Republican officials in South Atlantic and Gulf coast states were already moving away from the Trump administration’s aggressive plan to open 90 percent of the United States’ coastal areas to offshore drilling, then Tuesday evening, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced a deal to take all of Florida’s coastline from consideration.
That sparked calls across the Southeast, including in Georgia, to seriously address the issue or remove those other states from the plan, as well.
In what the Tampa Bay Times called “a hastily arranged airport rendezvous,” Zinke made the declaration with Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican. The move drew immediate criticism. Florida is a swing state in presidential elections and Scott is anticipated to mount a campaign for U.S. Senate.
“President (Donald) Trump has directed me to rebuild our offshore oil and gas program in a manner that supports our national energy policy and also takes into consideration the local and state voice,” Zinke said in a statement released through his official Twitter account. “I support the governor’s position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver.”
Pushing the statement out through social media drew expected snarky responses.
Stefan Turkheimer, an Atlanta attorney and Democratic strategist, responded, “Oh, cool! But not Georgia? Are our coasts not beautiful? Are our shorts not jean enough?”
Leading Georgia Republicans, typically allied with administration policy, opened up the possibility of trying to pull the Peach State from the proposal as well, or at the very least working out an independent deal with the Interior Department.
“We are reviewing the details of the administration’s latest proposal,” Amanda Maddox, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, said Wednesday. “Sen. Isakson supports American energy independence and is open to potential drilling off the Georgia coast as long as it is environmentally sound. He also wants to make sure all stakeholders, including Gov. (Nathan) Deal, industry, tourism and economic development, are properly consulted and any concerns are appropriately addressed.”
Jen Talaber Ryan, Deal’s deputy chief of staff for communications, said the governor had yet to develop a firm position.
“The governor has some concerns regarding opening up Georgia’s pristine coast and will communicate those concerns with our congressional delegation,” Ryan said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Buddy Carter, R-1, who represents Glynn County, said in a statement that if he feels the plan will not be satisfactory, he is willing to craft a Florida-style deal with the federal government.
“At this time, I believe it makes sense to simply see what resources are available off the coasts of the United States,” Carter said. “If sufficient resources are found that will help lower energy costs and move America closer to energy independence, we then need to ensure any actions do not harm our beautiful coastline.
“We must find a positive relationship between increasing our energy independence and protecting our beautiful coasts, marine life and industries. If that’s not possible or if it’s not going to benefit our area, I’m not afraid to walk away and make a similar agreement.”
Wes Robinson, director of public and government affairs for the state Environmental Protection Division, said the agency is still evaluating the proposal.
Meanwhile, Zinke’s proclamation also kicked into gear efforts in South Carolina, where U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, the 1st District Republican, consistently opposed offshore drilling efforts. Gov. Henry McMaster joined that cause Wednesday.
“We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline in South Carolina,” McMaster said, according to the Associated Press.
By Thursday afternoon, Reuters reported Republican Paul LePage of Maine and independent Bill Walker of Alaska as the only coastal state governors explicitly supporting the plan, while an Interior Department spokeswoman said Zinke intends to meet with every coastal governor, though it could take a year to meet and discuss drilling options with all of them.
Alice Keyes, vice president of coastal conservation for Brunswick-based One Hundred Miles, said one thing Florida has that Georgia does not — at present — is near-universal opposition to drilling off the state’s coast.
“Georgia’s opposition has been led by amazing local communities and citizens,” Keyes said. “And sadly, our federal officials continue to support offshore development and exploration. So, even if Gov. Deal came out in opposition, we still need our senators and congressmen to oppose offshore drilling. I am disheartened by this position, but still have hope that our community voices will sway our congressmen and they will step up.
“We need economic development that enhances the assets we have rather than erodes them. Consider the impact our economy has on the state — including our contribution to the $60 billion state tourism industry and our coastal military installations that offer security and safety to the whole country.”
Municipalities across Coastal Georgia — including Brunswick, Kingsland, St. Marys, Savannah and Tybee Island — more than a year ago passed resolutions opposing offshore drilling.
The federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which handles offshore oil and gas leases, is accepting public comments through March 9. Those wishing to comment can do so online at regulations.gov/document?D=BOEM-2017-0074-0001 by clicking the “Comment Now!” button — nearly 800 comments were on file by press time Thursday.
People can also mail their comments to Kelly Hammerle, National OCS Oil and Gas Leasing Program Manager, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (VAM-LD), 45600 Woodland Rd., Sterling, Va., 20166-9216.