— -- Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke is facing a political backlash from state governors and congressional lawmakers after announcing he would take Florida out of a plan to expand offshore oil drilling off to more than 90 percent of the nation's coastline.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders Thursday denied Zinke's action was a political favor.
"I'm not aware of any political favor that that would have been part of. So, no," Sanders said.
Just last week, when Interior officials announced the drilling expansion, they said there would be a lengthy process of meetings and public comment before the draft plan was finalized.
But on Tuesday night Zinke tweeted he would remove Florida from the plan after flying to Tallahassee to meet with Gov. Rick Scott.
And in a statement Zinke said, "I support the governor's position that Florida is unique and its coasts are heavily reliant on tourism as an economic driver."
Scott spoke out quickly against the plan before it was officially announced and Zinke told the Washington Post on Wednesday that Scott also contacted him in writing and that he felt an obligation to respond because they worked together personally on the federal response to Hurricane Irma.
Governors from several other coastal states quickly cried foul and said that they also wanted their states exempted as well.
Zinke told the Post that meeting was the first in a "series of conversations" with other governors from both parties but as of Wednesday morning his spokesperson said they had not received requests from any governors and did not know if he had any other meetings scheduled.
On Thursday at least two of those governors, the governor of North Carolina and the governor-elect of Virginia have now written to Zinke requesting a meeting to discuss taking their states out of the plan. Both say that increasing offshore drilling would hurt tourism in their states, the same reason Zinke gave for exempting Florida. The congressional delegation from New Jersey also wrote to Zinke asking him to visit the state and reconsider including it in the plan to expand drilling.
Senators representing coastal states also expressed outrage over Zinke's treatment of Florida.
"I think that when we're talking about leadership of this country, we should treat all states as equals and we should not be selective and we shouldn't play political games," Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., noted that Zinke mentioned in his Florida statement that he was considering "the local and state voice" when it came to the new offshore drilling policy.
"Look. Local voices have already spoken about this in Virginia and said we don't want it. So we're entitled to the same exception and we're going to fight until we get it," he said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., claimed the decision was a political stunt in a speech on the Senate floor and said he has filed a bill to permanently ban drilling off the coast of Florida.
"When last week the Secretary of the Interior, Sec. Zinke, announced that they were opening up nearly all federal waters, including all of those around Florida, we of course went in to fighting mode again - and we will fight this and it will be defeated. But now it turns out, madam president, that that was just a political stunt because late yesterday, one day after officially publishing the plan in the federal register, Secretary Zinke flew to Florida, met with the governor of Florida for 20 minutes at the Tallahassee Airport, and suddenly announced that he had not decided to quote "take Florida off the table." It sounds like a political stunt," Nelson said on the floor Wednesday.
Another Democrat, Rep. Ted Lieu from California, suggested that Zinke's decision could bring legal challenges.