Saturday, July 31, 2010

All Florida waters reopened to fishing

Florida on Saturday was reopening state waters near Pensacola that were closed to fishing because of the BP oil spill, Gov. Charlie Crist said late Friday.

Waters along the 23-mile stretch of coast had been closed since June 13 when oil was washing ashore at beaches in Escambia County. Fishing was allowed only for catch-and-release. The area was reopened because lab analyses showed fish from the area are safe to eat, according to state officials.
“The reopening of gulf waters for fishing is positive news for Floridians who depend on this important industry and for our recreational users and tourist,” Crist said in a written statement.  “Florida seafood is safe to eat and I thank the Food and Drug Administration for completing the test so quickly."

The governor's office said oil had not been seen in those previously closed waters "for some time" during flights over the Gulf. However, beaches in Escambia, Santa Rosa and Walton counties remain under advisories against swimming because of possible oil in the water.

Federal waters also remain closed along the Panhandle coast from the Alabama state line to Cap San Blas. Florida waters extend to 10.36 miles in the Gulf, and federal waters extend beyond that line.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune.Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Opponents go to DC to argue against proposed federal pollution limits

Three Florida House members traveled to Washington, D.C. this week to urge Florida's congressional delegation to fight proposed federal water quality standards for waterways within the state.

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency earlier this year proposed specific limits for nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients to replace a state narrative standard that environmentalists said is too vague. EPA agreed to propose the standards to avoid losing a federal lawsuit filed by groups including the Florida Wildlife Federation, the St. Johns Riverkeeper, the Sierra Club and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Florida's springs and waterways have become choked with weeds and algae from nutrients in groundwater and stormwater runoff. Industry and agriculture groups along with utilities say the proposed federal standards are too strict and will harm Florida businesses and the economy.

This week Rep. Leonard Bembry, D-Greenville, Rep. Debbie Boyd, D-Newberry, and Rep. Trudi Williams, R-Fort Myers and chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Committee, made the trip to urge congressional opposition, Bembry said. The delegation included representatives of JEA (formerly Jacksonville Electric Authority), Florida Farm Bureau, Associated Industries of Florida, Gulf Power, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Rural Water Association.

"I promise if this thing continues as it is going, people in Florida will be tremendously economically damaged and they will be damaged at a time when they are trying to make a recovery," Bembry said by phone from Washington.

The Sierra Club, in an e-mail alert, chided "big polluters and their favorite state legislator lackeys" for trying to stop pollution limits. "I think in a way it just shows how desperate these (industry and agricultural) groups are to stop this whole idea that we've to do something more about water quality," said Neil Armingeon of the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Photo by Chris Williams, GreenWater Laboratories/CyanoLab. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

McCollum energy plan would force solar, wind to compete

Attorney General Bill McCollum said Friday that as governor he will promote nuclear, biomass and "clean coal" to diversify Florida's energy supply, and that solar, wind and ocean energy should have to compete in the private sector to bring costs down.

The Republican candidate for governor joins the growing list of candidates for statewide office who have submitted plans to create jobs in the energy sector. McCollum's five-page energy plan appears to be an about-face from the policies promoted by Gov. Charlie Crist soon after he took office in 2007.

Crist proposed a 20-percent renewable energy requirement for utilities, while opposing coal plants that utilities also described as "clean coal." A bill containing a similar renewable energy requirement was adopted by the Senate in 2009, but the House refused to take up the bill.

McCollum instead proposes a "two-tiered" approach to renewable energy, without making reference to a renewable energy requirement. Florida's energy needs will increase 76 percent in the next 20 years, according to the McCollum plan. Florida should be more aggressive in using "abundant" renewable energy resources such as biomass, the plan said.

However, according to the plan, energy from solar, wind and ocean currents "must be subject to free market forces to drive down their cost and reach parity with traditional energy sources." Biomass includes burning garbage, trees and waste wood.

While Crist at one time championed the state's role in combatting climate change, McCollum says he would oppose federal cap-and-trade legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink earlier this week released a plan that called for requiring an unspecified amount of renewable energy while no-party candidate Bud Chiles earlier proposed a 20-percent requirement.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Coalitions forming against biomass nationally and in Gainesville

Conceptual rendering of American Renewables proposed plant in Gainesville

Groups and individuals opposed to biomass energy plants announced Thursday they are taking steps to block a proposed plant in Gainesville while opposing federal legislation dealing with renewable energy.

Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, Gov. Charlie Crist and some environmental groups say using wood, crops or garbage as fuel for biomass plants can provide renewable energy that is needed in Florida's future. But several proposed plants in Florida have been moved, canceled or have been delayed by local opposition groups, permitting problems or market uncertainties.

The Florida Public Service Commission in May determined that a 100-megawatt power plant in Gainesville is needed after the panel almost voted down the project in February. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection on July 14 issued notice of its intent to approve an air pollution permit for the American Renewables LLC plant in Gainesville.

A coalition of at least 10 people is forming in opposition to the plant, said Mick Harrison, an Indiana attorney who is representing the group. Individuals from the coalition filed legal challenges this week against DEP's site certification process for the plant and the PSC decision, Harrison said. A legal challenge to the DEP air pollution permit will be filed Friday, he said.

The company faces an increasingly well-organized and vocal group whose arguments have no bases in facts, said Albert Morales, chief financial officer of American Renewables in Boston. "We think it's important to realize this project will help wean Gainesville off fossil fuels," he said.

Meanwhile, 55 environmental and health groups, including six smaller Florida groups, sent a letter Thursday to President Obama and congressional leaders urging them not to include biomass in the renewable energy standard of proposed federal farm and energy bills.

Editors note: Comments from American Renewables were added to this story on Friday, July 30.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Bronson seeks $59 million from BP for seafood testing plan

While criticizing media coverage that he says raises doubts about the safety of Gulf seafood, Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson on Thursday also revealed that he has asked BP to pay $59 million over the next 10 years to test affected seafood for oil and chemical dispersants.

Bronson submitted the request along with a seafood testing plan. Even while a large area of the Gulf remains closed to fishing due to the oil spill, he said seafood from Florida remains safe to eat.

Cabinet members also pressed J. Thomas Cardwell, commissioner of the Office of Financial Regulation, to urge banks to go easy on borrowers affected by the oil spill. Bronson said the seafood industry’s troubles will cause banks to feel the effects.

“The fishing industry of Florida is, in some cases, in a near-panic right now,” Bronson said. “We have made this disaster worse on television and everywhere else by indicating things are happening that are not happening. And the fishing industry is losing. Your banks are going to feel the pinch of these loans on these boats and businesses and restaurants and homes that people live in.”

Cardwell said he met with federal banking officials and members of the Florida Bankers Association last week in Pensacola to discuss concerns about the economic effects of the oil spill. He said Florida Panhandle tourism had dropped off during the region’s peak season.

Attorney General Bill McCollum said hotels, restaurants and others in the tourism industry are suffering because of the oil spill. He said banks should take into consideration the claims that businesses have against BP.

“They are going to get recovery” from BP, McCollum said. “There is no question in my mind.”

