NAVARRE, Fla. — When the Trump administration announced plans this year to ease the offshore drilling ban and then quickly retreated when it came to Florida’s coast, Gov. Rick Scott took credit for backing the president away from the idea.
But Democrats said it was all orchestrated to bolster the Republican governor’s environmental credentials ahead of his anticipated bid to unseat three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson.
The tiff foreshadowed the now fully engaged battle between the two men. The environmental issue once again is prominent as the red tide — and its foul surface slicks that starve marine life of oxygen — spreads across the waters in the state’s southwestern coast.
Environmental politics have serious sway in Florida, where offshore drilling and endangered species restrictions regularly roil races — complicated by special carve-out zones used by the heavy U.S. military presence for practice along the panhandle’s coast and inlets.
“These things can prove a house of cards,” said Carolyn Ketchel, chairwoman of the Okaloosa County Commission just east of Navarre. “We couldn’t maintain the economy of northwest Florida. It would be dramatically impacted if the military left for western spots or tourism collapsed.”
The Scott campaign and allied political action committees have taken in close to $1 million in contributions from energy companies and executives, according to campaign finance records. Mr. Scott has also attended two out-of-state fundraisers this year at which oil and gas executives studded the guest lists.
In response, the Scott campaign noted that Mr. Nelson has also accepted contributions from the energy sector and accused the senator of flip-flopping because his current position of an absolute ban on offshore drilling clashes with his willingness to allow limited exploration when it was President Obama, rather than President Trump, floating the proposition.
Mr. Scott said he deserves credit for backing the Trump administration away from plans to curtail a moratorium on any drilling within 125 miles of the Florida coast.
Mr. Nelson’s re-election campaign, on the other hand, scoffs at the notion that the move was anything but a temporary sop from Mr. Trump to his favored Senate candidate. What’s more, Mr. Scott’s apparent fondness for the environment is newfound, according to Mr. Nelson’s campaign, which points to his initial run for governor in 2010 during which Mr. Scott said he was in favor of responsible drilling.
Mr. Scott’s team said there is no ambiguity in his stance on the issue.
“The governor has been 100 percent clear: He does not support oil drilling off the Florida coast for any reason,” campaign spokeswoman Lauren Schenone told The Washington Times.
“Let’s remember — Bill Nelson was the only Gulf Coast senator to not co-sponsor the moratorium on oil drilling,” Ms. Schenone said. “It’s also a fact that when Obama needed the support, it was Bill Nelson who was willing to put partisan politics first and change his position to support oil drilling closer to Florida’s shores. Now, because of Gov. Scott’s efforts, offshore drilling is off the table, but Bill Nelson refuses to celebrate, or even accept, this reality.”
The Nelson campaign twice professed itself eager to discuss environmental issues but ultimately did not respond to questions from The Washington Times.
Federal officials announced Florida’s exemption in early January, shortly after a meeting involving Mr. Scott and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in Tallahassee.
The oil moratorium wins praise from the panhandle, where Ms. Ketchel and local business people say the 125-mile offshore buffer is as important for dollars as it is for the environment. The area is much more than the home of the Blue Angels, the Navy’s precision flying team based in Pensacola.
Locals also fear a reduction in military bases near the open water and barrier islands, where the Pentagon conducts sensitive training exercises. The bases have long provided an identity for the area and its veteran residents.
Environmental issues also hurt the fishing industry, and Destin harbors the nation’s largest state- and federal-permitted charter fishing fleet with more than 125 vessels.
Ben O’Connor, a panhandle native and skipper of the charter fishing boat 100 Proof, said most of the people he knows in the industry oppose all offshore drilling, even though the rigs often bring a surfeit of fish. But they also bring tar and other deposits that can ruin beaches and, with them, the tourism upon which the charter fleet depends.
“We had a couple of rigs around here in the ‘80s, and we had tar on the beaches,” Mr. O’Connor said, though he acknowledged that those rigs were much closer to shore than 150 miles.
At the moment, the closest rigs are off Mobile Bay, far enough from the Emerald Coast that the white powdered sand remains pristine. However Mr. O’Connor said the “loop current,” which forces the water in the Gulf of Mexico clockwise from the Yucatan Peninsula, could push the oil lost from any offshore disaster right on to shore.
But when the question arises whether Mr. O’Connor thinks one Florida politician is superior to another on environmental issues, the panhandle native scoffs.
“I don’t think any of them ever do anything,” he said.
Indeed, just what can be done about the red tide, which is a periodic menace to sectors of the Gulf Coast, isn’t clear, but there is no doubt that this year’s infestation drifting in a 150-mile stretch below Tampa Bay is particularly severe. While it remains an inchoate fear along the panhandle’s fabled Emerald Coast, which includes Grayton Beach State Park and other white-sand idylls that dot annual “best beaches in U.S.” lists, noxious marine growths have put a serious dent in tourism farther south in the Gulf.
Mr. Scott declared a state of emergency last week for seven counties impacted by the red tide while funneling nearly $1.5 million to counties and Florida’s tourism marketing corporation. In the panhandle alone, tourism packs a $4 billion annual economic punch, according to a study last year by the Walton Tourist Development Council.
Even before those steps, however, Mr. Nelson has spent the summer pointing blame at Mr. Scott’s tenure for surges in red tide and toxic algae that has left carpets of dead fish on some southwestern beaches and raised alarm in Lake Okeechobee. By cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from Florida’s water management system, Mr. Scott’s policies have contributed to excessive runoffs and other factors that have polluted Florida’s southwestern coast, Florida Democrats say.
The marine trouble is perhaps an even bigger issue in the race to succeed the term-limited Mr. Scott in the governor’s mansion than it is in the Senate campaign, but that hasn’t stopped Mr. Nelson and Mr. Scott from trading barbs on the issue.
“Now you put all that together, and ultimately that’s what you’re going to get,” Mr. Nelson said. “You’re going to get excess nutrients in the waterways in Florida, and that’s going to cause algae to grow, and that’s going to give us the terrible environmental problems we have now.”
While Mr. Scott has “invested record amounts in Florida’s environment,” Ms. Schenone said, it is Mr. Nelson who dropped the ball, given three decades ago Mr. Nelson was running campaign adds vowing to “clean up Lake Okeechobee.”
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