Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Rivals for Florida governor endorse land-buying

By Michael Peltier
News Service of Florida
For a mere $15 million, Florida lawmakers can secure $300 million for the state’s Florida Forever program, a bargain even during cash-strapped times, the top contenders to replace Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday in a bit of campaign camaraderie.

Funding for the state’s premiere land-buying program is not a partisan issue, at least in the upcoming governor’s race. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink and Attorney General Bill McCollum urged lawmakers to set aside documentary stamp tax revenues to provide funding for the Florida Forever program.

“By these purchases, we’re investing in the future of Florida and protecting the environment, whether it’s water quality or protecting its animals or providing park land,” Sink said.

Despite a tight budget, backers including former Gov. Bob Martinez say the state must continue making investments in sensitive lands. The purchases have an added benefit because they are generally paid to Florida landowners, who reinvest their incomes elsewhere in the state.

Lawmakers last year pulled funding for the program and agency heads have not called for its replacement in their initial budget requests for the upcoming fiscal year. In years past, the program provided up to $300 million for a host of purchases of sensitive lands.

Land-buying advocates are trying to drum up support as committees begin to take a look at budget requests for 2010. Agencies were required by Sept. 15 to submit tentative spending plans for the upcoming year.

Andy McLeod, director of government affairs for The Nature Conservancy, said having both gubernatorial candidates behind the move would provide momentum.

“We’re thrilled they’re here with us to promote this,” McLeod said. “These are the highest priority conservation lands.”
The Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the program, did not include it in its proposed budget for the coming year. Instead, DEP asked lawmakers to again earmark $50 million toward Everglades restoration efforts.

Backers hope Crist’s past support for Florida Forever coupled with an election year will work in their favor. It seemed to on Tuesday as both McCollum and Sink took time to say a few words.

“I can’t tell you of anything that is more important to Florida’s long term health than preserving the lands that are so precious to us,” McCollum said.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Cafe owner launches effort against offshore oil drilling

By John Kennedy
The News Service of Florida
A Panhandle restaurateur said today he wants thousands of Floridians to hit the beaches to fight offshore oil-drilling along the state’s Gulf coast.

Dave Rauschkolb, owner of Bud and Alley’s and two other beachside restaurants in the town of Seaside, has launched an effort dubbed Hands Across the Sand, which is emerging as the first grassroots opposition to the oil-drilling effort led by Florida Energy Associates, a group of independent oil producers.

Rauschkolb’s goal is to get Floridians to hold hands and literally form a line in the sand to oppose drilling.

The demonstration is planned for Feb. 13 – the Saturday of Presidents’ Day weekend. Rauschkolb said the event will be accelerated if a special legislative session includes drilling before lawmakers are scheduled to convene in March.

Among the early supporters is former Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican looking to return to the chamber he left through term limits in 2002. Latvala has promised to organize the Pinellas County protest in February.

“We’ve got 26 miles of beaches in Pinellas County,” Latvala said. “We don’t have a lot of money to hire PR firms or spread it around Florida. But we’re going to have a lot of bodies on the beaches, and I think that’ll say something.”

“I think it will send a very strong visual message,” said Rauschkolb. “I don’t believe that a majority of Floridians want to have oil rigs off our coast. If we get people out, it will show that.”

Rauschkolb developed a website - - to get word out about the event.

Florida Energy Associates has drawn support in the House for drilling, where a measure was approved 70-43 last spring that could allow drilling as close as three miles offshore.

But the Senate refused to take up the proposal, which would have given the governor and Cabinet authority to lift the current ban on offshore drilling in exchange for Florida getting a share of future royalties from below the Gulf floor.

The Senate remains a tough sell. Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, has said he is uncertain about taking up the issue at all next spring – although the House is expected to push hard for action.

Future House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, is leading the drilling drive, helping galvanize House Republicans behind the idea. But a rising number of Gulf Coast cities, counties and local chambers of commerce recently have approved resolutions opposing drilling.

Florida Energy Associates currently has enlisted 31 lobbyists and spent $234,000 on its push last spring, according to lobbyist disclosure reports. Since then, the Daytona Beach-based organization has steered $40,000 to the Florida Republican Party and $30,000 to Florida Democrats, campaign finance reports show.

The pro-drilling side says the money drawn from leases is desperately needed to replace the billions of dollars in federal stimulus money that has sustained Florida’s recession-ravaged budget, but which is on track to disappear next year.

