have with this plan and the crucial need to remove Florida from consideration,” Mr. Scott said, as quoted by several Florida media outlets.

The White House downplayed any potential feud with the governor.

“Our goal certainly isn’t to cross Gov. Scott. We have a great relationship with him. We’re going to continue working with him on a number of issues,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters Thursday. “Just because we may differ on issues from time to time, doesn’t mean that we can’t still have an incredibly strong and good relationship.”

Democrats seized on the administration’s latest energy move as further proof that the president and Mr. Zinke care little for the environment — a claim they both reject.

“Once again, Trump has sided with corporations over the American people. Trump’s decision to open nearly all of our coasts to offshore drilling is in opposition to the wishes of state and local communities, endangers the environment, and puts jobs and local economies at risk,” said Daniel Wessel, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee.

Environmental groups also took aim at the plan.

“If the Interior Department’s five-year oil and gas leasing plan moves forward, extractive companies will have access to drill off nearly every coast in the United States,” said Mary Sweeters, a climate campaigner with the leading environmental group Greenpeace. “For federal agencies and government officials to greenlight more oil and gas development … is immoral and reckless.”

But business groups cheered the proposal and are fully backing the administration’s goal of turning the U.S. into the world’s preeminent energy producer.

“The plan announced today is a long-term commitment to securing our energy future, and would help cement America’s role as an energy superpower, creating jobs and contributing to our economy,” said Karen Harbert, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Energy Institute. “For decades, our nation has needlessly limited our own ability to harness oil and gas resources. This new plan sets a much different course, allowing far greater access to offshore areas that haven’t been previously accessible using advanced technology to determine where to safely drill.”

Mr. Zinke said the proposal will be open to public comment for the next 60 days, and that he’s willing to meet with anyone, including governors, who has concerns. He also said he’s open to a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Scott to discuss Florida’s specific concerns.

“Florida is going to have a say,” the secretary said.

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