TALLAHASSEE — A Senate committee unanimously approved two bills sought by Florida Power & Light on Tuesday that overturn court decisions and allow the company to put transmission lines along environmentally sensitive areas in Miami-Dade County and resume charging customers for natural gas fracking activities in other states.
The Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee took the votes with little discussion and no debate as five Republicans and three Democrats overlooked warnings from consumer and environmental groups that the policies would cost FPL customers millions and lock the Florida utility into an increased reliance on fossil fuels for decades to come.
Under SB 1238, FPL would be able to resume charging customers and operating natural gas fracking activities in other states if the Florida Public Service Commission approves. FPL sought and received approval from the Public Service Commission to charge customers up to $500 million for investment in an Oklahoma-based fracking company in 2015 but, in May of last year, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the PSC exceeded its authority when it allowed the company to charge customers for gas drilling "without the Florida Legislature's authority."
The Senate bill was filed last week by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, and quickly put on the agenda by Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, the chairman of the committee whose close relationship with FPL's lobbyists has recently raised questions. The bill next goes to the Rules Committee.
The other bill, SB 1048, by Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, would revise state law after the Third District Court of Appeal ruling that found Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet — acting as the state siting board overseeing power plants — failed to consider the city of Miami's development rules when it signed off on allowing FPL to string 88 miles of line atop towers 80 to 150 feet high.
Victoria Mendez, general counsel for the city of Miami, which filed the lawsuit., said last week that Lee's bill would unravel the court decision and revise existing law relating to rights of way corridors, allow new variances for local land use regulations, and give the Public Service Commission the exclusive authority to order utilities to bury utility lines.
But neither lobbyists for Miami, nor lobbyists for several other cities that have registered to lobby Lee's bill, spoke at the meeting before the vote. The bill next goes to the Community Affairs committee. (House companion bills for both pieces of legislation have not yet been heard.)
Jack McRay, lobbyist for AARP, urged the committee to consider the additional stress the added costs of allowing the company to charge customers for gas drilling will have on many financially strapped ratepayers. He said FPL customers are "already suffering" from being forced to pay among the highest returns on equity — the guaranteed profit level FPL is allowed to earn — in the nation.
"From our perspective, that's like a tax increase," McRay said. Regulators last year approved a rate increase that allows FPL to earn returns on equity of up to 11.5 percent.
As an investor-owned utility, state law allows FPL to earn a guaranteed profit — return on equity — on its costs attributed to providing energy to customers. By changing the law to allow the company to put some costs of natural gas drilling into its rate base, SB 1238 would help FPL and its parent, NextEra, earn higher profits.
"Locking in ratepayer responsibility for a lengthy period of time via this bill would be unreasonable in our opinion, considering the volatile prices for a plentiful form of fuel and the alternative forms of energy which could be far less costly and less polluting," he said.
Sam Forrest, vice president of energy marketing and trading for FPL, told the committee that an investment into gas fracking technologies in other states would not be risky but instead a prudent and innovative investment.
"What we're looking for is to try to diversify the portfolio better than it is today," he said. He added that charging customers for extracting gas from deep below the earth's surface would be more like being in the manufacturing of natural gas than exploration.
Meanwhile, Artiles has acknowledged his close relationship with FPL and its lobbying team. Last week, Artiles confirmed that he accepted travel and campaign cash from FPL for celebrity treatment at a NASCAR event sponsored by FPL parent, NextEra, on Feb. 24. The next day, Artiles was seen at Epcot, touring the theme park's "Drinking Around the World Showcase" with an FPL lobbyist and others.
Artiles had failed to report that FPL paid nearly $2,000 for his travel, food and beverages during the weekend until questions were raised by the Times/Herald. Senate rules require members to report all contributions and expenses to their political committees on their web sites.
Late Monday, Artiles updated his political committee report to reflect three-week-old contribution from Florida Power & Light to compensate Artiles' committee.
Artiles' travel "was an in-kind contribution to Veterans for Conservative Principles by Florida Power & Light," said his aide, Alina Garcia, in an email after the Times/Herald asked how the expenses were paid.
Artiles traveled on a plane owned by Dave Ramba, who also lobbies for FPL. Also accompanying Artiles was John Holley, director of state legislative affairs for Florida Power & Light and a former lobbyist with Ramba's firm.
When the Times/Herald asked how he paid for the trips on Ramba's aircraft, and whether he included payment for others Artiles identified as staff, Artiles refused to speak to a reporter.
"Everything in writing from this moment forward, and I'll get you answers from my staff," he said, repeating four times that he wanted questions in writing.
Ramba said his firm received the "in kind letter on the 24th; it was dated and sent to the committee on the 22nd. Unfortunately, it was sent to me and didn't copy my staff so it was a clerical error it was not put on the PC website."
Artiles said last week that a fundraiser he held in conjunction with the NextEra-sponsored truck race raised $10,000. He acknowledged that before the event he "did not know that NextEra was the parent of FPL."
On March 2, Artiles' political committee reported receiving $5,000 from FPL and $5,000 from Florida Prosperity Fund, a political committee controlled by Associated Industries of Florida to which FPL contributes.
Artiles' committee also reported writing two checks to Ramba on March 2: one for $900 to the Ramba Law Group for "legal" and another for $1,800 to Ramba Consulting for "consulting."
Artiles said after the meeting that his vote was not influenced by FPL's contributions or his friendship with the company's chief lobbyist.
"It was a unanimous vote. I didn't influence the committee," he said. "I voted last and, at the end of the day, the committee made a decision and it passed it unanimously," he told reporters. He said he also disagrees with allegations that the power company has an outsized influence over the process.
Also voting for the bill were: Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola, Daphne Campbell, D-Miami, Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, Keith Perry, R-Alachua, Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland and Dana Young, R-Tampa.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at email@example.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.