Later Thursday, Gov. Charlie Crist announced that BP will provide $7 million to the Northwest Florida Travel Council for tourism marketing and advertising. Crist said he responded by requesting an additional $43 million as part of the $50 million for marketing and advertising that BP rejected on June 30.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

U of Florida study points to real estate gloom from oil spill

More then 100 days after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank off the Louisiana coast, a University of Florida study shows that the disaster is creating real estate market uncertainties far from affected counties along the Panhandle.

The gushing BP well was capped on July 15 and work to kill the well is ongoing. On Wednesday, state officials said scattered tar balls continued to wash ashore as beaches in Escambia, Okaloosa and Walton counties remained under swimming advisories.

A quarterly survey by the University of Florida of 275 real estate professionals revealed concerns about effects of the spill on markets far from the Panhandle. Many of the respondents predicted a decline in the investment outlook for single-family and condominium markets. Reductions in tourism caused statewide by the oil spill affects jobs and the real estate industry, said Tim Becker, director of UF’s Bergstrom Center for Real Estate Studies.

"We have heard in the press and from government officials the possibility oil could be washing up on the east coast next year or this year," Becker said. "Not knowing whether it's going to happen or when it is going to happen or where it is going to happen adds to a level of uncertainty."

The U.S. Coast Guard in the Gulf region that includes the Florida Panhandle is removing oil boom now. They are looking for oil but not finding much on the surface, said Capt. Steven Poulin, USCG incident commander in Mobile, Ala.

"I can tell you there is a lot of blue water out there and limited sheening and limited patches … of emulsified oil," Poulin said. He said the Coast Guard is trying to detect oil that may be lurking beneath the surface.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission moved its Sept. 1-3 meeting from Weston in South Florida to Pensacola, to give the Panhandle beach city a "deserved economic boost," Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Sink renewable energy plan calls for fed dollars to produce energy jobs

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink released an energy plan on Tuesday that offered broad support for new renewable energy policies while banking on an increase of federal economic stimulus dollars to grow clean energy jobs in Florida.

Sink released the 10-page plan at a news conference in Miami. The BP oil spill in the Gulf showed the economic threat of over-reliance on oil and lost economic opportunities, Sink said in a statement released with her plan.

She said she would seek more federal economic stimulus dollars to help pay for renewable energy projects and to train unemployed workers for manufacturing jobs associated with clean energy.

"We lag behind many states in renewable energy production and manufacturing," she said, "and the absence of a clear vision and a consistent energy policy is costing Floridians good-paying, sustainable jobs."

Sink endorsed the idea of a renewable energy requirement, called a "renewable portfolio standard," for utilities as long as it doesn't affect ratepayers. She said 29 other states have adopted an RPS.

Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007 proposed a 20-percent RPS but the Legislature refused to ratify it in 2009.

Independent candidate Bud Chiles called for a 20-percent RPS earlier this month and said he would pump $15 million annually into the state solar energy rebate program. It expired June 30 with a backlog of 15,826 applications totaling $52.6 million.

Sink made no mention in her plan of the rebate program. She said only that she will work to develop an "aggressive" solar program for homes and businesses. Neither Republicans Bill McCollum nor Rick Scott have offered a renewable energy plan yet.

In her plan, Sink also said she will build off a 2008 report by the Governor's Energy and Climate Action Team which produced 50 recommendations that have not been implemented.

Sink said she will promote Florida' s new Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program that was approved by the Legislature as HB 7179 in April. The program allows homeowners to borrow against their property value for solar panels and other energy or storm-resistance improvements.

Nuclear energy will continue to be a part of Florida's future, Sink said, but she raised concerns about the cost of new plants. She also offered support for ocean energy research, biomass electricity, biofuels and smart grid technologies that reduce energy costs and improve reliability.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Hometown democracy" opponents raise 30 times more than supporters

The lead group fighting the proposed "Hometown Democracy" amendment collected $4.7 million between April 1 and July 16 compared to $138,573 for the group that put the measure on the ballot in November.

Amendment 4 would require voter approval of changes by cities and counties to comprehensive land use plans. Supporters say the amendment is needed to curb urban sprawl and wrestle the growth decision-making process from control by development interests. Opponents say the amendment will cost jobs, stifle the economic recovery and leave uninformed voters baffled.

Contributions to the opposition group Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy Inc. included $1 million from the Florida Association of Realtors, $567,000 from Pulte Homes Corp. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., $440,000 from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, $367,000 from the Lennar Family of Builders in Miami, and $200,000 from Florida Power & Light Co.

"One size does not fit all," said John Sebree, vice president of public policy at Florida Realtors, formerly the Florida Association of Realtors. "This does not belong in the Florida Constitution."

Florida Hometown Democracy Inc. received $30,000 from Florida Watch Action Inc. in Tallahassee, $35,000 from Steven Rosen of Davie and $11,000 from Floridians for a Sustainable Population, based in Cross City.

"This is the true David and Goliath saga," said Joyce Tarnow, president of Floridians for a Sustainable Population. "We don't have that kind of money."

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Less oil in Florida waters; Feinberg to address task force on Wednesday

Scattered tar balls continued to wash up along the Florida Panhandle coast on Monday but federal and state officials said there appeared to be much less oil in Gulf waters from the formerly spewing BP oil well.

The well off the Louisiana coast has remained capped since July 15 after gushing since an explosion and fire on April 20. State officials on Monday reported widely scattered tar balls in the western Florida Panhandle. Beaches in Escambia and Walton counties remained under health advisories against swimming.

An effort to partially kill the capped well, called "static kill," could begin as soon as Monday said retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander. The well could be killed from beneath the sea floor beginning on Aug. 7, he said. Oil could remain a threat along the Gulf coast another four to six weeks though oil could occasionally wash up for months beyond that, Allen said.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said he flew over the Panhandle on Monday but didn't see any oil in Florida waters. Widespread effects of oil are not expected for the remainder of the week, Sole said.

After oil boom was removed from the coast last week in advance of Tropical Storm Bonnie. Sole said the state will be working with counties to determine how much should be returned to those waters. "The good news is we have amassed a lot of resources in this state to be ready," Sole said. "Those resources will stay for Florida -- they don't go away. Deciding whether or not to splash a lot of boom in the water is a key issue."

Meanwhile, the Governor's Office on Monday released an agenda for Oil Spill Economic Recovery Task Force meeting on Wednesday in Destin. Independent BP claims administrator Ken Feinberg is scheduled to address the task force at 10 a.m.

Click here to download a copy of the task force agenda.

(Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Friday, July 23, 2010

USF researchers confirm oil clouds that may pose long-term threat

University of South Florida researchers have confirmed that two subsea clouds of micro oil droplets found in May were from the BP oil spill. Their findings suggest that the oil spilled between April 20 and July 15 raises the possibility that the spill poses a threat to fish and sea life off the Florida coast even after the threat to beaches from oil has passed.

One cloud discovered by USF's Weatherbird II was about 27 miles east of the spill site in water about a quarter-mile deep, said David Hollander, a USF chemical oceanographer. The cloud was 22 miles long, six miles wide and 100 feet thick.

