AG Grewal Sues for Answers on Offshore Drilling; Accuses Interior Department of Ignoring New Jersey FOIA Request

TRENTON – Continuing to fight against offshore drilling in New Jersey, Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal today sued the U.S. Department of the Interior for failing to answer his Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request asking why Florida—but not New Jersey—was excluded from the Trump Administration’s plan to expand drilling along the eastern seaboard.

On April 6, 2018, Attorney General Grewal submitted a FOIA request seeking all correspondence and internal documents related to any meetings and conversations that took place between the offices of U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Florida Governor Rick Scott in the run-up to the Administration’s announcement in January 2018 that it would exempt Florida from offshore drilling. Press reports at that time indicated that the two may have planned this announcement in tandem.

The Interior Department has so far failed to provide the records sought. On May 30, 2018—after Attorney General Grewal’s office followed up on the FOIA request—the Interior Department said only that a request for “any potentially responsive records” had gone out and that no records had yet been received. Following that May 30 e-mail, there has been no further word from the Department. In other words, after six months, the Department has offered no information to explain the Florida drilling exemption, produced no documents requested by Attorney General Grewal, and provided no timeline for fulfilling the State’s FOIA request.

“The Administration continues to stonewall on a simple question: Why did they agree to exempt Florida from offshore drilling, while refusing to do the same for New Jersey?,” said Attorney General Grewal. “Six months have gone by with no answer. As a state with a pristine coast that is important to our environment and to our economy, New Jersey’s rationale for opposing offshore drilling is every bit as valid as Florida’s.”

“Federal law requires that the government give us the information we sought, but all we’ve gotten back so far is radio silence,” Attorney General Grewal added. “The Administration should lift this veil of secrecy and explain why it gave special treatment to Florida, and why it is ignoring every other state’s concerns. That’s why I’m taking this fight to court.”

“We remain vigorously opposed to fossil fuel exploration and development off the coast and are committed to a clean energy future,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe. “New Jersey has a long history of protecting its ecologically fragile coastal resources, which are critical to the state's tourism economy and a healthy environment. We will not stand for misguided policies that would put our coast at risk and would encourage the use of fuels that cause air pollution and contribute to global warming and sea-level rise.”

The lawsuit filed today explains that Interior violated FOIA by failing to respond within 20 business days as to whether it would comply with New Jersey’s request. The complaint also contends that, through its failure to fulfill New Jersey’s FOIA request to date or even offer a projected timeline for compliance, Interior engaged in “constructive denial” of the request, and the State now has a right to seek relief in court.

The lawsuit seeks an order compelling the Trump Administration to turn over “any and all” responsive records requested by New Jersey – records focused on the interactions between Interior Secretary Zinke and Governor Scott prior to January 9, 2018. That is when Secretary Zinke and Governor Scott announced that Florida was receiving an exclusion from offshore drilling.

In New Jersey, offshore drilling would endanger public safety and threaten harm to coastal natural resources, as well as cause significant harm to the state’s tourism base. New Jersey’s 130-mile coastline generated more than $44 billion in coastal tourism revenue in 2016, supporting more than 838,000 jobs and generating $5.6 billion in federal taxes.

Attorney General Grewal has previously opposed the federal government’s plan to bring offshore drilling to New Jersey, including joining a joint letter by multiple Attorneys General opposing the expansion of offshore drilling, and calling on the Department to honor its past practice of not imposing such activity on states that reject it.

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