Thursday, December 31, 2009

Looking back on 2009, and ahead to 2010

Here's a look at the Top 10 environmental stories from around Florida's Capitol in 2009 and a look at how those issues may play out in 2010:

1. Oil drilling -- Drilling off Florida's coastline faced bipartisan opposition until 2008, when Gov. Charlie Crist said he was open to the idea at the time he was being considered as a running mate for Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee. But the issue really took off in 2009 when the Florida House, during the next to last week of the session, approved a bill to allow drilling within three miles of Florida's Gulf Coast. The bill failed to win Senate approval. But debate re-ignited in the fall when drilling supporters created a well-funded campaign to support their effort.
Looking ahead: Drilling still has support from the House leadership but Senate President Jeff Atwater has asked for a careful study of the issue in 2010.

2. Florida Forever demise -- The state has purchased more than 2 million acres of land since 1990 under the Florida Forever land-buying program and its predecessor. That makes Florida Forever, which had received $300 million annually through 2008, the largest of any state or federal land-buying program. But in a tight budget year in 2009, the Legislature did not provide any money as the program faced criticism in the House and from Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who says he supports the program.
Looking ahead: Environmentalists remain hopeful they will get Florida Forever money in 2010 but must contend with opposition from Rep. Ralph Poppell, R-Vero Beach and chairman of the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee.

3. Florida's "green governor" moves to the right -- Gov. Charlie Crist, who earned the moniker of Florida's "green governor" in 2007 by supporting action on climate change and opposing coal-fired power plants, moved decidedly to the right in 2009. Facing conservative opposition for a U.S. Senate seat from former House Speaker Marco Rubio, Crist practically dropped the environment from his vocabulary after announcing in May that he would seek federal office. He infuriated some environmentalists by suggesting that a fall special legislative session should include legislation to allow oil drilling. Responding to environmental criticism, Crist responded that he was looking out for the state's economy.
Looking ahead: Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole will continue to play a larger role in 2010 in voicing the Crist Administration's position on environmental issues.

4. Renewable energy, clean cars fail in legislative session -- In 2008, a comprehensive energy bill was praised by environmentalists and legislative leaders alike for making Florida a leader among states on energy issues. There was just one problem: The bill actually required very little. On two key issues -- renewable energy and automobile efficiency -- the bill required legislative approval before any standards were enacted. That gave industry lobbyists another shot at the issue, and this time the political climate had changed dramatically. The House refused to discuss a Senate bill that would have adopted the Public Service Commission recommendation that all utilities produce at least 20 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2020. A Senate bill to adopt California's auto emission standards, as recommended by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, stalled after being approved by just one committee.
Looking ahead: Other provisions of the 2008 bill also could stall in 2010. They include restrictions on industrial carbon emissions ("cap-and-trade") and increasing statewide recycling to 75 percent.

5. PSC controversies and energy conservation -- An electricity rate-hike request by Florida Power & Light Co. was an economic and consumer issue, not an environmental issue. But the controversy that was spawned by that proposal was used by environmental groups to gain a toehold in favor of energy conservation before the Florida Public Service Commission. One PSC staffer resigned after revealing that he attended a party held by a key FP&L official during the company's rate-hike request. News media reports revealed frequent cell phone text-messaging between representatives of utilities and PSC staffers. The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which had intervened in a review of conservation goals for utilities, said the controversies showed that the agency was seemingly under the spell of utilities and their paid experts, many of whom are former PSC members or staffers. With two of its five members being replaced by Gov. Charlie Crist, the panel agreed in December to require stricter conservation goals.
Looking ahead in 2010: Under the chairmanship of former state Sen. Nancy Argenziano, an outspoken critic of the PSC's approach towards utilities, there could be a sea-change within the agency.

6. Legislative rollbacks on growth, water permits -- Two bills that faced widespread opposition from environmental groups but support from industry were signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist. SB 2080 allows water-management districts to approve some water-use permits without board hearings and votes. SB 360 qualified certain cities and counties as "dense urban" areas where certain development restrictions were lifted. Those restrictions required roads to be available or planned before new developments are approved. Crist signed SB 2080 but encouraged water districts to vote on permits in public anyway. And he defended SB 360 as a measure to help the state's economy.
Looking ahead: There may be legislation to reverse SB 2080 and require public hearings and votes on water permits. Legislators who supported SB 360 may seek to reverse DCA Secretary Tom Pelham's interpretation that the bill does not apply to locally-approved growth policies.

