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).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Seminole withdraws proposed Putnam County coal plant

Environmental groups are applauding Seminole Electric Cooperative Inc.'s decision not to build a new coal-fired power unit at its generating in Putnam County.

Seminole Electric, which doesn't have retail customers but sells electricity wholesale to other utilities across Florida, proposed building a third coal-fired unit at its Seminole Generating Station six miles north of Palatka. But the company said in court papers filed Thursday that it no longer intends to build the new 750-megawatt unit.

"It was a business decision because of the uncertain regulatory and legal environment regarding coal-fueled generating facilities," Jeff Fela, senior public affairs representative at Seminole Electric Cooperative's Tampa headquarters, said Friday.

Coal plants are large carbon dioxide emitters and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said such greenhouse gases pose a public health threat.

Seminole and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which proposed a permit for the plant in 2008, faced opposition from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and the Florida Wildlife Federation.

"I think everyone accepts we are going to be moving into a carbon-constrained future," said George Cavros, a consultant to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "Coal makes no economic sense in that future."

The proposed Seminole plant was the last of five coal plants that were proposed and withdrawn in the past five years, Cavros said.

“Seminole Electric did the right thing here,” Florida Wildlife Federation president Manley Fuller said in a statement. “It makes no sense to add new coal generating units in Florida when we’re finally moving to install renewable energy sources like solar.”

Fela said the plant would have provided needed baseload energy to accommodate growth. He said Seminole Electric hasn't decided how to proceed with replacing the project.

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Groups threaten suit over panther habitat

Two environmental groups served notice today that they plan to sue federal officials for failing to take steps to protect the Florida panther.

The only population of Florida panthers is located in Southwest Florida where they face loss of habitat from development and threats from traffic while crossing roads. Perhaps fewer than 120 exist there in the wild.

The Sierra Club and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida say the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to respond to a petition earlier this year requesting the designation "critical" habitat to protect the panther. The groups today submitted a notice with the federal agency saying they intend to sue within 60 days under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Instead of taking action, the federal agency "has allowed the petitions -- and the panther -- to continue to languish, even as habitat destruction and other threats to the panther's survival intensify," the letter said.

Agency spokesman Ken Warren in Vero Beach declined to respond to the letter, saying the agency typically doesn't comment publicly on legal matters. But he also said the agency is working to protect a larger area in Southwest Florida than the groups are seeking to have designated as critical habitat.

The groups point to a 2006 article in Biological Conservation by state and federal biologists and other researchers. The authors identified a "primary" zone, with the most important habitat, and a "secondary" zone that panthers could use more as the population grows. A "dispersal" zone is proposed that allows panthers to move outside of South Florida.

The primary zone covers about 3,500 square miles while the secondary zone covers about one-third that area, Warren said. The dispersal zone covers 44 square miles. The zones are located in seven south Florida counties: Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Monroe, Lee, Hendry and Glades counties.

The Fish and Wildlife Service believes it is on a good path now working with partners to protect habitat, including restoration of the 55,000-acre Picayune Strand, Warren said.

"We haven't closed the door completely on establishing critical habitat," he said. "We continute to weigh the merits of doing so. The bottom line is if we decide designating critical habitat is truly in the best interest of the Florida panther we will do so."

(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Map used with permission of the author. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do no copy or redistribute without permission.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Crist meets with Ala., Ga. governors on water-sharing

By The News Service of Florida
MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Gov. Charlie Crist met with his two neighboring governors today in Alabama to renew efforts to resolve a dispute over water usage and the three emerged confident they'll resolve the dispute rather than let a federal judge's solution stand.

Gov. Bob Riley of Alabama and Gov. Sonny Perdue of Georgia, huddled with Crist in Montgomery hoping to get the states in position to work out a plan for sharing the water that comes from the Atlanta area through the Chattahoochee River and down into the Flint and Apalachicola Rivers.

At the Chattahoochee headwaters, Atlanta siphons off more water than the two downstream states say is fair. They need the water for power and for keeping a healthy seafood industry where the system dumps into the Gulf of Mexico.

Florida and Alabama say – and a federal judge recently agreed – that the system must benefit all three states and that Georgia has improperly taken too much water out of the reservoir at the upper end of the system.

The effort is particularly important for Georgia – which may see its own water use curtailed dramatically if the three states can't agree because of the judge's ruling earlier this year. But the court gave the states three years to work out a consensus solution before the judicial remedy would go into effect.

