After Florida, more states press U.S. for offshore drilling exemptions

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Governors and other officials from several U.S. coastal states ramped up pressure on the Trump administration on Wednesday to exempt their waters from an offshore drilling plan, hours after the Interior Department granted Florida’s request to opt out.

The backlash could complicate President Donald Trump’s efforts to expand oil and gas production offshore. A proposed leasing plan unveiled last week aims to open up all U.S. coasts to drillers over the next five years. Alaska and Maine are the only two U.S. states whose governors have expressed support for the plan.

The governors of Delaware, North Carolina and South Carolina on Tuesday were seeking meetings with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to press their case that drilling would pose significant risks to coastal tourism, while other state representatives issued sharply worded tweets.

“Tourism and recreation along the Delaware coastline account for billions in economic activity each year, and support tens of thousands of jobs,” Governor John Carney of Delaware, a Democrat, said on Twitter Wednesday.

“New York doesn’t want drilling off our coast either. Where do we sign up for a waiver @SecretaryZinke?” wrote New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, also a Democrat.

Zinke had announced late Tuesday that he was removing Florida state waters from the proposed offshore drilling plan at the request of Governor Rick Scott, who argued that drilling poses a threat to Florida’s tourism.

In the announcement, Zinke called Scott, a fellow Republican, a “straightforward leader that can be trusted.”

On Wednesday, Zinke told the Washington Post that he will talk to every governor affected by the offshore drilling proposal.

“It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re Republican or Democrat. This is going to be a long process,” he told the newspaper.

The Interior Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Sierra Weaver, a lawyer for the Southern Environmental Law Center, said Zinke’s move was a breach of protocol that will put the Interior Department on shaky legal footing if the secretary doesn’t treat other coastal states in the same way.

“It seems incredibly hard to justify or explain that this is anything other than arbitrary or capricious,” said Weaver.

Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress and former deputy chief of staff under Obama’s Interior Department, said Zinke’s action by Tweet could undermine his five-year offshore plan.

“Offshore drilling decisions in the United States are, by law, supposed to be guided by science, public input, and a careful balancing of environmental and energy needs,” he said.

Governor Roy Cooper of North Carolina, also a Democrat, Tweeted on Tuesday morning “Not Off Our Coast,” with a link to Zinke’s Tuesday night decision on Florida. A source with knowledge of the matter said Cooper was also trying to arrange a meeting with Zinke.

South Carolina’s Republican Governor Henry McMaster on Wednesday issued a statement asking for a meeting with Zinke to protect his state’s coastline.

Writing by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by David Gregorio and Lisa Shumaker