by Ron Eachus

If there’s one thing that characterizes the Trump administration, it’s a pattern of confusion, contradictions and sketchy justifications for poorly implemented policies.

There’s no better example than Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s handling of the lifting of a ban on new off-shore oil and gas leases and the excuses he’s given for pre-maturely exempting Florida from that ban.

Try and follow the bouncing ball.

On January 4, Trump announced his administration would lift the ban imposed by Obama on offshore drilling. Zinke said it the new five-year plan applying to 2019-2024 would open up 98% of the outer continental shelf waters available for leasing. Given Trump’s fossil fuel agenda and his dislike for anything Obama did, that’s not really a surprise.

The surprise came a few days later when Zinke announced immediately after meeting with Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott that Florida would be exempt from the plan. Because “it’s coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver,” Florida was being taken “off the table.”

Less than a week after Trump’s announcement and only two days into the 60-day public comment period, Zinke suddenly gave one favored state an exemption. No process. No examination of the criteria required by law.

Why Florida? Perhaps because, as in many coastal states, off shore drilling has bi-partisan opposition. Maybe because Scott is running for the U.S Senate against a Democratic incumbent who also opposes new off shore leases.

Immediately other states, including Oregon, Washington and California, registered their own opposition, and asked for the same consideration as Florida based on similar impact factors.

By then the assumption was Florida is exempt. But on January 19, with bi-partisan complaints from other coastal states pouring in, Zinke tells a House committee the Florida exemption wasn’t a “formal action” and didn’t officially remove Florida from the plan.

To which Scott responds “He promised me Florida would be off the table and I believe Florida is off the table.”

Zinke needed a way to differentiate Florida from other states. So, by March he’s telling a Senate committee that Florida is different because it’s coastline is already protected by a Congressionally imposed moratorium on drilling.

Here’s the thing about that moratorium: It expires in 2022 and it applies only to the eastern waters of the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s west coast. The draft leasing plan actually includes lease sales in the moratorium area in 2023 and 2024. It also includes new lease sales in the two regions along the eastern coast of Florida. So, the moratorium doesn’t apply to all of Florida’s coastline and it expires before the plan takes effect.

As of 2022, Florida is in the same situation as any other coastal state. Even if one assumes Congress extends the moratorium, Zinke would still be granting an exemption for the eastern coastal waters of Florida not covered by existing law.

Now comes April. According to an Associated Press report, Zinke told a forum on offshore wind energy that “No one was exempted,” specifically noting Florida.

So, Florida is exempt, then maybe it isn’t, then it is, then it really isn’t – yet.

A final plan is due in the fall –around election time. If done before the election with an exemption for Florida and no other coastal states that sought the same, it will appear as a politically motivated, pre-determined outcome. In that case using the Congressionally imposed moratorium applying to Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coastline won’t be sufficient justification to hold off the likely successful legal challenges to the decision and the process.

If other states are exempted as well as Florida, the lift of the ban won’t be much of a lift, undermining Trump’s promises.

It happens that no matter what happens the existing moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida’s coast isn’t sufficient reason to grant an exemption from Trump’s plan to open up nearly all coastal waters to oil and gas.