Supporters also point out that drilling has been going on off neighboring Gulf states since the 1940s, mostly without serious accidents.

“There is a vocal minority out there opposed to oil exploration in the Gulf,” said Barney Bishop, president of Associated Industries of Florida, the influential business organization helping spearhead support for drilling. “The opposition is certainly entitled to be heard. But they’re not entitled to overrule the majority,” he added.

Rauschkolb’s organizing effort, though, shows that many along the usually politically conservative Panhandle are wary of steps that could threaten the region’s economy, which is anchored by tourism and military interests. Elements of both sectors have voiced concerns about the threat drilling poses to area beaches.

Dave Pleat, a Democrat challenging Republican Rep. Marti Coley of Marianna, who supported drilling legislation last spring, helped prompt Rauschkolb’s activism after the pair spoke earlier this month at a campaign event.

“It’s bad for our economy and bad for our environment,” Pleat said. “There’s no upside to oil-drilling – and I’m a pretty conservative businessman.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

It's not the risk from oil drilling, it's the pipelines, DEP says

In what the House council chairman said will be the first of several meetings on oil drilling, Florida's environmental chief today said drilling accidents pose a low risk to the state but he said other competing uses for state waters must be considered.

The House Select Council on Strategic and Economic Planning heard more than 4-1/2 hours of testimony on oil drilling as the Legislature is expected to take up the issue again next year. The House in May adopted a bill to lift Florida's ban on drilling in state waters but the Senate refused to take up the measure late in the session.

Some business groups today lined up in support of drilling, which they said would boost the economy and state revenues. Environmental groups and some coastal communities warned that drilling could ruin the state's tourism economy.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole, weighing in for the first time publicly on the issue, said the risk of a spill from drilling "is admittedly very low."

"I will tell you the data does show the higher risk issue is transportation," he said. "It's not the drilling so much but it's the pipelines, it's the barges -- these things present the higher risk for potential spills."

He said the state also needs to contemplate the physical damage that can occur if drilling and production are not conducted properly. And while showing a map of a network of oil and gas production lines offshore from Louisiana, he said competing use of state waters will be a concern in the future.

"When I say competing uses, I mean competing uses for beach restoration sand, competing uses for transportation corridors for our shipping lanes, competing uses for our aquaculture industry, which is now further and further looking at our offshore aquaculture potential."

Military training in the eastern Gulf of Mexico, Sole said, is "essential for maintaining protection of our great nation." And he added there are significant considerations for using offshore waters for alternative energy, such as windmills and wave action."

"Finally we also have important fisheries," Sole said. "Florida is the number one fishing destination in the world as far as I'm concerned. We need to be acknowledging that."

Sole also said that Texas earns $46.5 million a year in oil royalties in state waters while Alabama's annual collection for royalties and severance has ranged from $50 million to $300 million from state waters.

Outside the Capitol hearing room, Sole told reporters, "We're keeping an open mind. But the same time we want to share the concerns" with representatives.

While an Associated Industries of Florida spokesman said the state can grow from a new "energy economy" from drilling that is compatible with beach tourism, an Audubon of Florida representative said that revenue estimates by supporters were speculative while the state was years away from adopting rules to allow drilling.

Republican House members who supported the drilling bill last spring grilled opponents during the hearing.

Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Fleming Island, chided Audubon's Eric Draper about discussing the state's revenue estimates from oil production -- even though Draper was responding to supporters who have estimated the state already is missing out on billions annually.

"All these dollar figures are just speculation right now," Carroll said, "until we do the exploration, until we do the drilling, until the product comes out of the ground and we know what the quality of the product is going to be."

Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, asked Council Chairman Dean Cannon how representatives could know which presentations are factual and which are not.

"You touch on an issue that has been with us since they created representative democracy 200 years ago," said Cannon, R-Winter Park, noting that House staff was gathering background information and sorting through the presentations.

"This is not the last but the first in a series of meetings we will have," Cannon said.

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

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

DEP's Sole says "lift the hood" on biomass projects

The governor says they could provide renewable energy for Florida, but Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole says biomass electric plants also are being viewed by DEP the same as any other environmental permit applications.

Some Tallahassee residents who fought a proposed biomass gas electric plant in Tallahassee earlier this year now are asking DEP to take a closer look at such projects around the state.

In advance of meetings last week to discuss biomass plants, Sole said DEP's regulatory responsibility is to ensure that the projects comply with federal and state air pollution laws.

