President Trump said Tuesday he will extend a 2012 moratorium on oil drilling off Florida and the Southeast coast, reversing the administration’s previous intention to open more of the continental shelf to exploration.

At a campaign event in Jupiter, Fla., Trump said he would sign a presidential order extending the moratorium, which presently would expire in June 2022. It’s a setback to the offshore oil industry’s hope of obtaining leases in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, and more distant prospects for exploring off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia.

The turnaround comes as the Trump campaign and Republicans look at poll numbers and improving prospects for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Opposition to offshore oil development has long been a bipartisan issue in Florida, after the Deepwater Horizon blowout and spill damaged Gulf of Mexico fisheries and Panhandle beaches.

Administration officials have backpedaled before on opening the eastern Gulf to oil leasing. In January 2018 then-Gov. Rick Scott insisted waters near Florida be exempted from the Department of Interior’s leasing plans, and then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke complied – again in a move seen as improving Republican election prospects.

Still, offshore energy advocates expressed surprise at Trump’s announcement.

“It’s a complete ambush,” an energy industry official told Politico. “Nobody knows where this came from. It totally seems like a campaign sort of thing.”

Despite previous insistence that more offshore areas be opened to ensure “energy dominance,” Trump portrayed the turn as an affordable modification.

“Thanks to my administration’s pro-American energy policies, we can take this step and the next step while remaining the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world,” he said.

Former president Barack Obama similarly used executive power to take some offshore Alaska waters out of lease planning, which so far has stymied the Trump administration’s attempts to open those areas.

Trump’s move toward extending the moratorium off South Carolina could shore up electoral support in that state. Coastal and tourism industry leaders in the Lowcountry region have lobbied against offshore oil exploration, while some inland state Republicans saw it as an opportunity for job growth.

Florida offshore drilling opponent Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, D-Fla., predicted the administration is preparing a bait-and-switch.

“He has clearly signaled that he will reverse this announcement shortly after the election and allow for drilling,” Mucarsel-Powell said in a statement. “There is no greater threat to our environment than this administration, and the blatant greenwashing of his campaign is nothing but a scheme.”

Industry advocates continued to press their case. Erik Milito, president of the National Offshore Industries Association, said “daily experience in the Western and Central Gulf of Mexico shows how offshore production goes hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship, national defense and other industries, including fishing and tourism.”

“Our preference should always be to produce homegrown American energy, instead of deferring future production to countries like Russia and Iran, which do not share American values,” said Milito. “Limiting access to our offshore energy resources only shortchanges America and dulls our national outlook.”

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Associate Editor Kirk Moore was a reporter for the Asbury Park Press for more than 30 years and a 25-year field editor for National Fisherman before joining our Commercial Marine editorial staff in 2015. He wrote several award-winning stories on marine, environmental, coastal and military issues that helped drive federal and state government policy changes. Moore was awarded the Online News Association 2011 Knight Award for Public Service for the “Barnegat Bay Under Stress,” 2010 series that led to the New Jersey state government’s restoration plan. He lives in West Creek, N.J.

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