Editorial: Don’t risk Florida coast by changing offshore drilling rules

The U.S. Interior Department seems to be confused when it comes to the question of allowing more oil drilling anywhere near Florida’s coast.

The latest comes via a bipartisan tirade over plans by Interior officials to ease regulations and oversight of the 2016 Well Control Rule put in place by the Obama administration in the wake of the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill. Interior officials want to alter 44 provisions and delete 15 others in a “common-sense approach,” which “could reduce unnecessary regulatory burdens while ensuring that any such activity is safe and environmentally responsible.”

This is not “common-sense.” Not when the Florida Panhandle is still recovering both economically and environmentally from the deadly Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill. The first BP settlement money — $18 million — was released only last week for regional economic development projects in that region.

Though these proposed changes were unveiled in January, the Interior Department only recently submitted them to the Federal Register. The move kicked off a 60-day comment period, and then some.

RELATED: Florida leaders blast White House changes to oil drilling

“These rules were put in place to prevent another massive oil spill off our coasts,” U.S. Sen. Dill Nelson said. “We can’t allow this new administration to take us backwards in time and, once again, expose Florida’s beautiful beaches and tourism-based economy to such an unnecessary risk.”

And this is not a partisan issue in Florida.

“Have we learned nothing from the worst environmental disaster in American history?” said U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, a Longboat key Republican and co-chairman of the state’s congressional delegation. “These safeguards should remain in place.”

Buchanan noted that among the proposed changes, independent inspectors who test blowout preventers would no longer need to be certified by the government and real-time monitoring of offshore oil rigs would be loosened for operations on the outer continental shelf. That’s roughly 10 miles off Florida’s Gulf Coast and 3 miles off the Atlantic Coast. Deepwater Horizon was more than 100 miles off Florida’s coast.

The oil and gas industry would have us believe that the proposed revisions to a “technically flawed” rule “will move us forward on safety, help the government better regulate risks and better protect workers and the environment,” according to the American Petroleum Institute.

But the well control rule in place already does that. So gutting it is not only reckless, but smacks of kowtowing to the oil and gas industry.

Further, this isn’t the only recent example of the Trump administration having a confusing policy when it comes to drilling off Florida’s coast. In January, when these proposed changes were first announced, they got overshadowed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s quick visit to Florida to meet with Gov. Rick Scott.

RELATED: Zinke declaration on Florida offshore drilling exemption not a done deal, Interior official tells Congress

Zinke, after announcing a broad Trump administration proposal to expand offshore drilling, flew to the Tallahassee airport to stand with Scott and declare that “Florida is obviously unique … For Floridians, we are not drilling off the coast of Florida, and clearly the governor has expressed that it’s important.”

For his part, Scott emphasized that Florida was “off the table.”

But in the days, weeks and months since, Zinke has made confusing public statements that has only fueled questions about whether Florida is truly in the clear.

At a March hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Zinke stated that “Florida is different” — only to moments later say, “Florida is still in the process.”

A couple of days later, Zinke told the House Committee on Natural Resources, “Florida did not get an exemption.” But he then went on to explain how Florida is effectively exempt, noting bipartisan political opposition and a moratorium on eastern Gulf drilling until 2022 that prohibits activity within at least 125 miles.

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Scott, last week, maintained that “Florida is off the table for offshore drilling… but remains “concerned about the potential impact these (well rule) changes could have on Florida’s environment,” according to a statement.

The governor is going to have to do better than that if he wants to declare this as some sort of political victory in his battle with Nelson for the U.S. Senate seat.

He needs to make clear to his friend in the White House that the current Well Control Rule is meant to protect Florida’s valuable coastline. And neither should be touched.

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