"They are treated just like any other permit application that comes in the door. Some are new technologies that require additional (information)," Sole said. "Because they are new technologies, we have to lift the hood and make sure we fully understand the process."

DEP says it has two pending applications for permits while companies proposing four others have held preliminary discussions with DEP. Two other possible projects also have been discussed publicly. (Download a list by clicking here).

The agency last year proposed issuing a permit to Biomass Gas & Electric of Norcross, Ga. for a proposed plant in Tallahassee. But the company withdrew the permit application after facing opposition from some neighboring residents about pollution and noise.

BG&E now proposes building the plant in Port St. Joe where it has been welcomed by some city and county officials. DEP held an informational meeting in Port St. Joe last week to discuss the project.

Members of the group Floridians Against Incinerators in Disguise met with Sole on Friday in Tallahassee to discuss their concerns about such projects. Gov. Charlie Crist has praised BG&E's technology as providing needed renewable energy for Florida's future.

Dr. Ronald Saff, an allergy and asthmas specialist in Tallahassee, said Monday that Sole seemed in favor of biomass plants during his meeting with opponents. Saff is a member of Floridians Against Incinerators in Disguise and the Florida Medical Association.

"We told Mr. Sole, 'If you look on the web site of the mission statement of DEP, it is to improve or protect our air quality,' " Saff said. "What he is doing by allowing these biomass plants to proliferate is worsening air quality."

DEP provided a comparison chart showing the pollutants from biomass electricity plants were generally more than natural gas plants and generally less than coal plants.

Interviewed earlier in the week, Sole said the permit proposed last year for the plant in Tallahassee was protective of public health. DEP has requested additional information from BG&E about its proposed plant in Port St. Joe.

And Sole said it's important for the public to be able to talk about the details of such proposed projects.

"In whole, when we look at Florida's energy needs and future diversity, the concept of biomass is something I think Florida should continue to look to and invest in," he said. "But as a regulator it gets no special treatment."

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

Friday, October 16, 2009

PSC approves nuke charges as members cite legal conflict

Florida law contains contradictions to guide the Public Service Commission on how much to allow companies to bill their customers for nuclear power plants that have not been completed, some PSC members said today.

The PSC voted 3-1 to allow Florida's two largest utilities to bill customers for two proposed nuclear plants in advance of their construction. The requests faced opposition from some environmental groups who say the plants aren't needed and could become too expensive to build.

Florida Power & Light proposes building two additional nuclear power units at its Turkey Point plant in Dade County to open in 2016 and 2018 at a cost of $12 billion to $18 billion. Progress Energy proposes building two nuclear units at on 5,200 acres in Levy County for $17 billion, but the possible 2016 completion has been delayed at least 20 months.

The PSC approved charging FP&L $62.6 million so that the company can charge its customers 67 cents per month in 2010 to recover costs for the new nuclear plants and upgrading other plants. Progress Energy can charge $5.86 per month for its customers to recover $206.9 million in costs so far for its Levy County plant and upgrades at its Crystal River plant, according to the state agency.

This is the first full examination of costs associated with a state law adopted by the Legislature in 2006 that was designed to encourage nuclear plant construction by allowing utilities to recover their costs even if plants are never built. Supporters say the nuclear energy will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the state's heavy reliance on natural gas.

Commissioner Nancy Argenziano voted against allowing the utilities to charge their customers for the new nuclear plants because she said state law, in addition to allowing the advanced cost-recovery, also requires that charges to customers be "fair, just and reasonable."

She pointed out that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission action had put the Crystal River plant in doubt. The NRC said the Green Party and its allies had successfully raised "certain major issues" about the plant's environmental impact on wetlands that deserve a hearing, according to a St. Petersburg Times article on July 9.

"If you can't build on the site, (then) the site preparation and everything else is going to be money well spent -- if you can't build on it?" Argenziano said. "What do we do then, just saddle the rate-payer with it?"

But Commissioner Nathan Skop pointed out that the Florida law that allows for the advanced cost-recovery is more specific than the provision that requires charges to be "fair, just and reasonable." He and Argenziano agreed that the utilities had followed requirements in the law for requesting the cost-recovery.

"You can't change the rules in midstream," Skop said.

