President Trump is aiming to make an election-season green pivot: painting himself as the best environmentalist the White House has seen — with his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, an incompetent failure.
The fulcrum of the pivot arrived yesterday, when Trump went to the crucial swing state of Florida to ban offshore drilling in the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the Atlantic coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
It was an unprecedented action for his administration — one that will reverse Trump's own 2017 proposal to open nearly the entire U.S. coast to drilling rigs at the request of oil and natural gas proponents.
The memorandum also goes much further than the nonbinding executive order that skeptics were initially expecting.
But in taking such an extreme measure, Trump is seeking to present a rounded-out environmental agenda that was heavily cemented in the latter part of his first term.
It includes signing the Great American Outdoors Act, reversing his proposal to defund the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, placing a new emphasis on cleaning up Superfund sites and signing the U.S. onto the worldwide Trillion Trees Initiative.
"As president, I'll defend our environment. I'll defend our workers and our cherished way of life," Trump declared in Jupiter, Fla., yesterday.
"The contrast between our vision and the radical left has never been more clear. They talk a big game, and they do nothing," he continued. "That's really what it is, too. They talk and talk. The environment, they talk and talk — nothing happens, it's all talk. It's all words and no action."
In August, Trump forwent the opportunity during his Republican National Convention speech to tout his environmental accomplishments despite advice from supporters that he should at least mention the Great American Outdoors Act, the "holy grail" of conservation legislation of the last half-decade.
Now, less than two months before the election as he narrowly trails Biden in the polls, Trump is looking to boost his environmental credentials to flip the script on his challenger and left-wing greens who see him as the most anti-environment president in history.
Critics cite among Trump's greatest offenses since entering office in 2017 his withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the rollback of greenhouse gas standards for cars, his undoing of President Obama's Clean Power Plan and his support for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
He's installed industry lobbyists and allies in key government positions, sidelined scientists, and made it more difficult to protect imperiled species. These actions, they say, can and will hurt Trump in November.
Gina McCarthy, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, called Trump's move an attempt to manipulate Florida voters.
"If President Trump wanted to protect the state's beaches and waters from destruction, he would deep-six his five-year leasing plan to open up every coast in the country for drilling," said McCarthy, who served as the EPA administrator from 2013 to 2017, when Biden was vice president.
"The best way to protect Florida's coasts — and our children's future — is to vote Trump out of the White House and Joe Biden in," she added.
Biden called the announcement a political stunt and pledged, if elected, to stop all new permits for oil and gas extraction on federal land and waters.
"Just months ago, Donald Trump was planning to allow oil and gas drilling off the coast of Florida," he tweeted. "Now, with 56 days until the election, he conveniently says that he changed his mind. Unbelievable."
House Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said Trump's announcement was the result of caving to public pressure.
"The administration took one step today in what needs to be a much longer journey," Grijalva said in a statement.
"Americans overwhelmingly support clean energy, oppose tax breaks for polluting industries, demand protections for public lands and waters, and prefer a cleaner, more sustainable economy than the one we have now. As we see today, getting the Trump administration to listen to these reasonable demands requires constant public pressure."
In his remarks yesterday, Trump gave no strong hints for his rationale behind issuing the offshore drilling moratorium beyond the fact that he was doing it.
He told Floridians the ban would "protect your beautiful Gulf and your beautiful ocean" and referenced conversations with Republican Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Brian Kemp of Georgia and Henry McMaster of South Carolina, respectively.
"Thanks to my administration's pro-American energy policies, we can take this step and the next step while remaining the No. 1 producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world," Trump added.
But regardless of the reasons behind Trump's decision, he might have just upended Democratic talking points.
Democrats have spent considerable time over the years criticizing Trump for not taking local opposition to offshore drilling seriously. There is little they can say to criticize, at face value, the actions the president took yesterday.
And while Trump might have helped his own standing in Florida and Georgia, he might have given a boost to down-ballot Republicans as well.
In excluding South Carolina from new drilling leases, he gave a loyal ally, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a chance to boast of his influence over the administration as he faces a surprisingly competitive Democratic challenger, Jaime Harrison.
"When I first learned that there would be an extension of the ban on drilling off the Florida coast, I contacted South Carolina officials to gauge their interest," Graham said in a statement.
"After receiving positive feedback from Governor McMaster and state leaders, I led an effort to ensure President Trump included South Carolina in the announcement."
