WASHINGTON — When President Donald Trump and his nominee to lead the Interior Department visited Lake Okeechobee last month, Florida Rep. Francis Rooney took the opportunity to deliver a message about offshore drilling.
He warned David Bernhardt — who’s expected to be confirmed this week as Interior Secretary — that pursuing drilling off Florida’s coast would have political consequences.
“I said if the president wants to carry Florida, he needs to get out in front on offshore drilling,” Rooney told Bernhardt, he recalled during an interview Wednesday with the Florida Phoenix.
Bernhardt didn’t show his cards during the Florida gathering. “He just stood there,” Rooney said. “He said we’ll visit. He’s not going to say anything until he gets confirmed anyway.”
Rooney, a Republican whose 19th District includes Naples and Sanibel Island, said he had been hearing rumors lately that Trump’s Interior Department wants to put Florida’s coast into its five-year off-shore drilling proposal.
“We got pretty nervous about it and got pretty aggressive about it,” Rooney said.
Politico reported Wednesday that the administration is considering auctioning off Florida’s coastal waters for oil and gas drilling as industry eyes access to the resource-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico. But Trump and his top advisers hadn’t yet weighed in on the plan taking shape inside the Interior Department.
The plan faces serious pushback from Florida politicians, who warn that such a move could imperil Trump’s 2020 chances.
“He can’t win the presidency without Florida,” Rooney said. “Impossible.”
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 14th District, told the Phoenix Wednesday, “The Trump administration will lose the state of Florida in the presidential election if they pursue this.”
She pointed to Florida’s Constitutional amendment, passed last fall, which bans drilling for oil or natural gas off the Florida coast.
“The citizens in the state of Florida spoke loud and clear when we adopted a Constitutional amendment by a wide margin last November, but that was limited to state water,” Castor said. “This is another example of the Trump administration taking action that would damage our economy, damage our natural environment. Florida relies on clean water and clean beaches to make our economy grow, make Florida the special place that it is. We will fight it with everything we have.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Republican who represents the 1st District, is a Trump ally who says he’s been pressing the president on the issue.
“Preventing drilling off of Florida’s coast is one of Congressman Gaetz’s top legislative priorities,” Gaetz spokesman Luke Ball said in a statement.
“Florida’s unique coastline is vital to both the state’s economy and American national security. Congressman Gaetz has had many productive discussions with President Trump and members of the White House administration on maintaining the drilling moratorium, and he looks forward to continuing these discussions,” Ball added.
Florida’s Republican Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott sent a letter to Bernhardt last month urging him to keep all of Florida’s offshore waters out of the drilling plans.
“We remain concerned about the impacts of oil and gas activities on Florida’s marine and coastal environment, as well as the military activities critical to our national security,” the senators wrote.
Rooney introduced legislation in the House to permanently ban oil and gas leasing, pre-leasing, and related activities in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. The measure has the support of 10 Florida co-sponsors, including Castor and Gaetz.
Rooney told the Phoenix he’s pushing to get that bill moved through the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee and scheduled for a vote on the House floor.
Meanwhile, if he keeps hearing rumors that Interior intends to push for drilling off Florida’s coast, “I will do my best to get some meetings with Bernhardt,” Rooney said.
“We don’t want it down here.”