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Congressman Ted Lieu

Representing the 33rd District of California

USA TODAY: Trump administration offshore drilling move reeks of illegal political favoritism

January 12, 2018
Opinion: Op-Eds

Zinke exempted Florida out of concern for its coastal economy. What about drilling in other states? This arbitrary decision-making will never stand up in court.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a stunning admission in exempting Florida from the Trump administration’s proposed offshore oil drilling plan. His decision implicitly acknowledges that offshore oil drilling harms the coastal economy and tourism. He exempted Florida because, he said, its coasts “are highly reliant on tourism as an economic driver.” Under that rationale, he now will need to remove many more coastal states from offshore oil drilling.

I agree that Florida is a unique home to treasured wildlife in the Everglades and gorgeous beaches all around. We know the president feels that way, having made his Palm Beach property the de facto winter White House. But, by that measure, just about every coastal state uses its beaches as an economic driver: Every summer, hordes of people flock to see the roses that dot the coastlines of Massachusetts, the wild horses that roam Maryland beaches, and the sea turtles that find their bearings off of the coast of Texas. 

And I haven’t even mentioned the Pacific Coast, which boasts some of the most beautiful and pristine beaches in the world. But, for coastal states, clean and accessible oceans mean so much more than a beautiful view. Thanks to marine fishing, tourism, research, transportation and construction, the Gross Domestic Product of the West Coast’s coastal economies totaled $56.3 billion in 2014.

Offshore drilling creates extraordinary safety concerns for coastal communities and ecosystems. Instead of fighting climate change and looking at wind, tidal and wave energy development, the Trump administration is barreling towards crisis after crisis with this plan. California knows first-hand the devastation possible. In 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill spewed 4.2 million gallons of oil into the ocean, damaging the environment and ravaging tourism and fishing industries. Opening the Pacific to additional leases is another disaster in the making.

That’s what is so disturbing about Zinke’s exclusion. It wasn’t that he acknowledged how offshore drilling would negatively impact Florida’s economy and tourism industry, it’s that he didn’t recognize how terrible it would be for all of the nation's coastal states. 

His decision reeks of improper political favoritism. It’s also illegal. By treating Florida differently than other similarly situated states, Zinke’s planned program will likely be struck down by the courts and demonstrates that his decision-making is an abuse of discretion, and is arbitrary and capricious. There is no legal standard that would appear to allow his decision to stand.

Zinke has indicated he met with Florida government officials and quickly determined that Florida would no longer be a part of the Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. Despite the widespread bipartisan backlash against his plan, Zinke seemed to heed input only from Florida officials.

Evidently, Zinke ignored the letter that I sent with 38 of my congressional colleagues last year urging the Trump administration not to open the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington to offshore drilling. Governors and local officials from around the country have been just as fervent in their opposition offshore drilling near their states, and yet we haven’t heard anything from the Interior Department about exempting them as well.

Despite the new precedent the Trump administration has set on other issues, we need to have the expectation that our public officials act in accordance with what’s best for the American public — not just their political friends. Opening over 90% of the Outer Continental Shelf to new oil and gas leases threatens our economic security as well as the environment. Zinke must abandon his plan to devastate U.S. coasts with offshore drilling.

Rep. Ted Lieu is a Democrat who represents California’s 33rd Congressional District. A former prosecutor in the JAG Corps, he is a member of the House Foreign Affairs and House Judiciary committees. Follow him on Twitter: @RepTedLieu.