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Utility lobbyists besiege Cabinet

Published Oct. 12, 2005

Utility lobbyists are swarming the Capitol, frantically collaring Cabinet members and their aides in hopes of influencing a vote close to the bank accounts of power companies.

Their mission: to kill a resolution that recommends reviews of the way Florida grants permits for new power plants.

Education Commissioner Betty Castor, normally tactful and calm, is outraged. Here's why:

Power company lobbyists showed up at a meeting Wednesday where aides to the governor and Cabinet were reviewing the upcoming agenda.

For the better part of an hour, lobbyist Wade Hopping warned of dire consequences if the power plant resolution is approved. He predicted skyrocketing electric bills, brownouts and loss of new business to the state.

The resolution, proposed by Castor and scheduled for a vote next week, recommends a review by state environmental and utility regulators that ultimately could reform the way power plants get approved. The changes could mean more time and money for applicants.

Hopping, who represents Florida's major investor-owned utilities through the Electric Power Coordinating Group, wrote the law that governs the new power plant reviews. "They're attacking my child, I hate it when they tell me I have an ugly child," Hopping said later Wednesday.

Castor, who was briefed by her staff about Hopping's performance, called his behavior insulting.

"He's trying to intimidate my staff and I don't appreciate it one bit," Castor snapped. "I think Mr. Hopping's overreaction is somewhat unbelieveable. He believes that he alone can control what happens in the public arena and I think that's ridiculous. . . .

"I'm appalled," Castor said.

Intense lobbying usually is reserved for the final days of a legislative session when megabucks are at stake and trains of bills are careening toward life or death, Castor said. She said she has never experienced it on a Cabinet issue, particularly a resolution.

"This is a serious, serious issue," Castor said. "From Day One of permitting power plants, we need to consider the public health and environmental impacts of what we're doing and have DER (the Department of Environmental Regulation) involved in what we're doing."

Besides Hopping, lobbyists for Associated Industries of Florida Inc., Florida Power Corp., Gulf Power Corp., Tampa Electric and Florida Power & Light have met with Cabinet members or their aides this week.

Several environmental and energy conservation groups, including the Florida Audubon Society and the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, back Castor's resolution.

"I think Mr. Hopping protests too much," said Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society. "Hopping and others here today were reacting to (the resolution) as if this was a rule that was going to be adopted that would have an immediate and forceful effect on the utility industry."

Veteran Cabinet aide Mark Ives, who works for Comptroller Gerald Lewis, also thought things got out of hand.

"I think both sides are overreacting to a resolution," he said. "The truth is, a resolution is an expression of the Cabinet's ideas, but the law still applies, everything is still in place."

The Public Service Commission currently reviews power plant proposals with little consideration for environmental concerns, Castor said. Once the power plants reach the Cabinet for approval, the majority of information speaks to the need for power plants.

Castor and environmentalists want the DER to participate more in new power plant evaluations. The permit process also should be open for public comment, she said.

Recent controversies over proposed power plants in Jacksonville and Lake Okeechobee and fears about harm to children from electromagnetic fields have created concerns that more Cabinet involvement is needed, Castor said.

Also, Florida's major electric utilities are beginning to seek approvals for the next generation of power plants, most of them coal-fired. Coal-fired power plants pollute the environment with mercury and sulphur dioxides, said Lee of the Audubon Society. Deaths of endangered panthers and, more recently, an eagle have been linked to power-plant pollutants, he added.

"We want the DER to be there at the beginning of this process," Castor said. "What happens today is the application goes to the PSC, where there's no discussion of the environmental impact. By the time it comes to us, there's a preponderance of information on why it should be permitted."

Ross Burnaman, a lawyer with the Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation, isn't surprised by the power companies' lobbying.

"Millions of dollars are at stake," Burnaman said. "The public has very little opportunity to comment on power plant siting."

Hopping said he doesn't object to a study.

"I want a balanced study, that's all," he said. The resolution, as it is worded now, appears to favor environmental concerns and define issues too narrowly, he said.

"I am fussing about the contents (of the resolution), and we thought all these folks ought to carefully read what they're resolving," Hopping said.

He said he had hoped the Cabinet might delay voting on the resolution so he would have more time to review it.

"We just wanted to get them to kind of calm down on this thing," Hopping said. "But I guess we got them more excited."