Reversing course ahead of election, Trump extends drilling ban off Florida

JUPITER, Fla. (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an order to extend a ban until 2032 on offshore oil drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico off Florida as he seeks to win support in the state ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters prior to boarding Air Force One as he departs Washington for campaign travel to Florida and North Carolina at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., September 8, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The executive order, which would also expand the ban to Florida’s Atlantic coast and to the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina, was met with an unusual mix of disappointment from a drilling industry group and skepticism by environmentalists.

“This protects your beautiful Gulf and your beautiful ocean, and it will for a long time to come,” the Republican president said in front of Florida’s Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum after signing an executive order while officials from the three states watched.

While interest in offshore drilling has waned with lackluster oil demand during the novel coronavirus pandemic, the order could be reversed by a future president.

The Trump administration - which has worked to expand U.S. oil and gas drilling and roll back Obama-era rules on pollution from fossil fuels - originally wanted to expand offshore drilling off many of America’s coasts, including Florida.

But proposals for drilling off Florida prompted fierce opposition from tourism, real estate, and environmental interests.

Trump, who narrowly beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016, faces a tough race this year against Democrat Joe Biden. An NBC/Marist poll on Tuesday showed Trump and Biden tied in Florida with each getting the support of 48 percent of likely voters. Florida is one of several states considered crucial in the election that Trump is slated to visit this week.

The moratorium on drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico was set to expire in 2022. Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has a bill to extend it through 2027, said earlier this year he expected Trump to back his proposed extension.

Biden opposes new permits for drilling in federal lands and waters. The former vice president said that Trump has refused to listen to scientists on climate change and his environmental record has mostly been about eliminating rules on clean air and water and opening up public lands to drilling.

“Just months ago, Donald Trump was planning to allow oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida,” Biden wrote on Twitter. “Now ... he conveniently says that he changed his mind.”

The National Ocean Industries Association, an industry group, complained that the move limits production of domestic energy and raw materials for plastics, such as those used for protection against the coronavirus.

Environmentalists were dubious that the move represented real change. Jaclyn Lopez, a Florida native with the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, said “this desperate political stunt won’t make Floridians forget that Trump was the one that proposed opening our state to drilling in the first place.”

Reporting by Jeff Mason, Timothy Gardner and Nichola Groom; Editing by Richard Chang/Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool