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Your new anti-drilling champion... Donald J. Trump?

Without any warning at all, “Drill, Baby Drill” was just expanded to include the phrase “unless people in some purple states don’t like the idea.”

I’ve mostly given up on the pretense of acting surprised about any curveballs that the 2020 election season throws our way, but as one of the people who cover the oil and gas industry extensively for our network, yesterday’s announcement from the White House even caught me off guard. After several years of walking a tightrope where he’s tried to please both the fossil fuel industry and the ethanol lobby, President Trump announced a sudden change in policy when it comes to new leases for oil exploration. Beginning in 2020, there is to be a moratorium on offshore drilling, though only in one particular area. There will be no drilling for the next decade off of the Atlantic coast of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. File this under “things that make you go hmmm.” (Associated Press)

President Donald Trump expanded a ban on new offshore drilling Tuesday, an election-year reversal likely to appeal to voters in Florida and other coastal states. Two years ago, Trump had taken steps to vastly expand offshore drilling from coast to coast.

“This protects your beautiful gulf and your beautiful ocean, and it will for a long time to come,” Trump said as he announced the expanded drilling ban during an appearance at the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse.

The president signed a memorandum instructing the interior secretary to prohibit drilling in the waters off both Florida coasts, and off the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina for a period of 10 years — from July 1, 2022, to June 20, 2032.

This announcement caught a lot of people in the press by surprise. We knew that Trump was going to Florida to highlight his record on conservation and environmental initiatives. He had planned to talk about the Great American Outdoors Act and a variety of environmental restoration initiatives undertaken by the EPA during his tenure. (Most of which you never hear being mentioned on cable news and you wouldn’t know about unless you subscribe to the EPA’s newsletters.) He was also going to discuss the progress made on cleaning up Superfund toxic waste sites over the past few years, something that EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler brought up in a speech last week commemorating the agency’s 50th anniversary.

But the offshore drilling moratorium came as a surprise, though perhaps it shouldn’t have. Back in 2010, drilling enjoyed the support of a broad swath of Florida voters, But that support has eroded significantly over the subsequent ten years. One poll in 2018 showed that the issue was pretty much a 50-50 split and by 2020, such plans only enjoyed a plurality of support.

Trump may be relatively new to the world of politics, but he can read a poll and sense which way the wind is blowing. Florida is shaping up to be an excruciatingly tight battle for the GOP yet again this November and neither candidate has much of a margin of error. If the President thinks that this might give a few more voters a warm and fuzzy feeling about the attention being paid to the Sunshine State by the White House, it seems fairly obvious that Trump would bait that hook and toss it into the voter pool.

So is this a flip-flop on an important energy issue? Of course it is. And it’s a disappointing one to be sure. But as the old saying goes, you don’t get the chance to govern if you lose the election and the President clearly has his eyes on the prize. As I mentioned above, the President is still fairly new to politics, particularly when compared to his opponent. But it looks like he’s learning the ropes quickly.