Argenziano voiced agreement but also said, "I really wish the Legislature would figure out what they want us to do." She was a state sentator in 2006 when the advanced-cost recovery bill was adopted and she said there was little discussion about it.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which challenged the utilities requests, said the decision was made in spite of an NRC action Thursday which the group says could further delay new nuclear reactors. (See New York Times story)

"We feel strongly that Progress Energy and FP&L did not meet the requirements necessary to charge their multi-million dollar expenses to Florida bill-payers," Stephen Smith, executive director of Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said in a statement released by the group. "This reinforces the fact that the (Florida) PSC oversight process is broken and needs to be fixed."

The NRC told Westingthouse that its nuclear plant design needs further testing. A Progress Energy spokeswoman said she didn't know what, if any, delay could result from the NRC action.

(Top photo of Turkey Point power station courtesy of FP&L. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Florida oil drilling supporters, opponents post letters on issue

Florida oil drilling opponents today called on Gov. Charlie Crist to include more coastal protections to his criteria for allowing offshore drilling.

Drilling supporters, meanwhile, touted support today for drilling from road and bridge builders -- although an endorsement letter from the group was issued more than a month ago.

Supporters say drilling can reduce dependence on foreign oil and produce at least $2.3 billion per year in state revenue. Opponents say drilling threatens the state's coastal tourism economy and that any estimates of revenues are speculative.

Gov. Charlie Crist reopened the debate a year ago when he suggested that drilling should be allowed if it could be clean enough, far enough and safe enough to protect Florida's coastline and environment. The House last year approved a bill to allow drilling within three miles of the coast but it failed to win Senate approval

Nine environmental groups today sent a letter to Crist asking him to also consider adding "financial accountability" and the "effects on existing coastal activities" to his principles on whether to allow drilling. That could align the governor with legislation to study the issue proposed last week by two Democratic senators.

"The risks posted by nearshore oil drilling, exploration, transportation and storage need to be carefully considered," the environmental groups wrote in their letter to Crist. "We are calling on you to help make sure this discussion is deliberative."

Crist spokesman Sterling Ivey said the letter is being reviewed by the Governor's Office.

Ron Sachs Communications, which represents drilling supporter Florida Energy Associates, today publicized the Florida Transportation Builders' Association letter to Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, endorsing the drilling idea. "Finding new revenue streams without raising taxes is an idea everyone can support," Association President Robert G. Burleson stated in the Sept. 13 letter.

Ryan Banfill, vice president of Ron Sachs Communications, in an e-mail explained the timing only by saying that the endorsement was announced today. "Why today? Because today is a good day," Banfill wrote.

Bronson says water lawsuit threatens jobs, prescribed burning

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson Tuesday warned other Cabinet members that setting specific pollution standards for nutrients in Florida waters could jeopardize prescribed burning efforts and the state's forest industry.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to set numeric standards for nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients in Florida waterways, replacing the state's descriptive standard that environmental groups said failed to protect springs, lakes and rivers from algae blooms.

But agriculture and industry groups have challenged the proposed consent order between environmental groups and the EPA, and Bronson's agriculture department has sought to intervene on their behalf. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle is scheduled to hold a hearing on the proposal in November.

Bronson said setting a numeric standard could threaten the practice of deliberately burning forest underbrush to improve wildlife habitat and reduce the risk of wildfire. He said the EPA promised a few years ago that forest fires would not be used in determining air quality standards but then the federal agency included the fires anyway.

"I'm afraid the same thing is going to happen" with prescribed burning and water quality, Bronson said. "I want to make sure this Cabinet understands that we have taken this thing so seriously we have entered into the challenge on the settlement."

Bronson's statement was dismissed as more "hysteria" by an attorney for the Earthjustice law firm's Florida office, which represents groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the St. Johns Riverkeeper in a lawsuit against the EPA.

An EPA spokeswoman in Washington told that the federal agency is working with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to establish scientifically-defensible standards.

"Because EPA has not finalized the numeric criteria values at this time, it is unknown what water quality management decisions the state of Florida will need to make to implement the (water quality standards) in order to achieve environmental protection goals," spokeswoman Enesta Jones said in an e-mail response.

Meanwhile Tuesday, the Suwannee River Water Management District followed Bronson's call to join the South Florida Water Management District in challenging the proposed settlement.

Bronson criticized the proposed statement today during a presentation of a Cabinet resolution recognizing Oct. 19-24 as Florida Forestry Week. Forestry provides nearly $16 billion to Florida's economy each year and 130,000 jobs, he said.

The EPA, Bronson said, is moving too fast to set a numeric standard and he said it should be given time to receive third-party review for being scientifically sound. He said he thought the Florida DEP had been doing a good job in working toward a standard before EPA stepped in.

"Hopefully we will come to the right decision based on science," he said.

Earthjustice attorney David Guest said in response that he has never heard of prescribed burning being affected by water quality regulations. He also said the consent order, if adopted by the court, gives EPA nine months to set a limit after first proposing a rule by Jan. 14 and that's three times longer than he said is provided for in federal law for review.

"I think if we don't do something about nutrient pollution and we turn every river into the state in to a stinking, green-slime river, all kinds of businesses will be leaving the state," Guest said.

(Top photo courtesy of the Florida Division of Forestry. Bottom photo and story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A short Q&A with Florida DEP on water quality asked the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about its role in the U.S. EPA setting numeric criteria for nutrients in Florida waterways. Here are questions and the answers provided by DEP Communications Director Nancy Blum:

Does DEP have a view on the timetable for developing the criteria -- is Jan. 15 too soon?

It is hard to predict the outcome of science. DEP was prepared to present draft criteria to the ERC (state Environmental Regulation Commission) for adoption this year. Recognizing that ERC adoption may be one step in a longer process that could involve rule challenges, the department could not offer any firm predictions on when the criteria could be finalized and effective. In addition, our process would include public and stakeholder involvement.

There remains a need to improve the science supporting the criteria for fresh water streams which DEP continues to explore. For fresh water streams the extensive database generated by Florida suggest the relationship between nutrient enrichment and biological response is very site specific. Deriving a criterion that is applicable to all streams is challenging and certainly needs to be coupled with regulatory processes that consider site specific variables. Additionally, the relationship between in-stream nutrient concentrations and downstream water protection remains unclear. These are very complex issues and addressing the uncertainty by January 14th, 2010, will be difficult. However, we cannot predict the viability to promulgation in October, 2010, given that the Federal public process has not begun.

What is DEP's role at this point?

DEP is providing data and technical analysis to EPA for their consideration in developing a proposed rule. However, DEP is not engaged in EPA's deliberative process regarding rule language and specific criteria as that is internal to their agency.

Does DEP believe that prescribed burning could be prohibited under some criteria?

Prescribed burns can mobilize nutrients for a very short duration. To the extent that prescribed burning causes water quality standards violations, including numeric nutrient criteria, those practices would have to be addressed during the TMDL (Total Maximum Daily Load) and BMAP (Basin Management Action Plan) process. The mobilization of nutrients as a result of controlled burning and the associated risk of excessive loading to adjacent streams is very site dependent.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Bio-energy, ethanol projects proposed across Florida

Artist's rendering of proposed BG&E plant in Gulf County.

Nine bio-energy or ethanol projects are being proposed in Florida and at least five others are under discussion, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP is holding an informational meeting Wednesday in Port St. Joe on one of those projects proposed by Biomass Gas & Electric of Norcross, Ga. The company proposes a 44-megawatt biomass gas plant to produce electricity for Progress Energy.

The BG&E project is one of four biomass electricity or ethanol plants for which DEP has received permit applications to build. The others are ADAGE (biomass electricity) in Hamilton County, Highlands Ethanol in Highlands County and East Coast Ethanol in Jackson County.

Five other projects are in pre-application discussions with DEP. They are American Renewables' proposed electric plants in Gainesville and in Hamilton County, a proposed plasma arc gasification plant in St. Lucie County, INP BioEnergy project in Indian River County and the Vision FLI LLC sweet sorgham ethanol production plant in Osceola County. To download a complete list, click here.

BG&E has experienced its share of controversy in trying to locate plants in North Florida.

The company says it can convert woody material and yard waste into clean gas which can be burned to produce electricity. Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 hosted BG&E representatives at the Governor's Mansion to announce the company's contract with Progress Energy to produce renewable energy.

But BG&E gave up considering Liberty County for a plant in 2007 after residents there said they were concerned that garbage would be burned, a claim that company officials denied.

BG&E proposed building a plant on Florida State University land in Tallahassee but withdrew earlier this year after the NAACP and some south side Tallahassee neighborhood residents filed legal challenges against a proposed DEP permit. The company says that proposed plant in Tallahassee now is the project being proposed in Gulf County.

"They (Gulf County residents) are going to get the jobs, they are going to get the tax revenue and they are going to have a light shone on them as a green-friendly community," said Keith McDermott, BG&E's director of marketing. "We look on it as Tallahassee's loss is Port St. Joe's gain."