“I think everyone in Washington, at our state legislatures, I think everyone wants the governors to be able to work this out,” Alabama's Riley said following the meeting.

Few details of what the states want to see for a flow plan have emerged, but the governors said Tuesday that lawmakers in each state will likely have to approve any new water sharing agreement.

Riley said the governors won't tell the public or stakeholders much about the details of the negotiations. Asked if he could release any details, Riley simply said, “No.”

Riley said the states were seeking an apportionment of the water that “adequately reflects the needs of every one of our constituents.

“And if we get much more specific than that, then it's going to be something that adds an impediment to the success of our team,” Riley said in a news conference following the talks.

Perdue reiterated, however, that the govrernors have made an agreement to try to agree – rather than have the water flows revert to 1970s benchmarks, which would happen under the federal court ruling if the sides can't work out an alternative by the deadline. That would be a disaster for Atlanta, which has grown dramatically since the 1970s.

But while a new agreement may be most crucial for Georgia, Crist also expressed a strong desire to have the issue hammered out by the states, rather than accepting the federal judge's fallback solution.

“People expect us to get things done, they don't expect us to sit around and argue all day long,” Crist said. “They expect us to ... work together for the common good and for the greater good.”

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Governors to meet over tri-state water dispute

The governors of Alabama, Florida and Georgia likely won't have a proposed water-sharing agreement in hand next week when they meet to discuss the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, a Florida official said today.

The three states have been battling in federal court since 1990 over the river system, which is a source of drinking water for the metro Atlanta area. Florida depends on fresh water to maintain fish and wildlife along the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry at Apalachicola Bay.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue requested a meeting of the governor after U.S. District Judge Paul A. Magnuson ruled in June that federal law does not authorize cities to withdraw water from Lake Lanier, the huge federal reservoir north of Atlanta. The governors announced Monday they will meet in Montgomery, Ala. on Dec. 15 to discuss the water dispute.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said today there is no draft water-sharing agreement.

"I don't expect a draft initially but I'm hopeful that we get progress on the 15th," Sole said at the Capitol after appearing before the Cabinet on unrelated issues.

"This is a good opportunity," he continued," for the governors to get together and re-engage dialogue both because of the court decision -- the Magnuson decision -- as well as where we are with regards to water." He pointed out that both Lake Lanier and the rivers have been full in recent months.

The states have been divided in the past over the use of computer models to predict how lack of rainfall will affect reservoir levels and flow in rivers. That's amplified disagreements about how much water to keep stored in reservoirs to protect against drought and how much to release for downstream needs.

Asked whether Florida's negotiating position has changed, Sole said, "I think we have been pretty reasonable in our recommendations and we look to continue to address what is a fair allocation of water and acknowledging a shared adversity."

"We acknowledge during times of drought there will be less water, but it is something that needs to be shared," he said.

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

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fla. delegation weighs in on EPA water standards

Twenty-five members of Florida's congressional delegation have signed a letter urging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work closely with state officials and industry in setting limits for nutrients in Florida waterways.

Scientists say nitrogen and phosphorus feed algae that have choked springs, rivers and lakes and have contributed to red tide in coastal waters. Sources of nitrogen and phosphorus can include industries, sewage treatment plants, farms and stormwater runoff from cities and suburban areas.

The EPA in August announced it will set more specific numeric limits for Florida waters, replacing the statewide narrative standard that prohibits discharges that create an imbalance of plants, fish and wildlife. Environmental groups sued the EPA to force the change and said the state standard failed to prevent waterways from becoming degraded.

Florida is the first state where EPA has moved to set statewide numeric standards. But the EPA move set off protests from business and industry groups along with Agriculture Commissioner Charles H. Bronson. They say the new standards will be costly to businesses, cities, utilities and consumers.

In their letter, the congressional representatives asked EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson to have her agency work with DEP "in an open, collaborative manner and utilize its extensive resources of science and data on this issue." They stopped short of calling on EPA to let the state set numeric standards, as Bronson and industry opponents have requested.

The letter points to the Florida Nutrient Technical Advisory Committee having met 22 times to openly evaluate data with input from industry including manufacturing and agriculture. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection was working to propose numeric criteria when the EPA agreed to set the criteria to settle the lawsuit filed by environmental groups.

"The proposed rule will have a widespread effect on Florida's industry and economy, and all concerned parties should be heard," the congressional representatives wrote.

