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Analysis

Florida energy bill promises to aid utilities, may help environment

Gov. Charlie Crist's grand energy schemes, founded on high ideals in VIP-packed ballrooms, have come to this: a kitchen sink of a bill, stretching more than 150 pages, so crammed with jargon that you have to be paid to read it.

Still, Senate Bill 1544, which could face a vote as early as this week, has a little something in it for everyone. If passed, it will allow Crist to trumpet the success of his broad plans to revamp Florida's energy policy. But it also leaves a lot of work unfinished, while granting substantial concessions to the state's utilities.

Crist will secure his cherished greenhouse gas cap-and-trade scheme, meant to reduce the emissions believed to cause climate change. Investors and environmentalists might win expanded grants and tax breaks for renewable projects. But the utilities win rules that speed eminent domain, ease regulatory oversight of power plant siting, and make it easier to run transmission lines through state land.

"I think that the governor has invested a lot of his political capital in moving his climate and energy agenda," said Holly Binns, a lobbyist for Environment Florida. "I think the utilities are savvy enough to know that they have a lot of leverage in the Legislature, and they've made it clear from the beginning that if there's going to be an energy bill moved, then this is the price."

Lobbyists on both sides say the bill appears poised to pass, despite some wrangling over how much the state can afford for grants and tax breaks. The Senate bill, introduced by Burt Saunders, R-Naples, has an as-yet undrafted companion in the House, which is expected to closely mirror the Senate version. Lobbyists say it could pass this week.

As the bill made its way through the Senate, environmentalists and utility lobbyists embraced an uneasy detente. Lawmakers tweaked the proposed rules giving utilities easier access to state lands, allaying concerns that power companies would slash their way through nature preserves, said Frank Matthews, who lobbied on behalf of a utility industry group.

However, clean-energy lobbyists have run aground on a proposal that would force utilities to offset 20 percent of demand growth with conservation measures. The requirement will likely run into opposition on the Senate floor, lamented Melissa Meehan, a lobbyist with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, which has fought for the conservation standard.

David Daniel, a lobbyist for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and an opponent of the measure, said, "We need a comprehensive energy policy to take us from where we are today to the economy of tomorrow. We need to do that today in a way that doesn't bankrupt Florida's pocketbook."

Although the bill's passage is a big step, it still just provides "a starting line," said Binns. It "punts" some of Crist's more controversial ideas, like renewable energy requirements and the structure of the cap-and-trade market, to state agencies. Binns wearily predicted, "The utilities will live to fight another day."

Asjylyn Loder can be reached at aloder@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3117.

Senate Bill 1544 highlights

• Calls for the creation of a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program. The state would set a limit on greenhouse gas emissions, and distribute allowances to polluting industries. Companies that exceed their emissions caps would be forced to buy credits from companies that polluted less than their allotment.

• Eases transmission line and power plant siting requirements and speeds eminent domain. The measures are meant to expedite the building of transmission lines in the state. It will allow utilities easier access to state lands, and impose strict requirements on utility opponents that propose an alternate transmission route.

• Directs the Florida Public Service Commission to draft rules that require utilities to get a certain percentage of their power from renewable energy. No target percentage is identified, although Gov. Charlie Crist signed an executive order last year that called for 20 percent.

• Creates several "green" government initiatives, including requirements for energy-efficient state buildings, buying environmentally friendly products, and a telecommuting program for state employees.

• Requires that state, regional and local planners discourage urban sprawl, and plan for growth in a way that takes into account greenhouse gas emissions. Changes the state's building code to require new buildings to be more energy efficient.

• Requires that all gasoline sold or offered in Florida must contain at least 10 percent of an agriculturally derived fuel like ethanol.

Florida energy bill promises to aid utilities, may help environment 04/15/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2008 11:44am]
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