President Donald Trump created a political headache for Republican leaders of coastal states with his proposal last week to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. Now he’s causing even more chaos.
After allowing Florida to opt out of the plan, Trump is now likely to receive a barrage of requests from GOP governors of other affected states who suddenly feel pressure to ask for exemptions, too.
In South Carolina, Henry McMaster — a diehard Trump ally facing a competitive Republican primary in June — is one such governor.
"We cannot afford to take a chance with the beauty, the majesty and the economic value and vitality of our wonderful coastline in South Carolina," McMaster said Wednesday.
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In staunchly Democratic Maryland, centrist GOP Gov. Larry Hogan will dispatch his attorney general “to take any legal action necessary against the federal government to prevent this possible exploration,” said a spokeswoman.
And in Georgia, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal broke his silence on the issue with a statement on Wednesday that suggested he too has reservations about Trump’s proposal.
"The governor has some concerns with opening up Georgia's pristine coastlines, which he will convey to the congressional delegation," said Jen Ryan, Deal's deputy chief of staff for communications, in a statement to McClatchy.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced last week that between 2019 and 2024, the administration would make more than 90 percent of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf acreage available for oil and gas drilling.
Hogan is up for re-election in 2018. Deal is term-limited so the Georgia seat is open. Hogan, Deal and McMaster represent states that benefit from ocean-related commerce, including hotels, restaurants and recreational and commercial fishing.
In a 2017 letter to Zinke, members of Congress said that ocean-related commerce generates $95 billion in economic activity each year and supports 1.4 million jobs on the Atlantic coast.
Trump’s concession to Florida is being seen largely as a gift to Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Though Scott once supported offshore drilling, he recently embraced the opposite view, and now he can wield this victory in a likely Senate campaign against Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson.
Nat Mund, director of federal affairs for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said his organization was viewing the decision with a degree of cynicism and suggested it could lead to legal challenges.
“It’s not clear procedurally what they’ve done. Have they actually taken Florida out? The 60-day public comment period is open right now. Have they prejudged an outcome, which is against the law? It’s not clear what they actually accomplished other than playing politics with our coast,” Mund said.
However, South Carolina’s Frank Knapp, president and CEO of the Business Alliance for Protecting the Atlantic Coast, was jubilant Wednesday, sensing opportunities to derail the proposal entirely.
“What Zinke did yesterday was give every governor a blueprint to follow on how to approach the Department of the Interior to get their state out of the five-year plan,” Knapp said.
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., an opponent of offshore drilling and South Carolina’s governor from 2003-2011, agreed: “If a change of this order is good enough for Rick Scott, it ought to be good enough for Henry McMaster.
Sanford, who represents coastal Charleston, was critical of McMaster last week for not being “more vocal” after the initial announcement the Trump administration would implement a five year plan to make over 90 percent of the nation’s Outer Continental Shelf Acreage available for oil and gas leasing.
McMaster has long been on the record opposing offshore drilling, Sanford reasoned — and, given McMaster’s relationships within the Trump administration dating back to the 2016 presidential primary, the governor should have no trouble using his clout to protect the state’s coast.
But McMaster was facing, and continues to face, a delicate political dynamic at home based on diverse geographical interests.
Republicans along the coast don’t want to open their communities to practices they fear could negatively impact the environment and disrupt tourism communities.
“I represent a district that is heavily reliant on tourism,” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., of Myrtle Beach. “While oil drilling continues to improve to lower the risk of disaster, that risk cannot be eliminated.”
Republicans in the more conservative, landlocked Upstate more overwhelmingly want South Carolina to be a part of a larger push towards U.S. energy independence.
“Gov. McMaster has every right to advocate for what he believes, but unlike Florida which has largely been opposed to exploration off their coast, the issue has considerably more support in our state,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan, R-S.C., who supports offshore drilling and is now advocating for the practice as a new member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
McMaster will have to appeal to both of these constituencies as early as the June 12 gubernatorial primary.
In some ways, Florida’s Scott might have given coastal Republican governors an opening to advocate on behalf of the interests of their state, but it’s not clear whether it will work elsewhere.
It’s not clear whether McMaster’s lobbying will be a political benefit. The Democratic Governors Association issued a particularly scathing statement.
“After days of silence and inaction, Governor McMaster finally woke up to the threat of Trump’s offshore drilling plan,” said DGA deputy press secretary Alex Japko. “Instead of proactively taking steps to stand up for his state, McMaster was caught flat-footed. South Carolina voters deserve to know why Florida got a carveout and not South Carolina.”
Deal wasn’t getting a pass in Georgia, either.
“While we commend Governor Deal’s announcement, the adverse impacts of offshore drilling to Georgia’s coastline should elicit more than just concern,” said Diane Hoskins, campaign director at Oceana, in a statement.
Avery Wilks of The State contributed.