Trump also invited to his Florida signing ceremony South Carolina state Rep. Nancy Mace, the Republican candidate running to unseat Rep. Joe Cunningham, the Democratic incumbent whose anti-drilling stance helped carry him to victory in 2018 and who continues to make this his signature issue.
Miami-Dade County, Fla., Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican who is trying to oust Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell (D), was in attendance, too.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, Cunningham and Mucarsel-Powell were quick to spin the announcement as the reason why Congress must pass legislation permanently banning offshore drilling — legislation that Cunningham sponsored and Mucarsel-Powell voted for on the House floor last year.
"As quickly as the president changed his mind on offshore drilling two months before an election, he could change his mind right back the day after the election," Cunningham said.
"The only way we can make sure our coasts are safe for future generations and give coastal communities the certainty they deserve is to pass my bipartisan legislation to permanently ban offshore drilling."
"Why sign an executive order [that can be reversed] when you can pass a bipartisan law to ban drilling off Florida's shores?" Mucarsel-Powell tweeted. "I don't trust Trump, esp. When we've already seen his plan for offshore drilling starting after the election. This is temporary, self-serving and weak."
It's not yet clear how this argument will play with voters.
Trump has also complicated the political dynamics inside his party's own reliable base.
As Democrats sought yesterday to remind the public that Trump was looking to cover his failed environmental record with a belated fig leaf, stakeholders in the oil and gas industry were struggling with how to respond to an action they oppose by an administration with which they'd been largely friendly.
Lem Smith, the American Petroleum Institute's vice president of upstream policy, called it the "wrong move at the wrong time."
The Consumer Energy Alliance expressed "disappointment" over the moratorium, which it said would thwart small businesses and ignore voter support for oil and gas in the states most affected by a drilling ban, like Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.
"At a time when all 50 states and the federal government are struggling to regain lost revenues as we recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not the time to extend overly restrictive policies that limit U.S. oil, gas and wind opportunities in the Gulf," said CEA President David Holt, whose organization advocated for a long-term compromise with Congress and the administration that would allow development.
Still, some oil supporters viewed a sensible move ahead of a contentious, and possibly difficult, election.
Dan Eberhart, CEO of drilling services company Canary LLC, said most of the oil and gas industry would see the political necessity of the moratorium and would not read it as an environmental turn from the White House or a signifier of broader policy goals.
"Trump needs Florida," Eberhart said. "It makes sense not to drill in your own backyard when you are going to need the support of your neighbors."
And some oil and gas advocates were reluctant to immediately rebuke the president directly or criticize his record of support for fossil fuel interests.
"IPAA will continue to work with the Administration to provide for sound offshore development policies in the future," the Independent Petroleum Association of America said in a statement.
Ultimately, Trump's move yesterday represents one of the biggest policy reversals of his presidency.
In 2018, as part of his "energy dominance" agenda, Trump's Interior Department proposed allowing drilling in the eastern Gulf and along the entire Pacific and Atlantic coasts, as well as all around Alaska.
The proposal was in line with what the oil and natural gas industry has long wanted, along with most of the Republican Party — save for some coastal lawmakers and virtually every GOP member of the Florida congressional delegation.
"This is a start on looking at American energy dominance," then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said, adding that the plan would make the U.S. "the strongest energy superpower" (Greenwire, Jan. 4, 2018).
But the move faced immediate political backlash. Leaders all along the coasts, of both parties, resisted, and Zinke soon said waters near Florida were off the table — a promise whose exact limits were unclear.
By 2019, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the plan was on hold, blaming a ruling in Alaska's federal court that said the administration couldn't undo Obama's ban on Arctic Ocean drilling — which used the same authority Trump used yesterday. Administration attorneys are still appealing that ruling, claiming such bans are not binding on future presidents.
Trump boasted about his 2018 proposal as recently as July. "We opened up ANWR in Alaska to energy exploration, ended the moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands, and reopened public lands and offshore areas to oil and gas exploration," Trump said in a Texas speech on energy policy.
In his speech yesterday, Trump did not recount his personal or political journey on this issue, and the elected officials who joined him onstage were only there to smile and applaud.
"Who would have thought Trump is the great environmentalist?" Trump asked. "And I am. I am. I strongly believe in it."
This story also appears in Energywire.