The other cloud, he said, was about 52 miles from the spill site in waters more than one-half mile deep. It was 20 miles long, six miles wide and was more than a half-mile thick.

The invisible clouds of tiny droplets were found along the DeSoto Canyon, where deep waters rise onto the shallower continental shelf that is spawning grounds for grouper and other important commercial and recreational fish species, Hollander said.

Although the concentrations of micro droplets are less than levels considered toxic to fish living near the ocean surface, the oil clouds may be harmful to fish eggs and other sea life that inhabit the ocean floor, Hollander said. Extended exposure to the oil droplets, he said, also may threaten sea life.

"These micro droplets are essentially 100 percent hydrocarbon and can easily be coating the gills of fish (and) be ingested by larval fish as food particles," Hollander said. "So the fact these are not diluted in the waters but are actually droplets in the waters changes the dynamic of how they interact with the environment."

"We don't believe this is going to be a short-term effect," he continued. "But it actually could be a long-term effect that affects (fish) populations for years."

The samples were not analyzed for chemical oil dispersants, which are toxic. Future analyses and sampling will also look for dispersants and could help determine whether those chemicals actually may have increased the environmental threat of the spill by causing oil clouds.

The Weatherbird II research ship will return to the area in August and this time should be able to more quickly test and analyze water samples to determine whether oil is present, said Hollander said.

(Photos courtesy of the University of South Florida. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Florida officials trumpet opening of federal waters closed by oil spill

State officials on Thursday trumpeted the reopening of federal waters far off the southwest Florida coast that had been closed to fishing because of the BP oil spill.

Florida officials had pressed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to reopen waters where they said oil no longer was found. NOAA on Thursday reopened 26,388 square miles, an area almost the size of West Virginia, or about one-third of the area that had been closed to fishing.

The closed area is about 100 miles off the Florida Panhandle, southwest Florida and the Dry Tortugas in the Florida Keys. Federal waters up to 10.3 miles from shore remain closed off the Florida Panhandle between the Alabama state line and Cape San Blas. The harvest of saltwater fish, shrimp and crabs is prohibited only off a portion of Escambia County though the area remains open to catch-and-release fishing.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchencho said the reopened federal waters had been closed because of a light oil sheen that officials feared would get in the loop current, taking it to south Florida. She said the area was reopened after fish were tested and showed no detectable oil or chemical dispersants.

"I would feel completely comfortable eating any seafood from this area we are reopening today," Lubchencho told reporters.

“For nearly 100 days, Floridians have suffered from this tragic event that has injured our environment, economy and quality of life," Gov. Charlie Crist said in a statement. "The reopening of these waters is an important step in Florida's recovery, and I encourage visitors from around the country and the world to visit our great state to enjoy our renowned fishing grounds."

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto said the state is working to reopen state waters off the coast of Escambia County and will do so as soon as the threat of oil is gone and laboratory results are clear.

View maps of the reopened areas at or download by clicking here.

Learn more about the state waters closed to fish harvesting by clicking here.

(Story courtesy of the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Cave explorer, springs advocate Wes Skiles dies while diving

Florida's globally known cave explorer, photographer and Florida springs advocate Wes Skiles died Wednesday while filming off the coast of Palm Beach County, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office said Thursday. (See statement attached as comments).

Based in High Springs with Karst Productions, Skiles, 52, was a former member of the Florida Springs Task Force. His "Water's Journey: The Hidden Rivers of Florida" video in 2003 was sponsored by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the Florida Department of Education, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Suwannee River Water Management District.

Skiles had finished a National Geographic expedition off the east coat of Florida, according to the magazine. The Sheriff's Office said he was filming at a reef three miles off Boynton Beach, when he signaled to other divers that he was surfacing. When those divers surfaced, they saw Skiles' body laying on the bottom of the ocean floor. He was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

During the past 15 years, Skiles produced and directed over a dozen major films on adventure and science. His work included most recently the IMAX film "Journey into Amazing Caves" and a film for National Geographic in Antarctica on exploring the largest iceberg in recorded history. He shot the August National Geographic cover photo of caves in the Bahamas.

"The springs play such an integral role to the health and the nature of our rivers especially in North Florida," Skiles told "Rally for the Rivers" in Palatka in February. "I think people don't really have a good sense of the significance groundwater and springs play in our water supply."

Jim Stevenson, a former state biologist and chairman of the Florida Springs Task Force, said Skiles produced videos that the task force showed to county commissions throughout the Suwannee River region.

In "Water's Journey" video, cameras traced the divers above the surface as they went through residential yards, crossed parking lots and even went through a crowded restaurant over the cave system.

"He knew more about the hydrology than anybody in the room," Stevenson said. "He was not a scientist. It was just through observation and common sense that he knew about how water moves. It enabled him to be quite an expert."

Skiles grew up exploring his local springs and cave systems, according to an accompanying biography with the NOGI award he received from the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences in 2007.

An active scuba diver at 13, Skiles was certified as a cave diver at 16. At that age he went with cave diving legend, Sheck Exley. Skiles' first dive with Exley was the recovery of two divers who drowned in Royal Spring.

Skiles was certified as a PADI open water instructor. In 1982 he was training chairman of the National Speleological Societies, Cave Diving Section (NSSCDS) during the cave diving's most deadly period. Over the next 35 years he would become known as one of the key architects of cave and technical diving, according to the NOGI awarders.

"I started when the springs were unexplored for the most part," Skiles said in February. "We as cave divers were just starting to venture into these places."

"I knew the second that I went into my first cave system that these were special places," he said. "The strong constant flow, this mysterious water -- and I was driven passionately to explore, map and photograph these places to bring this knowledge to the surface."

Skiles said he faced a challenge in the 1970s and 1980s in getting people to believe the springs had any significance. He said he would show maps and photos of cave systems to water management officials but they were dismissed as not playing a role in groundwater movement.

"Now we know that is not the case," Skiles said. He said his quest is to put the underground streams and rivers on a map of Florida.

"We find these places inside the world which are otherworldly, deep connections to the inner earth that reveal how little we understand about our state," he said. "There is actually a land form underground."

See also Palm Beach Post article:

USA Today:

See also National Geographic blog posting:

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Top photo by Luis Lamar copyrighted by National Geographic. Bottom photo by Wes Skiles courtesy of the Florida Forever Coalition. Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Judge rules against Florida AND Georgia in water case

A federal judge has issued yet another ruling against Georgia in a tri-state water dispute but in doing so also has ruled against Florida, according to news reports.

Alabama, Florida and Georgia have been fighting in federal court over water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system since 1990. The issue pits growth in Alabama and Georgia against Florida's desire to protect endangered species in the Apalachicola River and the seafood industry in Apalachicola Bay.

In an order signed Wednesday, Senior U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson ruled against claims raised by Florida, which said not enough water was being provided to protect the Gulf sturgeon, the fat threeridge mussel and the purple bankclimber mussel. Magnuson said he found no evidence the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's biological opinion for water flow was incorrect, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The judge also ruled that Georgia did not have legal standing to challenge a plan to ensure there is enough water to protect those endangered species, according to the newspaper.

Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Amy Graham said the initial response from Florida was disappointment. "We are considering all options for moving forward," she said.

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley said the ruling was another victory for his state against Georgia and its protection of water in Lake Lanier, the huge federal reservoir north of Atlanta.

“Alabama has argued for years that the Corps had failed to follow the law with its operational plan for Lake Lanier, and the Court has now vindicated Alabama’s position," Riley said in a statement. "Although the court did not order any immediate relief, the ruling puts the Corps and Georgia on notice that their refusal to follow the law at Lake Lanier will not be tolerated any longer.”

(Story courtesy of the Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Florida prepares as storm threatens plans to seal BP oil well

A possible tropical storm in the Atlantic Ocean posed a threat to Florida later this week and to efforts to permanently seal the BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico

The BP oil well since April 20 has fouled Escambia County beaches, threatened the state's tourism economy and caused political upheaval. A special session called by Gov. Charlie Crist ended Tuesday when the Legislature refused to vote on his request to allow voters to put an oil drilling ban in the Constitution.

The National Hurricane Center said a tropical storm wave that was 700 miles southeast Miami had a 50 percent chance of becoming a tropical storm. Models showed the storm moving northwest across the Florida peninsula possibly on Friday toward the Panhandle or the BP oil spill site off the Louisiana coast.

There was little oil threatening Florida on Wednesday with some sheen and tar balls only off the western Escambia County coast, according to state officials. But retired Admiral Thad Allen, the federal incident commander for the oil spill, said the storm could force the reopening of the capped oil well to relieve pressure if the site had to be abandoned.

On Wednesday, the well remained capped for the sixth straight day as work continued on a relief well to permanently shut the well. BP and federal officials were planning simultaneously for an alternate "static kill" operation while also preparing to possibly abandon the spill site should the storm approach.

"We have to watch the weather very, very carefully now and adjust our plans accordingly," BP Vice President Kent Wells said. An additional plug was placed in the undersea well should there be a need to abandon the site during a storm, he said.

The state and Coast Guard were preparing to remove more than 150 miles of boom deployed by the Coast Guard, according to spokeswomen for the federal Joint Unified Command and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The oil boom would become ineffective in stopping oil from reaching the shore during a storm because of the waves, according to a Coast Guard letter sent Wednesday to Crist. State and federal officials said the boom also could harm shoreline marshes and other natural resources if it became dislodged during a storm.

(Story courtesy of the Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Renewable energy supporters look ahead after not-so-special session

With the BP oil spill again having sounded calls for more attention to energy alternatives, some renewable energy supporters said Tuesday they remain hopeful the Legislature will take up the issue this summer.

"I don't think anybody expected [the House to adjourn in] 53 minutes," said Mike Anthiel, executive director of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy. "But I think we knew what was going to happen."

Gov. Charlie Crist, who in May had hinted that he could call a special session that would include renewable energy, instead summoned legislators for what he later described as a "rifle-shot" session dealing only with a proposed constitutional ban on oil drilling.

Solar energy advocates, schoolchildren and Rep. Rehwinkel Vasilinda rally at the Capitol on May 11.

Still, at least a half-dozen bills were filed dealing with renewable energy -- either setting requirements for utilities or extending the state solar rebate program that expired on June 30 with more than $41 million in backlogged applications.

But the House and Senate adjourned without considering any bills -- or voting on the drilling ban. House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, said he was creating a half-dozen work groups dealing with the BP oil spill but none appeared to cover renewable energy.

The BP oil spill in the Gulf has shifted attention once again to renewable energy, just as high gas prices two years ago shifted some political attention in favor of increased oil drilling.

The Clean Energy Congress, a gathering of more than 120 renewable energy supporters in the House chambers last month, had urged the Legislature to take up renewable energy if a special session were called.

Senate President Jeff Atwater said Tuesday renewable energy could be one of several issues he would like to be addressed in a special session later this summer. Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said he had asked the governor in May to be specific about what he would propose because of concerns about the cost of renewable energy.

"There could be cost-drivers embedded in there," Atwater said. "I think some of the senators are a little sensitive as to what cost-drivers the governor would be willing to accept."

Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, said the Legislature missed an opportunity to provide a lift for renewable energy.

"I don't think it's a death knell," said Rehwinkel Vasilinda. "Because I think people will see the light as we go forward."

(Story courtesy of the Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Crist blasts "do-nothing" Florida Legislature after no oil drilling vote

The Florida Legislature on Tuesday adjourned within three hours after opening a special session on oil drilling called by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Crist had called the session to last four days to consider placing a state constitution ban on the ballot in November. But House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, told the House shortly after the session began at noon that calling the session "is a terrible way to propose constitutional changes."

Cretul announced the formation of House work groups to study economic and liability issues associated with the BP oil spill. Republicans said the special session did nothing to help affected businesses and workers.

"We're taking this action today in order to return the focus where it needs to be, on creating jobs as well as economic assistance and development for the Panhandle," Cretul said. "We were called here today because of politics. But we are leaving today with a concrete work plan to provide real aid for those who need it the most."

The House adjourned at 12:50 p.m. The Senate, which was meeting at the time, voted 18-16 to adjourn shortly after 2 p.m.

Crist, who earlier had joined protesters in chanting "Let the people vote!" outside of the Capitol before the session began, blasted the Legislature for its inaction.

"How arrogant can a Legislature be?" Crist said. "When President Truman was president, he called the Congress the "do-nothing Congress." Well, today I call this Legislature the do-nothing Legislature, and I'm going to give them hell for it."

For more coverage of the House session, go to or the Florida Tribune.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Florida oil drilling fears born during 2009 legislative session

In 2009, Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, argued in favor of lifting the ban in state law against oil drilling in Florida waters.

Supporters of placing a ban on oil drilling in the state Constitution say you don't have to go far back in history -- only to 2009 -- to show why one is needed.

In 2009, HB 1219 by Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, had simply directed the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to study and make recommendations on how drilling could occur if the state's nearly 20-year-old ban on drilling in Florida waters were ever lifted. A Sierra Club representative spoke against the bill at one committee meeting, but it didn't rate the attention of other environmental groups.

On April 21, the bill was amended in committee to lift the state's ban. Six days later the bill passed the Florida House.

Although the Senate never took up the bill, some environmentalists say those events -- along with the recent BP oil spill -- show why the issue can't be left up to the Legislature. The drilling ban is the subject of a special session this week called by Gov. Charlie Crist.

"It showed the power of special interests that want to start drilling in this state," said Preston Robertson, vice president and general counsel for the Florida Wildlife Federation. "It certainly showed us that."

Read more in The Florida Tribune

Story provided by the Florida Tribune. Photo by Mark Foley, Florida House of Representatives.
Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and

On eve of special session, groups release survey showing support for drilling ban vote

Drilling opponents protested outside of the historic Florida Capitol on May 25. On Tuesday, they will visit the Capitol again during a special session to urge the Legislature to put a drilling ban on the ballot in November.

On the eve of the special legislative session dealing with oil drilling, environmental groups on Monday released a survey showing that 71 percent of Florida voters support placing a drilling ban on the ballot in November.