DEP on Oct. 2 requested additional information from BG&E including more detailed descriptions of the woody biomass and municipal solid waste that could be used to produce gas, details on how dioxins will be controlled and the handling of waste tars and ashes that will require disposal.

McDermott said the plant won't use municipal solid waste and won't produce dioxins. He said DEP is requesting "pretty standard stuff" that the company wasn't sure that it needed to provide initially.

BG&E no longer is under contract with the city of Tallahassee to provide renewable energy, said Ben Cowart of Tallahassee's electric utility.

The city still has a power contract with Green Power Systems LLC, which says it can produce electricity from municipal waste using plasma arc technology. The company is searching for a site to build the plant, Cowart said.

For more information on DEP's meeting on Wednesday, go to DEP's web site.

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

Friday, October 9, 2009

Enviros support new lands ranking process approved today

In a move that environmentalists said resolves their concerns, a state panel on Friday adopted a rule that would establish a new rankings process for determining which conservation lands should be bought.

Florida's land-buying program is the largest in the nation, with 2.4 million acres having been purchased since 1990. But the Legislature earlier this year refused to provide any money in the state budget for the Florida Forever program for the first time since 1990.

Some environmental groups hope that a new ranking process outlined by a 2008 state law would generate more support for the program among the public and legislators. But those groups also opposed various draft versions proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that the groups said didn't follow the law by including five categories of land use purchases:

* Critical natural lands
* Partnerships or regional incentive lands
* Substantially complete projects
* Climate change lands
* Conservation easements (less-than-fee lands)

The rule adopted by the state Acquisition and Restoration Council now goes to the governor and Cabinet and to the Legislature for approval.

"These five categories are now going to be in all the (DEP) work plans and rankings," said Richard Hilsenbeck, director of conservation programs at the Florida chapter of The Nature Conservancy. "We are very happy with the rule."

The rule will be used next year to re-rank the proposed 109 purchase projects within applicable categories and will divide them into high-, medium- and low-priority groupings, said Bob Ballard, DEP's deputy secretary for lands and recreation.

The existing Florida Forever list contains only a higher-priority "A List," including a grouping of the 21 highest priority projects, and a lower priority "B List." Additional categories may be added to the new ranking process, such as an "inactive" category for projects that no longer are being negotiated, Ballard said. Those new categories won't require Cabinet and legislative approval.

Hilsenbeck said he hopes the new ranking system will improve the Florida Forever program's "transparency," making it easier for state leaders, land-sellers and the public to understand why some lands are purchased more quickly than others.

Ballard also said the new ranking system may be easier for the public to understand.

"We always want to be as transparent as we can possibly be," Ballard said. "I think that is what the Legislature was looking for."

Photo of the Big Bend coast copyrighted by James Valentine, used with permission from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Two senators want panel to explore oil drilling

Two Democratic senators today said they are proposing legislation to require creation of a new panel to look at the risks and benefits of drilling off of Florida's coastline.

Sen. David Aronberg of Greenacres and Sen. Ted Deutch of Boca Raton said environmental and energy experts need more time to look into the drilling issue, which Gov. Charlie Crist suggests should be included in a special session this fall.

"This whole 'Drill baby, drill' mentality I think needs to slow down and calm down," Aronberg told reporters during a Capitol news conference today. "Drill baby, drill" was chanted by Republicans at their 2008 national convention.

"What's at stake is not just our 2009-10 budget -- it's the future of the state of Florida," he said.

A bill to lift Florida's ban on drilling passed the House in April but died during the regular session when the Senate refused to take it up because of lack of time.

Supporters say the Gulf should be opened to drilling to provide jobs and state revenue from royalties from oil and gas production. Environmental groups say drilling threatens fishing and Florida's beach tourism economy.

The proposed bill would create the nine-member Florida Energy Independence and Coastal Protection Task Force. The panel would report on the following:

* The size of potential oil and gas deposits in state waters
* The effect on tourism and coastal communities of lifting the ban
* The effect on property values caused by leasing and drilling
* Forecasts of revenues to be paid by the state
* Efforts to reduce foreign oil dependence while increasing energy efficiency and the use of alternatives.

The governor would appoint three members to the proposed task force, the Senate and House Republican majority leaders each would appoint two and the House and Senate Democratic minority members each would appoint one.

The Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida on Monday agreed to hold a summit of major stakeholders in the drilling issue, according to the News Service of Florida. Deutch said he had not seen from the Century Commission a detailed list of what the panel will be studied.

