TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Mike Haridopolos joined the governor Friday in calling for a new state energy policy that will open the door to oil and gas drilling off Florida's coast, new nuclear power and increased investment in renewable energy.
Haridopolos spoke to a group of energy advocates, utility representatives, environmentalists and business groups in an off-the-record conference call on Friday hosted by the Florida chapter of the Houston-based Consumer Energy Alliance.
In a March letter to the group's Washington, D.C., executive director, Haridopolos asked them for "an independent report examining the current and projected energy needs of Florida well into the future" that would be presented to him, the House speaker and the governor by the end of the year.
The group plans a two-day conference in Orlando in July, which Haridopolos will attend, and hopes to have its draft report completed by September, said Matt Ubben, executive director of the organization.
Several people who were on the call said Haridopolos wants an "all-energy solution" that will explore both conventional and alternative energy, and noted that there is now distance between the oil spill and today.
Dave Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council said he told Haridopolos that his industry believes that 92 percent of America's oil needs can be drawn from Canada and the United States in the next 30 years "if we implement policies that allow our industry to produce it in an environmentally sensitive way."
To get there, he said, Florida and the federal government have to remove the bans on oil drilling off Florida shores. "We want to look for ways to extract them in a manner that recognizes the sensitivity of our No. 1 industry, which is tourism,'' he said.
Last summer, Haridopolos convened a similar energy summit with Citizens for Clean Energy, an advocacy group formed by Florida Power & Light and headed by former Public Service Commission staffer Ryder Rudd.
FPL's top priority last session was to pass a renewable energy bill that would have allowed it to raise rates as much as $2 a month per customer and control the solar energy market in the state without having to get approval from regulators.
The measure died amid resistance from members of both the House and Senate and, most importantly, Gov. Rick Scott. Haridopolos urged participants to work with the governor to convince him of the value of reviving the proposal.
Since he entered the race for the U.S. Senate, Haridopolos has collected $52,000 of his $2.6 million from energy sources, including nearly $21,000 from Juno Beach-based Florida Power & Light. Another $60,000 has come from individuals representing the business and energy interests that form the Consumer Energy Alliance.
Haridopolos' push for an energy policy mirrors that of Scott, whose staff convened a meeting in the Capitol Thursday with energy stakeholders. They said the governor wants a state energy policy but next session will pursue a limited agenda that includes a renewable energy bill and, at the Public Service Commission, a reduction in energy efficiency standards for the state's electric companies.
The governor's goal is to lower electricity costs for businesses, and that can include a discussion over the expansion of clean coal and oil drilling, said Mary Anne Carter, the governor's policy director. "What did the previous governor do? Kill six coal plants?'' she asked. "We want them in the room.''
Ubben of the Consumer Energy Alliance said that while the expansion of oil and gas drilling is one of the group's goals, it is not the only one. Despite the massive oil spill in the gulf in April 2010, he said polls show that more than 60 percent of Floridians surveyed are open to oil and gas exploration off Florida shores.
Not included in that majority is Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville state senator who is the Republican's choice for state Senate president in 2012 and a key Senate leader. His Panhandle district has "had our time in the oil barrel" and is not keen on drilling off Florida's coast, he said.
"I do not detect a strong appetite even among those conservatives whom I represent for drilling in Florida's sovereign waters,'' he said. "I have been a no vote and I will continue to be a no vote."
A spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson, whom Haridopolos hopes to unseat in November 2012, blasted the Senate president for working with the "oil lobby."
"Going behind closed doors and 'off the record' with the oil industry to solicit its wish list to pass off as good public policy is a sham,'' said Dan McLaughlin, Nelson's communications director.
Meanwhile, opposition continues. The anti-drilling group Hands Across the Sands will hold its annual demonstration on Saturday, with protesters linking hands along Florida's beaches to urge alternatives to fossil fuels.
"It's very disturbing,'' said Brad Stark of the Sierra Club of Miami, who was on the conference call. "They say they're for all forms of energy but they're not.''
Stark predicts legislators will continue the push for expensive power plants — both coal-fired and nuclear — and a dependence on fossil fuels.
"Ten years from now Florida will be crippled by these expensive power plants we're putting in place while the rest of the world moves to cheap solar," he said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.