7. Numeric nutrient criteria -- Florida residents have watched the past two decades as springs and rivers have become choked with algae and coastal areas have been hit by red tide, perhaps caused by phosphorus and nitrogen. But the state has been slow to prevent or reverse the problem, environmental groups say. State regulations prohibit pollution discharges that cause an "imbalance" of plants, fish and wildlife.But the environmental groups, represented by the nonprofit Earthjustice law firm, say that narrative standard blocks the state from preventing problems before they occur. The Florida DEP and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last January agreed to replace the narrative standards with a numeric standard that sets limits on nutrients in water bodies. But an uproar didn't occur until after August, when Earthjustice and the EPA agreed that the federal agency -- and not the state -- would set the standards. Agriculture and industry groups along with Agriculture Commission Charles Bronson predict the EPA restrictions will cost billions of dollars for farmers, industry, local governments and sewage treatment utilities. But they failed to convince a federal judge to block the settlement. The judge said opponents could have their day in court once the federal limits are proposed.
Looking ahead: The EPA is scheduled to issue its limits on Jan. 14. Three public workshops are scheduled in Florida beginning Feb. 16 in Tallahassee.

8. Florida Hometown Democracy -- There may have never been a more controversial proposed constitutional amendment -- that wasn't even approved for the state ballot until this year. Amendment 4 on the 2010 ballot would require local voters to approve changes to growth policies and land-use maps contained in city and county comprehensive plans. The state Division of Elections in June agreed to put the measure on the ballot after supporters won a decisive case before the Florida Supreme Court. If approved, the amendment could create the need for an election campaign to win approval of most land-use changes. Supporters say Amendment 4 would wrest control of local planning decisions from development interests. Business groups say it would create economic gridlock.
Looking ahead: The public relations battle will heat up as the 2010 election draws closer.

9. Landmark decision in tri-state water war -- Alabama, Florida and Georgia have battled since 1990 over water from the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers, which flow together at the Florida line to create the Apalachicola River. In 2009, U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson in June shook up the issue by ruling that Georgia cities, including Atlanta, had no legal authorization from Congress to take water from Lake Lanier, the huge federal reservoir in North Georgia. He gave the states three years to get approval from Congress before virtually shutting off the water valves in North Georgia. After talks among the three governors failed in 2008, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist agreed again to meet with Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue. Riley said after the meeting in Montgomery on Dec. 15 that the governors won't tell stakeholders much about a plan they are working on. But the next day, Florida DEP Secretary Michael Sole told stakeholders in an e-mail that the states had set an "aggressive schedule" to come up with an agreement and that stakeholders would be updated throughout the discussions.
Looking ahead: The coming weeks should tell whether the states can overcome their disagreements and if they do, whether the industries and farming groups, recreational users and the Florida seafood industry can support an agreement.

10. Florida Springs bill dies -- For four straight years, legislation to protect Florida's springs has been introduced in the Senate. And for the fourth straight year, it died without making it to the Senate floor in 2009. Many of Florida's hundreds of clear, blue springs have become choked with weeds and algae within the past 15 years as nitrogen levels in groundwater have increased. Scientists say that nitrogen comes from a variety of sources including lawn fertilizers, sewage treatment plants, septic tanks, livestock feed lots and dirty stormwater runoff from urban areas. Sen. Lee Constantine, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation, failed to win approval for his bill against strong opposition from home-builders and developers who said advanced septic tanks are too expensive, and from agricultural groups who support voluntary "best management" practices on farms.
Looking ahead: Springs supporters hope to rally public backing for legislation with a Feb. 16 rally at the Capitol. Constantine has made springs protection the focus of the Senate Select Committee on Florida's Inland Waters, which he now chairs.

Best of the rest:
Audubon of Florida vice president Eric Draper enters 2010 race for state agriculture commissioner, then drops out to devote attention to environmental issues.

DEP receives permit applications for biomass electric plants across the state.

The governor and Cabinet approve Progress Energy's request to build a nuclear plant in Levy County.

Florida Cabinet approves sweetheart land deal in Jefferson County.

DEP launches review of stream classification system, seeking to remove canals from meeting "fishable-swimmable" water quality requirements.

State purchase of U.S. Sugar Corp. land for Everglades restoration is scaled back.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute story or photos without permission).

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