Florida waters remain in Trump's five-year oil, gas leasing plan, for now: BOEM

Washington (Platts)--19 Jan 2018 546 pm EST/2246 GMT

Federal waters off Florida's coast remain in the Trump administration's draft proposed offshore oil and gas leasing plan, the acting head of the agency that developed the plan said Friday.

Florida waters "are still part of the analysis until [Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke] gives us an official decision otherwise," Walter Cruickshank, the acting director of the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, told a House Natural Resources subcommittee.

Following a meeting with Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, on January 9, Zinke announced that he was "removing Florida from consideration for any new oil and gas platforms," in regards to the draft proposed program his agency released the week before. That proposed plan called for 47 sales in federal waters, including 12 sales in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, three in the South Atlantic and one in the Straits of Florida, over a five-year period.

Zinke, who announced his decision in a tweet, has not taken a "formal action" on Florida, Cruickshank said.

"The secretary's statement stands on its own," Cruickshank said. "We are following the process and the secretary's decisions will be reflected in the proposed program decision."

Cruickshank may be stating that Florida waters are still in the Trump administration's 2019-2024 lease sale plan due to a technicality. These waters will likely be removed when the plan moves to its next stage of approval later this year. But House Democrats seized on Cruickshank's comments Friday as evidence that Zinke's decision on Florida, which was announced on Twitter, circumvented federal law and was done for political purposes.

Zinke's claims that Florida was out of the offshore plan were "not true," said Florida Representative Darren Soto, a Democrat.

"Instead of carefully following laws and regulations, this administration writes policy on a napkin, announces it on social media and calls it a day," Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. "Secretary Zinke's tweet either represents official policy, in which case he'll lose in court, or it doesn't, in which case he shouldn't have announced it in the first place."

In an interview, Patrick Parenteau, professor and senior counsel for Vermont Law School's Environmental and Natural Resources Law Clinic, called Zinke's tweet on Florida both "strange" and "unorthodox."

"The comment period on the proposal had barely begun and he was already changing it," Parenteau said. "The idea under the Administrative Procedure Act is you put out a proposal and you let people comment on it. You tell them what you're proposing, and if you have alternatives, you put those into the proposal and you have people address the alternatives. But you don't change the proposal midstream or mid-process. That's highly unusual."

Still, Zinke's tweet may not raise any legal issues, whether waters offshore Florida are taken from the plan or not, he said.

"You can't sue a tweet," he said. "Nobody can run to court and sue Zinke for tweeting this or saying this. You have to wait for a final agency action, which means you're going to have to wait the whole rulemaking process, which is going to take years."

He said Zinke could still correct any legal issues created by the tweet.

"He could basically say we're going back to the original proposal and nobody's out -- all 90% of the offshore waters are back in," he said. "That's exactly why a court wouldn't jump in at this juncture."

Heather Swift, an Interior spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Zinke has yet to detail which sales will be removed from the draft plan and whether entire offshore planning areas, such as the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, will be removed from the plan as part of his agreement with Scott.

At least eight governors of coastal states have spoken to Zinke about having federal waters off their coasts removed from the five-year lease plan.

On Wednesday, Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat-Florida, said he had placed administrative holds on three Interior Department nominees and said he will not lift them until Interior formally removes federal waters offshore Florida from the proposed plan. -- Brian Scheid,

-- Meghan Gordon,

-- Edited by Annie Siebert,

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