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Gas pipeline proposal starts Capitol scrap

A proposal to build a natural gas pipeline under lenient state rules instead of tougher federal standards has the backing of two Senate leaders but is opposed by a colleague who says consumer rights are being trampled.

United Gas Pipeline Co. of Houston proposes building the pipeline from Pensacola to Polk County, and Florida Power Corp. of St. Petersburg supports the plan to guarantee a fuel source.

State Sens. Pat Thomas of Quincy, the Democratic choice to be the next Senate president, and W. D. Childers of Pensacola, dean of the Senate, are backing the plan.

But Florida's rural electric companies, manufacturers that produce excess power, railroads and an existing gas pipeline company have lined up to fight the pipeline as a last-minute and unfair proposal.

State Sen. Mary Grizzle, R-Belleair Shore, wanted a committee she heads to consider the measure, but Thomas steered the legislation away without her knowledge.

An outraged Grizzle asked lawmakers to wrest the bill from Thomas' control, but her bid fell short by a single vote. The legislation now sits in a Senate budget panel, and a House version is scheduled for committee debate Monday.

"There are millions of dollars at stake here for everyone," Grizzle said. "I'm concerned that the consumers are able to reap the benefits of this. This proposal rides over their rights completely."

The blossoming legislative fight has attracted 31 lobbyists so far, and spending on the bill may reach $500,000.

Thomas said he has asked lobbyists from both sides about holding campaign fund-raisers to bolster his bid for Senate president, but says the campaign and the pipeline are separate.

"I talked to both sides about fund raising, but not in that context. No siree," he said Friday. "It's a separate issue totally. I've been here too long to do that. There's no relationship. I know better."

Thomas said he has steered away from the plan since introducing the measure written by an attorney for the pipeline builder at the request of lobbyist L. Garry Smith of Tampa.

Neither Thomas nor Childers appeared before a Senate natural resources panel that reviewed the bill.

The most visible support has come from Smith, Florida Power, the law firm of Steel, Hector & Davis and two environmental lobbyists.

The proposed pipeline would provide gas to a 500-megawatt power plant proposed by Florida Power in Polk County and could supply an alternative fuel to coal-burning plants at Anclote station in Tarpon Springs. Facilities in Orlando, Kissimmee and Lakeland also would have access to the gas.

"We think it's good for our customers and very good for the environment," said Florida Power spokesman Rick Janka.

What once had been a quiet issue promises to get louder.

"I don't think this is an issue a lot of people have paid attention to," said Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, the House sponsor. "I think people are starting to pay attention now."

Pete Dunbar, former adviser to Gov. Bob Martinez, is lobbying for Florida Gas Transmission Co., a rival pipeline company with an expansion plan following the tougher federal rules.

"You have two pretty good teams suited up," Dunbar said. "I don't think there's much question there's going to be a fight. If they think they can muscle it through, I've got to try to muscle it back."