Two Democratic representatives, Kathy Castor and Robert Wexler, did not sign the letter.

There was no immediate response today from EPA. Last month, EPA spokeswoman Enesta Jones said the federal agency is considering several options and approaches to setting numeric criteria for Florida and that much of the data it is using was provided by the Florida DEP.

Monica Reimer, an attorney for the nonprofit Earthjustice law firm that represents the environmental groups, called the letter "very reasonable."

"I was pleased that the delegation was taking a measured approach," she said. "It appears they understand that EPA understands this is a big task they have taken on."

To download a copy of the letter, go to :

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

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Florida delegation going to Copenhagen amid climate warnings

A group of 25 business and government officials is going to the United Nations climate change conference in Denmark next week to push for green jobs for Florida.

Meanwhile, a former U.S. climate negotiator told a Tallahassee audience on Tuesday that climate changes threatens the global economy and security. Florida State University scientists presented evidence that hurricanes are growing stronger and polar ice is melting as the world's climate warms.

President Barack Obama plans to attend next week's conference in Copenhagen, where a follow-up agreement to the 1997 Kyoto Protocols will be negotiated. The United States never adopted the Kyoto Protocols to restrict greenhouse gas emissions because of criticism that developing countries were not included.

An unofficial delegation that includes Enterprise Florida will be led by Kathy Baughman McLeod, a member of the Florida Climate Commission and public policy group director at the Bryant Miller Olive law firm in Tallahassee. The delegation will be meeting with renewable energy industries and delegations from other states and nations.

"Our state's economy is in a state that requires doing things differently," McLeod said. "A diverse group of 25 Floridians is taking a trip to Copenhagen next week to find out what a new economy means to Florida."

The delegation was announced in Tallahassee at Danfoss Turbocor, which produces energy-efficient refrigerant compressors. Ken Cooksey, international trade representative for Enterprise Florida, said his agency was delighted to partner with the delegation. (To see a list of the delegates, click here.)

"We are hoping for a great round of meetings during this conference," he said.

Florida's elected Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink also weighed in later, congratulating the group on targeting green jobs for the state. Sink is running as a Democrat for governor in 2010 and she touted her efforts to focus the state on renewable energy.

"I am hopeful that this strong delegation will help bring new, green jobs back to Florida as we work to harness our state's resources and make Florida an international leader in the green energy economy," she said.

On Tuesday, Frank E. Loy, who was under secretary of state for global affairs during the Clinton administration, warned that warming temperatures would threaten crops in developing nations, leading to migrations and unrest that could drag the United States into more armed conflicts. He placed the blame on dependence on oil for transportation. He spoke at FSU's "Human Rights & National Security in the 21st Century" lecture series.

The U.S. depends on a risky supply chain of foreign oil that also strengthens hostile nations such as Russia, Iran and Venezuela, Loy said. While that argument has been made by supporters of offshore oil drilling in Florida, Loy also warned that increasing the domestic supply will have a minimal effect -- though he said he didn't want to take sides in the "local issue."

"I'm certainly not hostile to it (drilling), but I will say this, it's not going to affect these numbers very much," he said. "We in the United States have about 2 percent of the world reserves of oil and supply about 10 percent of our production. So if we increase that by a good deal -- and that will take years and years -- it doesn't affect what I am talking about."

(Photo by Heidi Truitt Campbell, courtesy of Bryant Miller Olive. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

DEP delays sewage sludge action after business complains

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection today delayed action on proposed stricter rules over the land disposal of sewage sludge after one disposal company said the changes could cost it more than $1,000 per day.

DEP has been working since 2002 on proposed rule revisions in response to public complaints and environmental concerns about sewage sludge, which regulators call "biosolids." The state Environmental Regulation Commission today was scheduled to consider voting on the proposed rule revision.

But DEP officials asked for a delay after attorney Al Ford, representing Shelley's Environmental Systems in Mount Dora, submitted a letter saying the department is required by state law to study other alternatives.

"The letter proposes a lower-cost regulatory alternative," said Phil Coram, deputy director of DEP's Division of Water Resource Management. "We need to evaluate that."

The proposed rules include requiring permits, nutrient management plans and testing for some forms of sewage sludge while maintaining an exemption for those that are dried, processed into pellets and sold as fertilizer.

Ford said Shelley's Environmental Systems' disposal of biosolids on farm fields is beneficial recycling and that agricultural-use guidelines should apply instead of DEP regulations.