Aronberg said the panel is not an effort to prevent drilling and he said the task force may recommend lifting the ban.

"This is not an attempt to obstruct the process," he said. "It is an attempt to make the process a lot better."

Ryan Banfill, a spokesman for groups supporting drilling said, "We welcome all inputs to this opportunity to preserve our environment, employ our citizens and contribute to American energy independence."

"Open-minded, thoughtful approaches to offshore exploration will bring economic stability to Florida and a much needed new revenue stream to our state's tax base," he said.

(Copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Dumpster-diver gets "Green Schools" award

TAMPA -- Matt Mooney, 16, says dumpster-diving for aluminum cans isn't easy, but it's worth it.

During the past three years, Mooney, a Junior at Land O' Lakes High School, has collected 1.1 million cans, turning them into $15,000 cash. But he and his friends didn't keep the money -- it went to a local Habitat for Humanity program to build homes for needy families.

For his efforts, Mooney tonight won the first Green Schools Award issued by Gov. Charlie Crist.

"It's all worth it," said Mooney, whose dumpster-diving efforts have made the Tampa Bay area evening news. "It's a lot of time we put into it. The benefit now and into the future will be a lot greater."

Other winners include Joshua Clearman's class at Key West High School, which created the Alternative Energy Center to help students adopt emerging green technology; teacher Allan Phipps at South Plantation High School for helping students create two solar-energy cars that competed at the national level; Odyssey Charter School in Palm Bay for activities including capturing natural daylight and using locally grown fruits and vegetables; and the Pasco County School District for its "Raising Awareness for Conservation" Project.

"For me, this has truly been an extraordinary evening and one that has been an inspiration," Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said in presenting the awards.

Each of the winners receives $1,500 in cash. Progress Energy is the presenting sponsor for the awards program.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Some agreement, disagreement in House Dems oil debate

A discussion among Florida House Democrats on oil drilling today featured some sharp exchanges between a leading environmental opponent an attorney representing drilling supporters.

House Republicans last April overwhelmingly supported HB 1219, which would have allowed drilling within three miles of the Gulf Coast. Democrats led the opposition in the 70-43 vote.

But the bill was never heard in the Senate because of concerns that the drilling measure arose too late in the session. Last month, Gov. Charlie Crist said he would like the Legislature to take up drilling in a special session if one is held to address a Seminole Tribe gaming agreement.

Today, the Florida House Democratic Caucus invited Audubon of Florida's Eric Draper to square off against attorney Frank Matthews, who represents Florida Energy Associates. While they disagreed on much, Matthews seemed to concede to Draper on a few issues.

Draper said drilling supporters are using "very speculative numbers" about the revenue the state could earn from oil and gas production and that drilling is "dirty, dangerous and ugly."

"Is the real story that this is just a Ponzi scheme, another speculation that we as taxpayers in the long run are going to have to buy our way out of" like the Coastal Petroleum lease? Draper said.

The Cabinet agreed in 2005 to spend $12.5 million to purchase a lease from Coastal Petroleum for Gulf of Mexico drilling rights issued in the 1950s and to settle company's lawsuit against the Florida when the state refused to grant drilling permits.

Matthews, an attorney with Hopping Green & Sams in Tallahassee, fired back that Draper "Eric's sensationalism is what we've heard on the stump and that's what you heard today." Matthews said the state today would place more restrictions on a lease than it did for Coastal Petroleum.

"The fact of the matter is Florida should just open its mind to considering -- to considering -- leasing," Matthews said.

"That is all the request would be from our folks: Repeal the ban so you can consider what are the standards, what are the terms and conditions you would consider in the leasing of state waters?"

Otherwise, Matthews seemed to concede to some arguments made by Draper: 1) That oil exploration wouldn't provide any state revenue for years -- at least two, according to Matthews; 2) that drilling won't make Florida energy independent because petroleum is an international commodity; and 3) it's unclear how much oil may be present in Florida's Gulf Coast waters up to 10 miles out.

Petroleum Consultant Donald A. Goddard of Baton Rouge, La., cited federal reports that he quoted as saying there may be 4 billion barrels of oil in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. But he said test wells need to be drilled to determine what lies below the surface.

Rep. Mary Brandenburg, D-West Palm Beach, said she wants some engineers to come before the Democratic Caucus with information about drilling safety. But she rejected Draper's suggestion to bring in Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials to talk.

"I want to hear from somebody who doesn't have a Republican for a boss," she said.

