Members of Congress from both parties and both coasts have intensified their opposition to the Trump administration's plan to open almost all of America's outer continental shelf to energy exploration.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) joined eight New England Democrats and an independent on Thursday to introduce legislation barring offshore drilling along the New England coast. The Senate group, led by Democratic Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, said its proposed New England Coastal Protection Act would block any drilling that put "vital coastline at risk and threaten[ed] a central economic engine for New England."
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) introduced companion legislation in the House.
"The waters off Maine's coast provide a healthy ecosystem for our state's fisheries and support a vigorous tourism industry, both of which support thousands of jobs and generate billions of dollars in revenue for Maine each year," said a statement from Collins and Sen. Angus King, an independent. "With our environment so closely tied to the vitality of Maine's economy, we cannot risk the health of our ocean on a shortsighted proposal that could impact Maine people for generations."
Thirty-seven Democratic senators from coastal states, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, sent a letter of opposition Tuesday to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who developed the drilling plan. The lawmakers said they "object to sacrificing public trust, community safety, and economic security for the interests of the oil industry."
Also Tuesday, Zinke convened a hastily assembled news conference to announce that he'd withdrawn Florida's coast from the risks of offshore drilling. The exemption, said environmental lawyers, weakened the legal authority of the drilling plan, and prompted new voices of opposition.
Georgia Republican Gov. Nathan Deal issued a statement that he "has some concerns with opening up Georgia's pristine coastlines" and will convey his views to Georgia's congressional delegation.
The Interior Department did not respond to requests for a response. But on Tuesday, anticipating that exempting Florida's outer continental shelf from exploration would prompt a vigorous reaction from coastal leaders, Zinke promised to meet with governors.
"I will no doubt talk to every governor," he said. "It doesn't matter to me whether you're Republican or Democrat. This is going to be a long process. This is going to be at least a year with public comment. We have to get it right, look at the geology, look at the science."
The list of governors who already expressed their opposition to offshore drilling includes those from California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia and Washington.
Oceana, an ocean protection group headquartered in Washington, D.C., prepared an informal survey of elected leaders of both parties who have tweeted their opposition since the administration introduced its offshore plan. Oceana found that 15 of the 23 coastal state governors voiced opposition.
In announcing the offshore oil drilling plan last week, Zinke said it was intended to make the U.S. "the strongest energy superpower." But the exemption of Florida — whose GOP governor objected to the plan — stirred more Republicans to protest the proposal. It has become the rare instance of aggressive political pushback from Republican elected leaders to a major policy initiative by the president.
Environmental lawyers say that exempting Florida from any new offshore drilling weakens the legal foundation of the proposal because it could appear to be "arbitrary and capricious." The U.S. Administrative Procedure Act requires federal agencies to undertake actions that are rational, clearly thought out, based on documented evidence, and not subject to political whims.
"They have a long process ahead where they can try to cure this legal violation, but anything they do will be highly suspect," said Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Any judge who looks at a final program that exposes some states to drill risks and lets Florida off the hook is going to be skeptical about whether that decision was made in compliance with the law."