"If we start putting these restrictions and regulations on them (farmers), it's not going to happen," Ford said. "I think it comes down to -- if it's not broke, don't fix it."

The company processes 100 pounds of dry biosolids per day, Ford said, and the new regulations could cost the small business an additional $1,000 each day.

Representatives of Lee County and Harvest Quest, Inc., both of which use sewage sludge to produce compost that can be sold as a soil amenity, also called for excluding their operations from the regulations.

Audubon of Florida representative Charles Lee said the proposed rules don't go far enough in protecting the environment, including Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades and the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers in South Florida. The group issued a report earlier this year calling on the state and utilities to end the land disposal of sewage sludge in the Lake Okeechobee basin.

Lake Okeechobee, Lee said, already is close to exceeding state limits on phosphorus in waterways. Dumping more sludge in the form of fertilizer on crops could further harm the Everglades ecosystem, he said.

"They're not hauling it out there in pickup trucks," Lee said. "They're hauling it out there in tractor trailer loads -- sometimes in tandem tractor trailer loads, sometimes a long string of tractor trailer loads."

(Photo copied from DEP PowerPoint presentation. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission.)

PSC picks chairman, adopts conservation goals

By The News Service of Florida

On a busy day at the Florida Public Service Commission, the panel selected its chair for 2010-2012 and set energy conservation plan and fuel recovery costs for the investor-owned utilities.

In a widely expected move, the PSC chose Commissioner Nancy Argenziano to lead the panel when beleaguered current PSC Chairman Matthew Carter is replaced next month. The PSC also lowered the fuel recovery costs for customers of the state’s third largest power company and hiked the fees for customers of another large company, though bills for customers of both companies will increase because of other charges.

The commission also completed a review of conservation plans required by the Florida Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act, known as FEECA.

The panel also approved a Progress Energy contract for buying biomass energy.

Argenziano, a former Republican state senator from Dunnellon who will chair the PSC for a two-year term beginning Jan. 2, downplayed her ascension and cast herself as equal to the other members of the PSC.

“I appreciate the challenge and realize that the chairmanship is purely an administrative charge,” she said in a statement. “All PSC Commissioners are equal and independent appointees. Now, let’s get to work on the important decisions that lie ahead.”

Argenziano’s nomination was led by Carter, who has headed the panel since 2006 but was passed over for re-appointment this year by Gov. Charlie Crist when scandal rocked the PSC this fall.

Also, weeks after deciding that staff recommendations on the conservation goals of utilities were not stringent enough, the PSC completed today its every-five-year review of those goals, which FEECA requires the panel to do.

Created by the Legislature in 1980 to guard against weather-related increases in electricity demand and reduce overall statewide consumption, FEECA applies to the four major publicly-regulated power companies - Florida Power & Light, Progress Energy, Gulf Power and Tampa Electric - as well as the Florida Public Utilities Co., Orlando Utilities Commission and JEA.

The original staff recommendation took issue with proposals from both the utility companies and several environmental groups to minimize the use of expensive resources like petroleum fuels and control the growth rates of electric consumption and weather-sensitive peak demand, saying that the utilities' suggestions had an "inconsistent inclusion of costs for unregulated greenhouse gas emissions" and used "inconsistent cost estimates."

But Tuesday, the PSC leaned more toward the robust goals favored by environmentalists, choosing an aggressive Enhanced Total Resource Cost test for measuring conservation over an Enhanced - Rate Impact Measure test, which focuses on the price of electricity by measuring savings from avoided use, but ignores related benefits to society at large. The panel also encouraged the utility companies to expand their conservation education and authorized up to $24.5 million dollars in incentives for customers who adopt solar water heaters and other energy efficient equipment.

Outgoing PSC chairman Carter hailed the decision for threading the needle between not costing customers too much money and not being tough enough on utilities.

“Energy efficiency is an effective conservation resource in Florida and should play a key role in meeting our growing electric energy needs,” Carter said in a statement after Tuesday’s meeting. “The goals we approved today are achievable, and customers who implement the programs will save on their energy bills by reducing utilities’ fuel costs and their need to build more power plants.”

Still, some environmentalists were disappointed that the PSC left other conservation options out of its adopted goals.

“The resulting goals leave a lot of customer savings on the table," Susan Glickman, a consultant with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said in a statement. “Sadly, this keeps Florida in the back of the pack when compared to the leading states on energy efficiency.”

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