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New Jersey sues US: Why was Florida exempted from offshore drilling?

Frank Kummer, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

PHILADELPHIA -- New Jersey, saying it is frustrated with a lack of answers, filed suit against the U.S. Department of the Interior on Wednesday asking why Florida -- and not the Garden State -- was made exempt from a Trump administration plan to expand offshore drilling.

At issue is the administration's January proposal to drill off the Atlantic coast, from Florida to Maine, and also open up waters off California and in the Arctic. Quickly, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he would exempt Florida because it depends so heavily on tourism. New Jersey officials were outraged, given that the state has 130 miles of coastline that relies heavily on tourism, including its beaches in the summer and the year-round birding industry.

Zinke pulled Florida from the list after meeting with its governor, Rick Scott, a Republican. Scott is running an expensive campaign to unseat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, in what is widely viewed as a key Senate race for Republicans. Scott has reached his term limit as governor and was heavily courted by Republicans, including President Donald Trump, to run for the Senate.

New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal said he filed the civil suit because he had filed a Freedom of Information Act request in April asking for correspondence and documents related to meetings and conversations between Zinke and Scott. Aside from a brief response by the Interior Department in May that the request had gone out, he said, he has heard nothing.

"The administration continues to stonewall on a simple question: Why did they agree to exempt Florida from offshore drilling, while refusing to do the same for New Jersey?" Grewal said in a statement on the lawsuit released Wednesday. "Six months have gone by with no answer. As a state with a pristine coast that is important to our environment and to our economy, New Jersey's rationale for opposing offshore drilling is every bit as valid as Florida's."

State officials say offshore drilling would not only threaten New Jersey's coastal environment but its $44 billion in associated tourism, which supports 830,000 jobs.

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New Jersey's congressional delegation and state leaders have mostly banded together to fight any such drilling. The state passed legislation in April, signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, that bans offshore drilling in state waters. However, the state's territorial waters extend only three nautical miles, or 3.5 statute miles, from the shoreline. Federal waters extend for the next 22 miles. The legislation tried to get around that by banning infrastructure normally associated with drilling.

In February, concerned New Jersey congressmen met with Zinke and said they came away optimistic the state would be exempt from the expanded drilling plan. But Zinke has not officially removed the state from the list of areas under consideration for offshore exploration and drilling for natural gas and oil.

(c)2018 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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