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Trump courts Florida voters with moratorium on offshore drilling

The Hill logo The Hill 9/9/2020 Rachel Frazin
a large ship in a body of water: Trump courts Florida voters with moratorium on offshore drilling © iStock Trump courts Florida voters with moratorium on offshore drilling

President Trump this week extended and expanded a moratorium on drilling off Florida's coast in an attempt to court voters in a must-win battleground state.

In making the announcement that he would block drilling in coastal Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, the president sought to paint himself as an environmentalist despite repeated efforts to roll back Obama-era protections.

The move underscores the steps Trump is willing to take to improve his reelection prospects and to help Senate Republicans in tough races. In battleground states like Pennsylvania, where Trump also faces a threat from Democratic nominee Joe Biden, he has highlighted his commitment to the oil and gas industry.

"What he's making a play for is to recapture many of the suburbanite and college-educated voters in Florida that this is a key issue to," said Florida-based Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

"What Trump is signaling in Florida is that 'I understand your concerns about water quality,' and for Floridians clean water means a healthy and prosperous economy, particularly because of tourism," he said, adding that "in Florida, prior to COVID[-19], this was one of the biggest issues out there."

Offshore drilling is almost universally opposed by both Democrats and Republicans in Florida after tourism was heavily impacted following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill. A 2018 state amendment to block offshore drilling was also approved by nearly 70 percent of Florida voters.

The state's House delegation - a mix of Democrats and Republicans - has sought to extend the offshore drilling moratorium protecting the state's Gulf waters.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at one point even placed a hold on a Trump nominee - Interior Deputy Secretary Katharine MacGregor - amid concerns over her support for expanded offshore oil drilling. He later voted to confirm her after reassurances that the offshore drilling ban would remain in place.

Trump's order on Tuesday prevents oil and gas drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina until 2032, a decade longer than the congressional moratorium on drilling off Florida's Gulf Coast.

Speaking from Jupiter, Fla., where he made the announcement, Trump was joined by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who faces a competitive race in November as Republicans fight to retain control of the Senate.

Trump's announcement came on the same day an NBC News-Marist poll found him tied with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in the Sunshine State, and a CNBC poll from Wednesday had Biden leading by 3 percentage points. An average from polling aggregator RealClearPolitics had Biden up by about 1 point as of Wednesday afternoon.

During his remarks, Trump sought to portray himself as an environmentalist, saying he's been described as "No. 1 since Teddy Roosevelt."

"We're here today to celebrate our incredible record of natural conservation and environmental protection over the last four years," he said.

But the Trump administration has taken steps to roll back numerous environmental protections, such as replacing the Obama-era Clean Power Plan regulations with a rule that reduced the regulatory burdens on coal-fired power plants, slashing the mileage and emissions standards for automakers and limiting the reach of the federal government to prevent water pollution.

While a ban on offshore drilling has bipartisan support in Florida, the president's opponents nonetheless dismissed the order as a desperate political move that contrasts with his administration's record on the environment.

"After years of rolling back clean water protections and opening up new offshore areas to drilling, Pres Trump tries to fool Floridians right before an election. His exec order could be rescinded at any time, and the oil lobbyists in his admin will ensure that happens," tweeted Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Trump isn't the only one who stands to benefit from the politically popular move.

Graham, a staunch Trump ally who is attempting to fend off a formidable challenge from Democrat Jaime Harrison, took credit Tuesday for getting the order to extend as far up the coast as South Carolina.

The GOP senator said he "led an effort to ensure President Trump included South Carolina in the announcement."

Other states, most of which are led by Democratic governors, have sought to limit offshore drilling but have not been so successful.

Ten East Coast states have sued to try to prevent offshore oil and gas drilling, but only South Carolina has received special treatment from the administration. Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Virginia have not received any similar offshore promises from Trump.

Trump's order follows similar actions meant to benefit vulnerable Republicans.

Earlier this year, Trump reversed his previous desire to slash the budget of the Land and Water Conservation Fund and instead pushed for and signed a bill devoting $900 million to it annually. In doing so, he handed a major legislative victory to Sens. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.), who both face competitive battles for reelection in states where outdoor recreation and conservation play key roles in the economy.

But the president's remarks on Tuesday touting his environmental actions contrast with energy-related comments in battleground states where the oil and gas industry is more popular.

"They want to take your power away. You know what your power is? Your power is the billions of dollars you make on going deep into the Earth and taking out what you have to take out, everything you want, from fracking," Trump said at Old Forge, Pa., as he mischaracterized Biden's energy plan.

In a statement on Trump's moratorium, Sierra Club political director Ariel Hayes accused the president of "greenhouse gaslighting."

"Failing to adequately fund Everglades restoration, attempting to sell off our waters to corporate polluters, and rolling back more than 100 environmental protections doesn't make you anything other than the worst president ever for the environment and climate," Hayes said. "Voters in Florida and across the country have watched Trump achieve this status for nearly four years, and no amount of greenhouse gaslighting will change that."

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