Bill Nelson Was Okay With Offshore Drilling When Obama Proposed It

Nelson gave okay to 2010 proposal for new drilling 125 miles off Florida coast

Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) / Getty Images
January 16, 2018

Florida senator Bill Nelson (D.) is labeling himself as a career-long opponent to drilling off his state's coast, but he briefly dropped his guard during former president Barack Obama's first term.

Nelson, facing reelection this November, was "fuming" last week after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced he was reversing plans to open up Florida's coast to drilling and said the decision was made at the urging of Republican governor Rick Scott, his possible November opponent.

Nelson took to the Senate floor to call the announcement a "political stunt" and brag that he's been fighting offshore drilling since he was in the House of Representatives in the 1980s. He told Zinke in a letter he's "fought to keep drilling away from Florida's coasts for decades now" and put out a separate statement to reporters portraying himself as the last line of defense for the coasts.

"There are no oil rigs off Florida’s coast, and as long as I’m around there will not be," Nelson said. "We’ve been at this battle now three decades, ever since I was congressman."

Nelson's opposition to drilling off Florida's coast, however, hasn't been as consistent as he portrays—in 2010, he shocked environmentalists when he threw his support behind an Obama administration proposal for drilling 125 miles from Florida.

"I've talked many times to [Interior Department] Secretary [Ken] Salazar and told him if they drilled too close to Florida's beaches they'd be risking the state's economy and the environment," Nelson said on March 31, 2010, according to the St. Petersburg Times. "I believe this plan shows they heeded that concern."

He defended his reversal by pointing to agreement from a former state environment official.

"Also okay with the deal is former Florida DEP chief Carol Browner, now assistant to the president for energy and climate change," Nelson said. "She said in a conference call that the 125-mile buffer is good protection for the state."

The Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that environmentalists felt "betrayed" by Nelson.

"For most of the past decade Sen. Bill Nelson has been a leader in repelling attempts to drill for oil off Florida," the paper wrote. "But on Wednesday, just as Obama announced plans to allow rigs 125 miles from Sarasota—100 miles closer than currently allowed—Nelson gave his tacit approval to the deal."

"That was the real surprise," said Environment Florida's Adam Rivera. "I have never seen the membership of my organization so upset. They are angry at President Obama, and those who are aware that Senator Nelson apparently supports President Obama's plan, feel betrayed."

Nelson's office told reporters the senator was part of the planning process and convinced the White House to adopt a 125-mile buffer zone, which he believed was enough to protect Florida from ecological impacts.

Exactly three weeks after Nelson announced his support for the drilling plan came the April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that spewed 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Though it was located more than 125 miles from the coast, the oil reached the Florida coast.

The Obama administration responded by rescinding its March proposal to allow for new drilling in the Gulf. Nelson had signaled to the administration after the spill that he no longer could support the plan.

Asked for comment on Nelson's 2010 support for Obama's plan to open up drilling off Florida's coast, Nelson’s Senate office denied he ever supported the plan.

"He’s never endorsed such a plan," said Ryan Brown, Nelson's communications director. "Sen. Nelson has been fighting to keep oil rigs away from Florida’s coast his entire life."

Follow-up questions asked about his 2010 statement and reporting by the Sarasota Herald Tribune on Nelson's support for the Obama plan did not impact Brown.

"Nelson never endorsed such a plan," Brown said in a second email.