In response to the BP oil spill, Gov. Charlie Crist called the special session to place a state constitutional amendment on the ballot in November to ban drilling in Florida waters. Those waters extend 10.36 miles into the Gulf of Mexico and 3.45 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

The BP well that began gushing after an explosion on April 20 was capped on July 15 and was still being monitored on Monday as work continued on a relief well that could permanently close the former gusher.

Six groups supporting the ban on drilling off Florida paid $2,000 for the survey of 1,133 likely voters by ISSI of Washington, D.C.. The survey had a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

Fifty percent of respondents said they do not support drilling; 28 percent said they did; and 21 percent said they don't know. House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, says a constitutional amendment isn't necessary because drilling already is banned in state law. He told House members last week to expect a "very short" stay in Tallahassee, indicating there won't be serious consideration given to the ban.

Mark Ferrulo, executive director of Progress Florida, said he hopes that isn't the case. "We hear the gavel-and-go theory -- that is certainly a possibility," Ferrulo said. "Frankly, the Florida House of Representatives is so out of touch with most voters it wouldn't surprise us one bit."

The groups that commissioned the survey were Progress Florida, the Sea Turtle Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, the Florida Wildlife Federation, Hands Across the Sand and Audubon of Florida. Drilling opponents plan to gather at the Capitol at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday to call on legislators to approve placing the amendment on the ballot.

(Story courtesy of the Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Friday, July 16, 2010

Florida officials urge caution as BP well tests continue

State officials on Friday warned emergency workers against getting "happy feet" in response to the capping of the gushing oil well in the Gulf.

The leaking BP oil well since April 20 has caused oil to wash ashore in the western Florida Panhandle and closed beaches and coastal fishing areas. BP and federal officials continue monitoring pressure in the well on Friday after capping it Thursday, ending the leak for the first time in 87 days.

"What I'm worried about is don't get happy feet," said David Halstead, director of the state Division of Emergency Management. "We can have some joy over what occurred yesterday but we're not going anywhere."

He indicated that the state Emergency Operations Center could remain active another four to six weeks even if the oil well is permanently capped. A special legislative session begins Tuesday to consider a constitutional ban on drilling in Florida waters, though Republican House and Senate leaders have indicated they're unlikely to follow Gov. Charlie Crist's call for the ban.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the oil spill incident commander, said Friday that pressure within the well had been maintained but not at levels high enough to prove that there are no leaks. The well had been holding steady just above 6,700 pounds per square inch.

A level below 5,000 would show there was an obvious leak and a level above 7,500 would show the well was successfully capped. In between 5,000 and 7,500 would require further testing and analysis to determine if the well is safe to cap, Allen said.

Some in the oil industry argue that so much oil has leaked that the oil reserve may be depleted, causing pressures to remain steady but low, Allen said. There will be seismic tests and enhanced monitoring to look for possible leaks, Allen said. That suggests that the 48-hour window for testing could be extended beyond Saturday afternoon.

If leaks are detected, oil will be released again into the environment while a collection system to capture some of the oil is moved into place later next week, he said. A system to capture all of the oil, he said, won't be in place until the end of July.

"We need to have due diligence moving forward," Allen said. "We want to be careful not to create any harm or create a situation that cannot be reversed."

Meanwhile, work on an intercepting well is continuing today with measurements to ensure they are on course, BP senior vice president Kent Wells said. Work on the relief well, which is only 30 feet away now from the main well, had stopped during the testing of the capping system.

(Story courtesy of the Florida Tribune. Story and photo copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

BP official says well test results so far are 'encouraging' but inconclusive

BP Vice President Kent Wells said this morning that the closing and testing of the oil well in the Gulf had yielded encouraging but inconclusive results so far.

Pressure within the well and capping system has continued to build to 6,700 pounds per square inch, which is about 200 times more than an automobile tire.

There are no visible signs of leaks and sonar emitted from four robotic vehicles also has detected no leaks from the ocean floor, Wells said.

I'm "encouraged by those results," Wells told reporters on a conference call at 8:35 a.m. EDT.

A pressure reading of less than 6,000 PSI would indicate a leak in the well while a reading of more than 8,000 indicates well integrity, he said.

"And that between those ranges it could mean that there is integrity, it could mean there is not integrity," Wells said. "That is where the detailed analysis, etc, would have to take place. That is what is going on today."

The capping system could be only temporary while a relief well is dug to permanently close the well. A decision on reopening the well would be made by the incident commander, Thad Allen, Wells said.

Wells also said that seismic testing would be conducted today to determine whether oil from the well is leaking into pockets below the sea floor.

Meanwhile, work on an intercepting well is continuing today with measurements to ensure they are on course, Wells said. Work on the relief well, which is only 30 feet away now from the main well, had stopped during the testing of the capping system.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Thursday, July 15, 2010

BP says oil gusher has stopped -- results not final

A Florida official welcomed the news Thursday that oil had stopped gushing into the Gulf of Mexico -- for the first time in 87 days. But testing of a new well cap must continue to determine that there are no leaks.

"While it is hard not to have a moment of elation," Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said during a conference call with county emergency officials, "I will tell you there is still quite a bit of work to be done."

BP used robots Thursday just after noon to shut a valve on a new cap and there appeared to be no leaks. But Kent Wells, a BP vice president, said that a full 48 hours would be needed to determine whether the cap will hold or whether leaks elsewhere in the system will create the need to reopen the valve.

"As you can imagine I felt very good not to see any oil going into the Gulf of Mexico," Wells said. "What I'm trying to do is maintain my emotions. Remember this is the start of the test."

"I think it is a positive sign," President Obama told reporters. "It is still in the testing phase. I'll have more to say about it tomorrow."

If the leak resumes, BP would reopen the valves and route the oil to tankers at the water's surface using a new system that could take much of the oil flow, retired U.S. Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen said. The drilling of a new well that would be used to plug down the leaking well has been halted until the testing is over.

Sole said there still oil in the water off Pensacola Beach and Perdido Key. And he said unfavorable winds in the coming days could send more oil closer the state.

"Just a reminder while we have very good news offshore, we have still quite a bit of battle ahead of us," Sole said.

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House speaker, Senate president dismiss special session

House Speaker Larry Cretul told fellow House members on Thursday they could expect a "very short" stay in Tallahassee for next week's oil drilling special legislative session, suggesting there would be no serious consideration of a drilling ban.

Cretul, R-Ocala, made his announcement shortly after Senate President Jeff Atwater sent his own letter to the speaker suggesting that another session should be held in late August or early September to consider economic issues related to the oil spill. Atwater said the issues were too complex to take up during the special session now scheduled from July 20-23.

Atwater has expressed support for a constitutional ban on drilling, but House leaders have been dead set against it. "Rushing to amend the constitution at the last possible moment because of an accident hundreds of miles from our jurisdiction does not typify deliberation and responsible legislation," Cretul wrote to Atwater.

Lawmakers must act before Aug. 4 in order to put a constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot.

Atwater's letter made no mention of the governor or the special session. But in an apparent jab at Crist, the Senate president wrote that residents "will not be well served by hastily drafted legislation designed more for political consumption than meaningful economic relief."

