The federal official overseeing offshore drilling policy said there has been no "official decision" that Florida is off the table, contradicting a public announcement by his boss, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Florida's waters are "still part of the analysis until the secretary gives us an official decision otherwise," Walter Cruickshank, the acting director at the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said at a House subcommittee hearing on Friday.
Democrats have charged Zinke's announcement that Florida would be removed from the Outer Continental Shelf Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program plan was a "political stunt" to help Rick Scott, the state's Republican governor who President Donald Trump has urged to run for the Senate seat currently held by Democrat Bill Nelson.
It all began when BOEM and Interior released a plan earlier this month that proposed opening nearly every US coastline for drilling leases. Scott nearly immediately blasted the plan and demanded a meeting with Zinke, who traveled to Florida and announced that he believes Florida's tourism-driven economy makes it a "unique case."
Zinke's statement said he was "removing Florida from the draft offshore plan," and later said Florida would not be under "consideration for any new oil and gas platforms."
Other states immediately demanded the same treatment, and Zinke has been meeting with various governors.
Any allegations of political motivations are "wrong," Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift told CNN.
"Cruikshank simply said BOEM will finish the legally-required analysis of the planning areas, as is always done for all planning areas," she said.
Several members of Congress asked Cruickshank to clarify how BOEM is approaching the Florida coast. Cruickshank said Zinke's statement, made on social media, "stands on its own" and "is not a formal action."
"So there has been no formal action to remove Florida from the offshore drilling plan as of right now?" asked Rep. Darren Soto, a Florida Democrat.
Cruickshank replied that options for and the impacts of drilling off of the Florida coast will be included "in the analysis" presented to Zinke later this year.
Nelson's office called the statements a "stunning admission" that "confirms what many Florida lawmakers ... had suspected all along."
"Secretary Zinke's tweet either represents official policy, in which case he'll lose in court, or it doesn't, in which case he shouldn't have announced it in the first place," said Rep. Ra-l Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee.
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