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Charlie Crist promises renewed focus on climate change, environment

During a heated moment in the second gubernatorial debate, Gov. Rick Scott said of his opponent, "Charlie Crist never did anything for the environment."

"That's the most absurd statement anybody could make," Crist said in an interview afterward.

During Crist's term as governor, he took a number of actions on environmental issues:

• He blocked a coal-fired power plant from being built near the Everglades.

• He halted a drive to have manatees removed from the state's endangered list.

• He convened a summit on climate change, vowing to make it an annual event.

• He initiated an attempt to buy all of U.S. Sugar's land for use in Everglades restoration.

But when Crist ran for a U.S. Senate seat, he dropped most of his environmental initiatives.

He canceled his climate summit. He didn't fight the Legislature's move to cut funding for the popular Florida Forever environmental land buying program. And after spending years opposed to offshore drilling, he said he was open to the idea.

Crist's offshore drilling change in 2008 was viewed as an attempt to persuade Republican presidential nominee John McCain to pick him as a running mate. But McCain picked former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who was fond of the chant, "Drill, baby, drill!"

And in 2009, business leaders and environmental activists alike figured Crist had backed away from green causes because he was courting conservative Republicans in his bid for a U.S. Senate seat (which he lost to Marco Rubio). But in a 2009 interview, Crist denied that.

"It has everything to do with the economy," he said.

After the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Crist vowed he was again against drilling.

During this year's election, Crist and his supporters are playing up his record on climate change issues as one toward which he has a distinctively different approach from Scott. Even after meeting with scientists, Scott would not say whether he believes in climate change or that humans are causing it. Crist is quite adamant that he believes both.

In an interview, Crist said that he plans to, if elected, revive his climate summits and the executive orders he issued during his term that called for cutting power plant emissions, requiring the use of alternate fuels and rewriting building codes to require more energy efficiency. He said he would also explore additional steps to expand the use of solar and wind power.

When he first ran for governor in 2006, Crist did not emphasize environmental issues, although in the state Senate he supported manatee protection and opposed a coal-based fuel for utilities.

But in his first State of the State address in 2007 he called climate change "one of the most important issues that we will face this century." He pledged to "bring together the brightest minds" and "place our state at the forefront of a growing worldwide movement to reduce greenhouse gases."

That year he convened a two-day climate change summit in Miami that attracted 600 participants, including California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Then Crist announced he would make far-reaching changes in the state's energy policies: cutting power plant emissions, requiring the use of alternate fuels and increasing energy efficiency.

In 2008 he held a second climate summit and flew to London to talk about climate change with British leaders. As a Republican, his climate stance attracted national attention. He shared a stage with Sheryl Crow, met with Robert Redford and was interviewed on CBS's Early Show.

When Florida Power & Light, the state's biggest utility, tried to put a $5.7 billion coal-fired power plant next to the Everglades, Crist prodded his appointees on the Public Service Commission to turn it down based on climate concerns — the first time the PSC had rejected a new power plant in 15 years. That decision effectively quashed other proposed coal-fired plants.

Crist called the vote "the right decision for the environment, the right decision for the Everglades and the right decision for Florida." But it earned him the enmity of the state's major electric utilities, which are supporting Scott.

Crist's state wildlife commission appointees were all connected to the development industry. But then he incurred the wrath of developers and boating interests by telling his appointees not to vote for moving manatees' status from endangered to threatened.

He took that step after conferring with Jimmy Buffett just before a Tampa concert during which Crist introduced the singer and co-founder of the Save the Manatee Club.

Crist's grandest gesture toward the environment, though, ended up falling far short.

In 2008, a judge ruled that the sugar industry's long-standing practice of dumping polluted water into Lake Okeechobee was illegal, and a state agency voted to forbid the practice. U.S. Sugar lobbyists went to see Crist seeking his help.

Crist proposed that the state buy all the company's 187,000 acres for Everglades restoration. But in 2010, amid the economic meltdown, the state bought just 26,800 acres from U.S. Sugar for $197 million, with an option to buy the rest later — although now U.S. Sugar has announced development plans for that land.

But if he's elected, climate change is where Crist intends to focus much of his energy. He said that because it's such a low-lying state, surrounded on three sides by water, "Florida is the epicenter of this debate."

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.