Crist last week called the special session in response to the ongoing BP oil spill. House Republican leaders say a special session isn't necessary because offshore drilling already is banned in state law, though they did try to lift the ban in 2009 with a bill that the Senate refused to consider.

HB 7C, introduced Thursday by Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, and Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, would allow voters to decide whether to amend the state constitution to ban drilling in Florida waters, which extend 10.36 miles into the Gulf of Mexico and 3.45 miles into the Atlantic.

Also Thursday, Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Oviedo and a candidate for U.S. Congress, said she was filing a resolution to censure Crist for holding the special session, which she said could cost the state $50,000 per day. She said the session was being held so that Crist could grandstand for his U.S. Senate campaign.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Special session looms as nation awaits BP's actions to cap gushing well

With a special legislative session scheduled to begin next week to consider a ban on oil drilling, Florida officials watched and waited again Wednesday to learn whether a gushing oil well in the Gulf of Mexico can be capped. BP delayed launching tests on Tuesday to determine whether the new containment system might work and said those tests could begin late Wednesday.

"Clearly when I heard there was going to be a 24-hour delay in their decision [Tuesday] it was a little disappointing," Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole on Wednesday told the Florida Tribune. "I also understand their need to be cautious in whatever action they take."

Gov. Charlie Crist has used the Gulf oil spill to push the Legislature to place a constitutional ban on drilling in state waters on the November ballot. There was no further word Wednesday from House and Senate Republican leaders on how the special session from July 20-23 will proceed or whether the scope of the session could be expanded.

House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands of Weston accused Republican leaders of "stonewalling" and called on them to support the drilling ban. There was no immediate response from Republican leaders. House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, has objected to a special session as unnecessary because drilling already is banned in state law.

Also Wednesday, the nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed a lawsuit on behalf of environmental groups against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeking public disclosure of secret ingredients used in chemical dispersants used against the oil spill. "The public has a right to know what the dispersants being used in the Gulf will do the Gulf -- and to its wildlife," Manley Fuller, executive director of the Florida Wildlife Federation, said in a statement. The dispersants have not been used in Florida waters, according to DEP.

(Photo by BP PLC. Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

No plan yet on oil drilling special session

A special session is only a week away but no firm plan has been reached by House and Senate leaders on what should happen.

Gov. Charlie Crist wants lawmakers to put a constitutional ban on oil drilling on the November ballot, but House leaders remain opposed to it. The question, however, is whether legislators are willing to come to Tallahassee and do nothing.

“I don’t know what’s going to transpire,’’ said Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton and House Speaker Pro Tempore.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, said there would need to be an agreement between the chambers to expand the "call" or the official agenda for the session which is currently limited to the constitutional ban on oil drilling. It is not clear when or if the call will be expanded.

Jill Chamberlin, spokeswoman for House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, said in an e-mail, "The issue of a special session is under review. That's all."

Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Pembroke Park, said he will introduce a bill to require that utilities receive at least 5 percent of their energy from renewable sources. That's far less than the 20 percent proposed by Crist in 2007 and which the Legislature refused to approve in 2009. Gibbons said if the scope of the session is expanded beyond the drilling ban, it should include only energy issues and providing tax relief for Panhandle residents affected by the oil spill.

"If we accomplished that much it would be an extreme success," he said.

Mark Hollis, a spokesman for the House Democratic Caucus, said House Republican leaders were keeping session details close to their chest. "Nobody knows" what will happen next week, Hollis said. "They're not saying what they are going to do."

Rick Scott, a GOP candidate for governor, wants legislators to pass an immigration measure similar to one adopted in Arizona. He even launched a radio ad on Tuesday urging them to do so. Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, on Tuesday filed three bills dealing with immigration.

It would take a two-thirds vote by both chambers to take up any issue not included in the special session call issued last week by Crist.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune with Gary Fineout contributing. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

BP nixes Crist request for additional $50 million for ads

BP appears to be rejecting Gov. Charlie Crist's request for an additional $50 million for Florida tourism advertising in response to the ongoing oil spill.

Florida received $25 million in June for advertising to offset the negative images of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. On June 30, Crist sent a letter to BP saying the $25 million had been "deployed." He requested the additional $50 million for advertising, saying that Floridians "would rather work than receive claim checks."

But in a response letter dated Monday, BP Chief Operating Officer Doug Suttles pointed out that Crist had noted in his letter that Florida's beaches had remained largely clear of oil.

Suttles also said that a grant targeting the entire state was not the most effective strategy of attracting visitors. And he said the company was working with consultants to identify communities that have been affected by the spill to provide "tailored grants" for ad campaigns and events "that have a more immediate impact in attracting visitors."

An example that Suttles cited was the free Jimmy Buffett concert Sunday in Gulf Shores, Ala., which Crist attended. A Crist spokesman said Tuesday there was no immediate response to the letter.

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Attorneys say lawsuit focuses on oil spill's effects on property values

The sight of oil washing up on Florida's beaches and the empty restaurants, souvenir stores and bait shops already has led to the filing of numerous lawsuits -- creating perhaps a sense that attorneys are closing in like sharks at the smell of blood, or money, in the water.

But some attorneys who recently filed a class-action lawsuit against county property appraisers in the Florida Panhandle say they're not moving in for the kill. They said they're trying to help Florida's property appraisers get clear direction from the state on assessing the effects of the oil spill on property values.

"When we filed it we did not think it was a lawsuit hostile to property appraisers," said former Florida State University President Talbot "Sandy" D'Alemberte, one of the attorneys representing coastal property owners. "Indeed, I think it is helpful to the property appraisers."

But at least one of the three county property appraisers who was sued said the lawsuit isn't helpful -- or necessary to adjust property values next year based on the oil spill.

Read more at The Florida Tribune.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Florida's Crist calls oil drilling special session

Saying he felt a "compelling duty to protect Florida," Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday said he is calling a special session July 20-23 to consider a constitutional ban on drilling in Florida waters.

Crist previously said he supported drilling as long as it was safe enough and far enough away to protect the coast. But he came out against drilling again after the BP oil spill began on April 20.

Crist said in May he wanted to hold a special session to put the drilling issue on the ballot and deal with renewable energy. Although House leaders point out that drilling already is banned in state law, Crist pointed out that the chamber last year approved a bill to allow drilling within three miles of Florida waters.

"This is an issue I think is so important to the state and the economy of Florida," he said. "Our economy and our environment are inextricably linked in my view."

And the governor rejected the idea suggested by some House leaders that he was posturing politically in his race for a U. S. Senate bid. House leaders point out that drilling already is barred in state law, though they voted last year to allow drilling and the Senate refused to vote on the measure.

"Politics has nothing to do with this. This has everything to do with doing what's right for a place I love," Crist said. "I love Florida. I also know it is barred statutorially. I also know just a year ago they tried to change that statute and drill holes three miles off Florida."

He said the issue is "time sensitive" because the Legislature has until Aug. 4 to put the issue on the ballot. He also said he won't bring other issues into the special session.

"It is a rifle shot," he said. "It is one issue. it is very tightly drafted. I didn't want to get confused as to what this is about."

