Block offshore drilling in Florida

Herald/Times Editorial Boards

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson met with students at Buffalo Creek Middle School during the total eclipse in August.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson met with students at Buffalo Creek Middle School during the total eclipse in August. Herald file photo

Timing is everything, and Sen. Bill Nelson seized the right moment this week to call on his colleagues to pass legislation he filed earlier this year that would block the Trump administration from opening additional areas to offshore drilling.

With the White House reportedly poised to move ahead to advance drilling, Congress should send a strong message that it intends to protect the environment, public health and the nation’s military readiness while encouraging the energy industry’s continuing pivot toward cleaner, more sustainable power sources.

Nelson issued the call Tuesday amid concern the administration plans to announce a new, five-year oil and gas leasing plan that would open up the entire Atlantic coast to drilling. Nelson said the plan would go into effect in 2019, replacing the current five-year plan that’s not scheduled to expire until 2022.

“Why is the Department of Interior in such a rush?” Nelson said on the Senate floor Tuesday. “The answer is because the oil industry wants to start drilling in these areas now, and the Trump administration is going to let them do it.”

Nelson’s speech on the Senate floor is his latest response to the directive Trump issued in April, ordering the Interior Department to review an Obama-era plan that limited drilling in areas of the Arctic and southeast Atlantic between 2017 and 2022. Trump ordered the department to consider revising the current schedule of oil and gas lease sales in the outer continental shelf with an eye toward maximizing production activity in the Alaska regions, the southern and mid Atlantic and the western and central Gulf of Mexico.

While the eastern gulf is still protected by a congressional agreement in 2006 that bars drilling within 125 miles of the Panhandle and 230 miles of Tampa Bay, drilling in the central gulf could still endanger Florida. That’s why Florida’s Democratic senator sought to pre-empt the president earlier this year with legislation that would block any new areas for offshore drilling until at least 2022. Nelson also filed legislation to extend the existing ban in the eastern gulf for an additional five years, to 2027. The Pentagon, in a letter to Congress this year, said a lid on offshore operations in the gulf was essential to preserving U.S. military training operations in the area. The Pentagon “cannot overstate the vital importance of maintaining this moratorium,” the Defense Department said.

There is bipartisan concern among Florida’s leaders. U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples, posted an opinion piece this weekend, stating, “Offshore drilling and related activities, including seismic testing, have no place in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.” His column outlines the drastic effects drilling would have on Florida’s economy, environment and national security. He also warned of the toll it would take on his political party.

“Further, failure to stop this pernicious menace to our environment now, before it expires, will carry a high political cost for Republicans in Florida,” Rooney warns.

Opening new areas in the Atlantic and Gulf to drilling only seven years after the BP oil disaster ignores the lessons the nation learned from one of the worst environmental crises in U.S. history. Oil that spilled off the coast of Louisiana poured onto the beaches of Florida, tainting eight Panhandle counties and dealing a serious blow to the state’s tourism industry. And all of this devastation rained across the Gulf despite assurances by the biggest oil companies that they could contain a spill and the environmental and economic fallout.

Gov. Rick Scott and other Republicans need to add their voices to Nelson’s call to maintain the moratorium and extend the protections in the Gulf for America’s military mission. The industry’s move to cleaner, renewable and more affordable energy sources is a shift that needs to continue. Allowing new drilling would give the industry a nose under the tent to push for new offshore leases that will only threaten the coasts. This effort is a threat to Florida’s economy and the natural beauty that attracts tourists from around the world.

Floridians have consistently made clear that protecting natural resources is a priority. Nelson’s legislation would give that public sentiment the force of law, and it deserves bipartisan support.

A version of this editorial first appeared in the Tampa Bay Times.