For Florida, environment a hot issue

Published August 30 2012
Updated August 31 2012

It's not among the most discussed topics in the race for president, but the environment remains a hot issue in Florida. The state and federal governments have invested heavily in restoring the Everglades. Tallahassee and Washington remain in a fight over clean water rules. And Floridians understand the necessity of protecting beaches, preserving wetlands and improving air quality. Mitt Romney should spend at least as much time talking about those issues as about expanding oil drilling on federal lands and offshore.

Romney has not spelled out an environmental agenda, offering only a broad narrative that environmental regulations are job killers and that clean energy projects need to develop on their own. He would amend the Clean Air Act to prohibit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating global-warming carbon emissions. Romney said he would reduce regulations and fast-track the permitting process, and require that any new environmental restrictions take into account the costs for industry to comply. He also would end tax credits for wind farms — though not similar subsidies for oil and gas — and roll back incentives that have helped jump-start the alternative energy industry.

This is the wrong approach for a coastal state whose economy depends on sustaining a stressed and vulnerable ecosystem. At the very least, Romney should support a continuation of the federal-state Everglades restoration project. He should underscore that his call for budget austerity will not endanger the conservation of a watershed that provides one in three Floridians their drinking water — and for millions, flood protection and a livelihood. The campaign also needs to explain how it would recast the EPA, which Romney has singled out for criticism as "the most active regulator" under the Obama administration.

Romney's broader promise to undo a regulatory environment that he says drives up costs and destroys jobs also has serious implications for Florida, given the role the federal government plays in enforcing clean water and antipollution laws across state lines. He criticized Obama for holding up oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico as the federal government worked to institute new safety reforms in the wake of the BP oil disaster. And would Romney's more accommodating stance give a green light to his political supporters in the state — notably, Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi — to keep fighting Washington over the enforcement of clean water standards in Florida?

Floridians rely on a healthy ecosystem to protect the state from a range of natural disasters, serve a growing population and to keep millions employed in fishing, agriculture, tourism, construction and the services industries. Forward-looking Republicans in the state such as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam are leading the search for ways to develop renewable energy. Romney should realize that pitting regulations against jobs isn't a clear winner in a state where residents have a vested stake in standing for the environment in a tough economy. He would broaden his party's appeal and make inroads with independents by realizing that his environmental agenda still has room for a few good policy proposals.