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Owner agrees to sell vital land along manatee sanctuary

An aerial view of manatees gathered near the mouth of Three Sisters Springs.

The owner of 57 acres near the Three Sisters Springs in Crystal River tentatively has agreed to sell his land to the state for $10.5 million, a landowner representative said Thursday.

The Florida Communities Trust on June 24 agreed to pay $10.5 million for the land in a deal aimed at stopping a proposal to build 309 homes. Business leaders, tourism officials, local environmentalists and the Save the Manatee Club argued in support of the purchase on June 24 before the FCT board in Tallahassee.

The Legislature set aside $2 million towards an unnamed Citrus County conservation purchase tucked away deep inside the new state budget. But the FCT board, which oversees state grants for the purchase of local parks across the state, instead agreed to put $725,000 aside for Three Sisters Springs as some members argued that taking money from other worthy projects was unfair.

George Willson, representing the Conservation Fund that represents landowner managing partner Hal Flowers, said the deal depends on the Crystal River City Council approving a transfer of development rights for some of the homes so they can be built elsewhere in the city.

"Everybody is really, really happy," Willson said.

For more on the story:
"Three Sisters Deal Shaping Up," Citrus County Chronicle, July 7.

"State Board balks at budget provision approved by Legislature,", June 24.

Photos of Three Sisters Springs by Tracy Colson. To view more, go to

(Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Chiles wants 20-percent renewable energy standard

Bud Chiles, independent candidate for governor, said Wednesday he will push for a 20-percent renewable energy requirement as governor and push to reauthorize the solar energy rebate program.

Chiles announced the initiatives after touring the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa. He also criticized his opponents' and their parties for accepting donations from utilities.

"I am the one candidate who can swing for the fences here," Chiles said in a telephone interview. "I'm not beholden to the utilities who are blocking the progress. I am going to push for this hard."

Chiles also said on Wednesday that he also would enable consumers to finance energy retrofits through their monthly electricity bills, create a $100 million renewable energy revolving loan fund for state and local renewable energy projects and end the "culture of corruption" that allows utilities to use campaign contributions as leverage over the Florida Public Service Commission.

Last week Chiles called for a grand jury investigation of the PSC after a nominating council refused to grant interviews to two incumbent commissioners who opposed utility rate hikes sought by the state's two largest utilities.

Chiles himself, however, came under fire in the early '90s when his father, the late Lawton Chiles, was governor. Members and associates of a public relations firm owned by Chiles were accused of trying to help a utility client before both the PSC and the Cabinet. The St. Petersburg Times reported the allegations were confirmed by a former PSC member and aides to then Education Commissioner Betty Castor. Months after the allegations surfaced, Chiles sold his firm.

If Chiles proposal for a renewable energy requirement has a familiar ring, that's because Gov. Charlie Crist proposed a 20-percent "renewable portfolio standard" in 2007 -- only to see it derailed by the GOP-controlled Legislature.

An energy bill approved in 2008 required a PSC recommendation and approval by the Legislature. The PSC recommended a 20-percent RPS but the Legislature refused to approve it in 2009.

The solar rebate program, which provides rebates of up to $20,000 for residential solar photovoltaic panels, was begun in 2006. But the program ended June 30 with a backlog of at least $41 million and 11,000 pending applications.

Chiles said he would provide $15 million a year for solar rebates and would get the money by examining $34 billion in sales tax loopholes, although those loopholes have powerful supporters in the Legislature. He said the jobs and environmental benefits of renewable energy are worth it.

"It's going to create jobs, it's going to save the environment and get us off carbon fuels," said Chiles.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Nelson says more skimmers on the way to Florida, Gulf to battle oil

More oil-skimming vessels are on the way to the Gulf of Mexico while the BP oil spill is not expected to affect Florida this week, state officials said Tuesday.

U. S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, visited the state Emergency Operations Center and announced that 27 U. S. Navy skimming vessels were being deployed to the Gulf from Navy ports in addition to six that already had been sent recently. Florida officials in recent weeks have cited a lack of skimmers to prevent oil from washing ashore.

The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency had to waive a requirement that the skimmers be kept in Navy ports in case of an oil spill, Nelson said.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said he doesn't expect any oil to hit Florida beaches for a week because winds are blowing it to the west. Nelson said that will affect where the skimmers go.

"Fortunately for us the oil is not here in Florida because the winds have shifted over there (to the west)," Nelson told reporters. "The initial ones (Navy skimmers) are going to where the oil is."

Officials in Washington state have raised concerns that sending skimmers would leave their state vulnerable to an oil spill, according to the Seattle Times. Washington state law requires the oil industry to have the capability of responding to a worst-case scenario there. (

Sole had said two weeks ago that Florida needed 100 skimmers but only had 20, not including five that the state was leasing to work in five bays in the Panhandle. Last Friday, Sole told legislators there were 81 Skimmers working off the Florida coast.

Nelson acknowledged that it took a long time -- more than two months since the BP oil spill began -- to find the needed skimmers and redirect them to the Gulf.

"Your senator didn't have a lot of confidence with the way this was playing out to begin with," he said.

He said the No. 1 priority is to plug the well, and No. 2 is removing the oil from the surface "and keep it out out of the bays and the estuaries and the wetlands.

"When it gets up on the beach you can clean it up there," he said.

Sole said skimmers serve no purpose now being off Florida's coast and now are better off Alabama and states to the west. He said enough skimmers from around the nation and globe are coming to meet Florida's needs.

Even though there is no immediate threat of oil, protective boom will remain in place to keep oil from washing into bays and inlets, Sole said.

"Most of this oil is now to the west of us," Sole said, saying that Florida had received a "reprieve" because of weather.

"I don't expect any impact at all this week except for the occasional tar balls," he said.

Gov. Charlie Crist was in Pensacola on Tuesday to hold a roundtable discussion with business owners. Sole also went to Escambia County to help open spill response branch offices in western Panhandle counties.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Trade groups band together for renewable energy

Workers are trained at the Florida Solar Energy Center in Cocoa to install solar panels.

An informal coalition of renewable energy trade groups have developed a policy statement that they hope will push the Florida Legislature to take action on renewable energy.

Some legislators have cited disagreement among renewable energy groups as a challenge in developing renewable energy legislation.

HB 7229 would have allowed utilities to recover the cost of renewable energy projects from their customers. The bill passed the House despite concerns from some renewable energy groups but died in the Senate as concerns were raised about the cost to consumers. The interest groups involved in the issue included utilities, solar energy providers, biomass energy producers, environmental groups and even pulp and paper mills.

"They all have their own ideas on how we should approach this," Rep. Stephen Precourt, R-Orlando and chairman of the House Energy & Utilities Committee, said after HB 7229 died in the Senate. "It's hard to do that [build consensus] and produce legislation."

The new policy statement calls on the state to establish and energy plan with renewable energy goals that encourage or require use of energy from smaller producers. The groups that signed onto the statement last week are the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy, the Florida Renewable Energy Association, the Florida Renewable Energy Producer's Association, the Florida Solar Energy Industries Association, Floridians for Energy Independence, the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, Covanta Energy and the Florida Brownfields Association.

