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, brian.scheid@spglobal.com

— Meghan Gordon, meghan.gordon@spglobal.com

— Edited by Annie Siebert, newsdesk@spglobal.com

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