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So Goes the Build Back Better Plan, So Goes Offshore Drilling in Florida?

Todd Carney's picture
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Todd Carney is a graduate of Harvard Law School. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Public Communications. He writes on many different aspects of energy, in particular how it...

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  • Dec 30, 2021

Over the last few weeks, the Build Back Better (BBB) legislation has dominated much of the political news cycle. But the coverage has largely focused on the overall size of the bill, and whether President Joe Biden and his allies have the votes needed to pass the BBB. Although it could take a while to sort out the legislative process around the bill, it is important to focus on the substance of the bill. Biden is using a lot of political capital to try to pass this bill, so it could be his biggest achievement, if it passes. While the BBB covers many areas, in terms of energy related policies, perhaps the most consequential one has been the proposal to ban offshore drilling in federal waters. In particular how this policy could impact Florida. 

The Contentious Issue of Offshore Drilling in Florida

The debate over the BBB is not the first time the ban on offshore drilling in FL has come up. From the 1940s through 1970s, offshore drilling occurred in FL’s waters. In the 1980s, voters started opposing offshore drilling nationwide, including in FL. Voters were concerned about impact on their environment, along with the threats to tourism.

This opposition led to FL banning offshore drilling in waters that they controlled in 1992. Voters codified this ban in 2018, when they passed a ballot initiative that made the ban part of FL’s constitution. 

Despite these actions from FL, offshore drilling remains an issue in FL because three nautical miles off the coast, the area is considered “federal waters”, so the federal government controls drilling there. Despite these waters’ distance from FL’s coast, if a drilling accident occurred, it could impact FL’s waters, and then their tourism industry.

Starting in the 1980s, the federal government started prohibiting offshore drilling in most places, including Florida. Congress would pass a moratorium each year. Additionally in 1990, President George HW Bush enacted an executive moratorium on offshore drilling. When President Bill Clinton took office, he extended the moratorium through 2012.

In 2006, Congress overrode part of the overall moratorium by passing the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA). The bill opened up drilling in parts of the Gulf of Mexico, but did put a moratorium in federal waters off the coast of FL through 2022. 

President Barack Obama considered allowing offshore drilling in FL, among other places, but reversed his position amid the British Petroleum spill. During President Donald Trump’s administration, Trump considered expanding offshore oil drilling in Florida twice. Trump first got rebuffed in 2018 by FL Republicans. Then in 2020, Trump seemingly backed off due to FL’s status as a swing state. Trump even went as far as issuing an executive order that kept the moratorium in place until 2032.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order early in his administration that backed up Trump’s moratorium on offshore drilling in FL.

Florida Offshore Drilling and the Build Back Better Plan

The BBB has many ambitious overarching policies. Given how big Biden and his allies were looking to go in the bill, Florida Democrats moved to build support for including a ban on offshore drilling. Congresswoman Kathy Castor helped lead the effort.

Regarding FL, this push might seem redundant because there already is a moratorium on federal offshore drilling in FL. But FL advocates see this as an opportunity to put the issue to rest once and for all. If the ban passes, FL would not be at the whim of whoever is President, nor would they need to repeatedly lobby Congress on extending the moratorium. 

The politics of the BBB puts the policy of banning offshore drilling in an interesting position. Although the leading politicians of FL, such as Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Rick Scott, and Governor Ron DeSantis are all opposed to offshore drilling for FL, they also oppose the BBB. In terms of FL’s members in the US House of Representatives, it is a party line split in terms of Democrats supporting the BBB and Republicans opposing it. 

In the days before West Virginia Democrat Senator Joe Manchin came out against the BBB, in a last ditch effort to woo Manchin, Senate proponents of the BBB cut the ban on offshore drilling. Castor has urged the Senate to restore it, but so far the plea has gone unanswered. 

Despite the fact that Republicans will not support the BBB overall, they may vote for some amendments to it. So some hope that Rubio could at least support an amendment to ban offshore drilling, since he is against it in FL. However, Rubio has said he will only support an amendment that would ban offshore drilling in FL alone.

Other Relevant Legislation

As Congress wrestles with the BBB, members on both sides have proposed similar limitations on offshore drilling in FL. This past July, Rubio, Scott, and FL Republican US House member, Michael Waltz, proposed a bill to legislatively back Trump and Biden’s moratorium through 2032. Castor also worked with 19 US House members from FL to introduce a separate bill to ban offshore drilling in FL. Such a bill passed the last session of Congress, but the Senate did not take it up. Rubio also supports this legislation.

Additionally, Castor is behind two bills that would make offshore drilling more expensive and restrictive in the future. These pieces of legislation protect environmental interests everywhere, but they also defend FL in case there is future offshore drilling in the federal waters off its coast.

For the time being, any legislation to curb offshore drilling is in a precarious position due to the opposition of leading politicians, such as Manchin. Given that Manchin is not only a swing vote in the US Senate, but is also the Chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee, any ban will likely need his support.


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