WASHINGTON -- Facing mounting pressure from fellow Republicans who see little constituent support for drilling off the Atlantic Coast, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke could be backpedaling on the Trump administration's initial plans to expand the program, GOP lawmakers told McClatchy.
In a meeting with affected coastal GOP representatives last week, Zinke reaffirmed an exemption from the drilling for Florida, hinted to New Jersey officials their state was likely to be spared and left a Virginia congressman optimistic the policy would be overturned for his state, too. And Zinke said he'd travel to South Carolina to get a better sense of that state's concerns as well.
If Zinke carves out exceptions for all these states, the idea of cross-Atlantic oil drilling basis could be dead.
The new policy had seemed clear in early January, when Zinke, at the White House's behest, said he would expand drilling all along the Atlantic. Then he gave an exemption to Florida, and other states -- many of which have Republican-dominated congressional delegations -- began demanding similar treatment.
Seeking to clean up a bureaucratic mess, Zinke has since been visiting Capitol Hill and speaking with governors who want carve-outs. After a Feb. 27 meeting Zinke convened on Capitol Hill with East Coast Republican representatives, Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said her boss was "happy to meet with coastal representatives to discuss the offshore plan."
But Zinke is leaving confusion in his wake.
Lawmakers from Florida emerged from that recent meeting convinced they were still going to get their exemption, citing a united delegation and a longstanding federal moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
New Jersey Republicans said Zinke, a former Montana congressman, strongly implied their coast would be spared, too, because some studies suggested drilling there would not yield much oil.
Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Va., said he was confident his state would get an exemption because of tourism and the Navy's concerns about drilling near a military base.
And Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., said he was encouraged both by Zinke's promise to visit the South Carolina coast and his indication "to me that strong resistance (inside the state) will certainly be taken into account."
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., another coastal representative and drilling opponent, said every Republican at the Feb. 27 meeting expressed similar sentiments.
"There was a fairly consistent refrain with regard to hypothetical environmental impacts, tourism impacts and 'wait a minute, our coast is unique too,'" Sanford recalled.
In other words, every state that wants an exemption is arguing its circumstances are special, but they all share similarities that would make it difficult for Zinke to pull out of one locality but not another and still maintain credibility.
Zinke even said at a recent meeting with Gov. Roy Cooper, D-N.C., and local officials and community leaders, that none of the coastal communities up and down the east coast currently have the necessary infrastructure to support offshore drilling in the first place, according to Tom Kies, president of the Carteret County Chamber of Commerce, who was present.
Zinke plans to visit North Carolina's coast soon, too.
Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, the House Natural Resources Committee chairman who attended the Feb 27 meeting, said his colleagues were jumping to conclusions. He said Zinke made no promises to anybody and appeared on track to continue implementing the administration's drilling agenda as intended.
"I don't think Zinke made a final commitment to anybody," Bishop said. "Until you see something in black and white, almost everyone hears what they want to hear. Until you see it written down, nothing is finalized."
The administration has also gone through a painstaking process to make clear Florida wouldn't get its official exemption until the end of the Interior Department's review process. The public comment period will end Friday, with the administration presenting a final decision later.
Stressing that process is likely to cool expectations and please powerful lobbyists who want all states to allow drilling.
To Taylor, Zinke is just trying to do his job under difficult circumstances.
"I assume he felt like he had the authority to say, 'Florida has a federal moratorium, they have a united delegation, I'm going to go ahead and exempt them,' and maybe he got some pushback from the president for doing that," Taylor said. "I don't know the answer to that specifically, but that's what it seems like."
Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said Taylor's optimism about Virginia made sense.
Grijalva said Zinke is being directed to help lawmakers, such as Taylor, who face tough election fights. Getting exemptions mean they could take credit for the change if their states get relief from a drilling plan unpopular among their constituents.
There was speculation after the Florida exemption announcement that the decision was made as a favor to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a close Trump ally who is expected challenge to vulnerable Democratic incumbent Sen. Bill Nelson.
In addition to Taylor, a slew of retirements from moderate New Jersey Republicans could result in Democrats winning those seats. Another Trump ally, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, also opposes offshore drilling and is facing election this year.
"What you're going to see at the end is some political accommodations," Grijalva told McClatchy. "Nothing was thought out. Nobody was consulted. (The administration) just listened to industry and now they have to backtrack politically to try to protect their vulnerables."
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