Oil drilling off Florida’s coast looms on the horizon this election season

With voter attention consumed by crises — the pandemic, racism and a fishtailing economy — a decades-long fight over the future of offshore oil drilling in Florida is approaching a critical point.

Even though the spotlight has faded since the “drill, baby, drill” days of elections past, those who have spent years lobbying say the prospect of new drilling has not seemed nearer since before the Deepwater Horizon spill.

A moratorium on oil leasing in most of the eastern Gulf of Mexico planning area is set to expire in two years. The industry sees this as a tantalizing, long-awaited chance to push closer to the Sunshine State, essentially off-limits since the Ronald Reagan era. Opponents hope to extend the ban and quash the companies’ hopes.

Both sides wonder whether the outcome will hinge on the election. President Donald Trump, a friend of the oil industry, has sought “energy dominance” and more American production. Former Vice President Joe Biden has promised no new offshore drilling anywhere.

The entire Florida congressional delegation opposes drilling here, seeing it as a threat to tourism and military operations.

Trump recently gave his word that waters around the state will remain free of rigs. Without a commitment on paper, though, advocates remain anxious. The president could end the pre-deadline angst, issuing a formal memorandum against new drilling around his home state.

Florida’s senior senator, for one, is not worried. “When all is said and done, I am confident that the ban on oil drilling off of Florida’s coast will remain in place,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, said in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times.

But not everyone is so certain.

U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney, an outgoing Naples Republican, said “Democrats get it,” while “Republicans are really embedded with the energy industry.”

“If Vice President Biden wins, we’ll have some wind at our back on getting it done,” said Rooney, who sponsored a bill that passed the House to make the new drilling ban permanent. It has gained little traction in the Senate. “If the president wanted that to happen, it would happen.”