Their statement also supports paying down the backlog in the Florida solar rebate program, which ended on Wednesday with more than $41 million in applications. The Legislature has refused to fund the program since 2008.

The groups also want a constitutional amendment that limits increases in the taxable value on commercial property for solar panels or other energy projects similar to the existing limits in place for residential properties.

Smaller scale renewable energy projects create more local jobs and have more local economic impact that larger utility projects, said Mike Antheil, executive director of the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy.

With the new policy statement, "We can now say we're on the same page in trying to get some kind of policy in place for the small to mid-scale (producers) market in the state," Anthiel said.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Florida Legislators angry over halted beach cleanups

Workers clean oil from a Pensacola beach on June 23rd.

Legislators complained Friday that oil spill clean up workers are being kept off beaches because there are not enough workers who are specifically trained to watch out for sea turtles.

During a telephone conference call with Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole, Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, said workers from Bay County were driven to Destin to clean up oil on beaches but they were unable to work for three nights. Sole confirmed they were unable to work because there are not enough permitted turtle-watchers to accompany the workers at night.

The watchers are needed to spot endangered and threatened sea turtles to prevent them from being stepped on or run over by equipment, Sole said. The watchers also are needed to find turtle tracks leading to nests that need to be identified and protected so the eggs can be moved away from areas affected by the oil spill.

Coley, R-Marianna, said she hated to see a lack of turtle-watchers allow beaches to become soaked with oil. Sole said the state is trying to get more permitted turtle-watchers while not taking them from other parts of the state where they are needed.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, accused Sole of allowing the lack of turtle-watchers to wreck the state's tourism economy. "I want you to go out and tell those small business people and tell those communities and other environmentalists that everything dies because we don't have turtle-watchers," she said.

Sole said that wasn't true while adding that he also had raised frustrations with the Coast Guard and BP. "It is a problem, it has been identified and they need to fix it," he said. He also promised to followup by providing information on the situation to legislators.

The federal unified command announced Friday that it was trying to build a network of observers to protect turtles from oil-burning operations.

(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Emily F. Alley. Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Florida health officials change postings for oiled beaches

After hundreds of people complained about swimming with oil at beaches in Escambia County last week, the Florida Department of Health is making modest changes in its system for issuing beach swimming advisories.

All Gulf beaches in Escambia County were closed Saturday along with most beaches in Walton County, according to a DOH website. More than 400 people complained last week to the Escambia County health officials about swimming in oily water, according to multiple news reports.

During a morning briefing at the state Emergency Operations Center, Dr. Mark O'Neill of the Florida Department of Health said the system of providing for "oil impact" advisories to be posted and removed frequently is being replaced. The new system allows advisories to remain posted at beaches "as long as the threat exists, which could be quite some time," O'Neill said.

He said the choppy surf had made it difficult for people to see oil sheen on the surface of the Gulf. "If something in the future warrants a higher level of concern for human health, we will move in that direction," he said. "Right now we don't have any science showing us higher concern than skin irritation or rash."

A DOH guidance document cites the impact of water pollution on coastal economies. The trigger for issuing advisories is "extensive oil sheen, oil slick, oil mousse or extremely large numbers of tar balls in the water, within 100 yards of the shore, as observed by a designated government professional."

Beaches are not closed. Rather swimmers are told to avoid entering the water if oil or tar balls are present and to avoid contact with dead or dying fish or animals. Young children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are advised to avoid the area.

The oil impact notice can be removed based on a "local determination" that the beach is no longer impacted by the spill, according to the DOH document.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Nominating council could limit governor's PSC picks

The Florida Public Service Commission Nominating Council in August will interview six applicants for two spots on the Public Service Commission even though all of them have already been nominated to fill two other seats. The council's choices could limit the governor's selection to lead the troubled agency, but the council chairman says that was not the intent.

In a controversial move on Wednesday, the council effectively voted to oust Commission Chairman Nancy Argenziano and Commissioner Nathan A. Skop by not choosing them among the 18 to be interviewed for their seats. (See "Argenziano and Skop ousted from PSC," June 30.) Their terms end on Jan 1, 2011.

On June 15, the PSC Nominating Council recommended eight names for two vacant seats created after the Senate in April refused to confirm the nominations of David E. Klement and Ben A. "Steve" Stevens III.

Gov. Charlie Crist has until July 15 to choose two appointees for the vacant Klement and Stevens seats. Six of the eight are also will be interviewed again for the Skop and Argenziano seats.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and council chairman, at a June meeting encouraged the applicants who were being interviewed to reapply for the Argenziano and Skop seats. On Thursday, he said there was no intent to limit the governor's choices for the PSC. Bennett said he would ask the council to submit more than eight names if the six were recommended to the governor again.

"I want to make sure the governor has enough choices to get the right people for the state of Florida," Bennett said.

The six who are being interviewed again are former PSC Executive Director Mary Bane, legislative analyst Kevin Wiehle, Jacksonville City Councilman Art Graham, former Missouri PSC member Connie Murray, Tallahassee attorney Charles Ransom, and Sen. Lee Constantine, D-Altamonte Springs.

Former Sen. Curt Kiser, now the PSC's general counsel, and Rep. Ronald Brise, D-North Miami Beach, were recommended in June but did not reapply for the Argenziano and Skop seats. Click here for a list of the 18 who were selected to be interviewed in August.

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting

Fallout continues over ousting of Florida PSC members

Independent candidate for governor Bud Chiles on Thursday called on Gov. Charlie Crist to aks for a grand jury to investigate the Florida Public Service Commission.

The PSC Nominating Council on Wednesday effectively ousted Chairman Nancy Argenziano and Commissioner Nathan A. Skop by not selecting them among the 18 to be interviewed for their seats after their terms end on Jan. 1. Both commissioners said their removal was payback for their questioning utility rate hike requests.

"Never in Florida's history have special interests so actively and effectively subverted the will of the people," Chiles, son of the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, said in a statement. "The message to new commissioners is clear: Side with consumers and we'll have you removed. The people have a right to understand how this travesty happened."

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton and council chairman, said in response that Chiles' statement "doesn't bother me one iota." The council, he said, wanted to clean house of dissension and infighting among PSC members. "This is strictly a political thing on his end -- it means nothing to me," Bennett said.

The senator also responded to Skop's challenge to name who among the 18 applicants to be interviewed was more qualified than he is to serve on the PSC. In a statement, Skop, a nuclear engineer with a law degree and MBA, also said he may be among the most qualified in the United States to serve on the panel.

"That tells me this person has a severe ego problem, and his ego problem has been part of the dissension at the PSC," Bennett said. "It is not about one individual -- it is about trying to build consensus and finding a group that can work together to come up with an energy policy for the state of Florida."

Crist on Wednesday night issued a statement saying he was saddened that Argenziano and Skop were being replaced "in spite of their strong record of working to protect Florida consumers." The St. Petersburg Times today published an editorial saying the message sent to commissioners was "Stand up to utilities at your own peril."

(Story provided by The Florida Tribune. Story copyrighted by Bruce Ritchie and Do not copy or redistribute without permission, which can be obtained by contacting