Some Democratic representatives seemed open to the idea lifting the state ban on drilling and allowing or encouraging oil and gas exploration, then deciding later whether to allow production.

But House Minority Leader Franklin Sands of Weston seemed to reject the idea.

"That's kind of synonymous with someone saying just leave the door open so I can come in and have a look around," he said.

A spokesman for the House Republican majority office said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, will participate in an Oct. 28 forum at Florida State University on the issue.

"I can tell you no one wants to endanger Florida's natural resources -- we're talking about the beaches," said Joseph Agostini, communications director in the House majority office.

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

Friday, October 2, 2009

Florida solar group criticized for oil drilling support

A solar energy group's support for offshore oil drilling is facing sharp criticism from environmentalists.

Associated Industries of Florida, Associated Builders and Contractors and the Florida Petroleum Council are supporting offshore drilling, saying it would create jobs and royalties revenue for state coffers. Environmental groups say the claims are speculative and that drilling threatens the coastal environment and tourism.

The Florida Solar Energy Industries Association on Oct. 1 sided with supporters, saying that revenue from offshore oil and natural gas production could help provide revenue for programs that invest in renewable energy technologies. The group cited a Fishkind & Associates report stating that drilling could produce between $2.3 billion and $12 billion per year in revenues.

“The proposal to drill in Florida state waters has the potential to create a cleaner and wealthier future for Florida if it provides a sustainable funding source for the development of vibrant programs that will help Florida become a leader in the solar energy industry,” Association president Bruce Kershner said in a statement posted on the group's Web site.

“The economic development potential of providing green employment opportunities and attracting high-tech, high-wage renewable energy companies to Florida rivals any real or perceived threat that state-of-the-art offshore drilling poses to Florida," Kershner said.

The statement drew criticism from environmental groups that oppose oil drilling and want the state to adopt requirements on utilities for producing more energy from renewable sources.

"It's disappointing that the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association would be seduced by promises of money that may or may not ever be there," said Susan Glickman, a consultant to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"Opening Florida's coast to drilling is a move in the wrong direction," she said. "What we need to do is move this state to electrical cars, developing our biofuels industry and making certain our cars are more efficient -- not investing in old, dirty technology."

The association's decision "to trade Florida's coast to the drillers for the pittance of future, undefined and unbankable amounts of solar rebate money is the most shockingly self-interested, embarrassing and sad politcal moves I have seen in my over 10 years working on conservation in Florida," Gerald Karnas, Florida climate project director for the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote in an e-mail today to Kershner.

"Was that the best deal you could cut? Rebate money 10 years from now?" Karnas said. "On a basketball court that's called 'gettin' schooled.' "

Kershner could not be reached for comment today.

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

Bronson sides against EPA agreement on waterways

Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson says he is seeking to intervene against a proposed federal court settlement that would require the U.S. Environmental Protection agency to set stricter limits on nutrients in state water bodies.

Environmental groups announced in August that they had reached a settlement that requires the EPA to set numeric limits on nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, replacing Florida's narrative standard that limits nutrients to levels that do not affect the flora and fauna of a water body. Environmental groups said the lack of specific nutrient limits is causing algae blooms and threatening the health of streams, lakes and rivers.

Bronson said he is seeking to intervene in the case involved because of concerns that the EPA could set "arbitrary and unreasonable" numeric nutrient standards for water bodies. His news release said he also is asking the state's water management districts to intervene.

"These new standards would impose regulations far in excess of anything being considered in any other state, drastically increasing costs for all consumers," Bronson said in a statement. "It is important that the court understands the magnitude of this issue and the importance of careful scientifically based standards for controlling nutrients in our state."

Organizations including the Florida Minerals and Chemical Council and the Florida Water Environment Utility Council have sent letters warning of possible legal action to block the settlement. Bronson said the South Florida Water Management District also is seeking to block it and he called on the other four water management districts in Florida to join him.

David Guest, who is in charge of the Florida office of the Earthjustice nonprofit environmental law firm, called Bronson's action "shameful." His firm represents groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the Sierra Club and the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

He said neither Bronson nor the industry groups know whether nutrient limits that eventually are proposed by the EPA will be too low or could harm industry. Nor do they know they will be adopted after they are reviewed by scientists or whether they could survive a legal challenge if they are too low.

"There is an unmistakable hysterical quality to what the polluters are doing in response to the consent decree," Guest said.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle will hear arguments in the case on Nov. 16 in Tallahassee, according to Earthjustice.

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