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Crist's green plan a work in progress

A year into his climate-change initiatives, Gov. Charlie Crist has achieved some goals -- but there is still a long way to go.

Miami Herald - 6/25/2008 12:00:00 AM
by Mary Ellen Klas & John Dorschner

Gov. Charlie Crist basked in the glow of the international spotlight last year when he convened his first Climate Change Summit in Miami: The governor immediately signed an order requiring the state to adopt California's greenhouse gas emissions regulations for cars and trucks and force power plants to focus on renewable energy.

But after a year of trying to stoke a statewide dialogue on global warming and attempting to make Florida a national leader in alternative energy, what has been done? The governor convenes his second Climate Change Summit Wednesday in Miami and the report card is largely incomplete.

In April, Crist forced a reluctant Legislature to pass an energy bill, but it ended up being watered down. He has traveled to Washington, D.C. to testify about energy options, headed a trade delegation to study ethanol and energy alternatives in Brazil, and plans a second trip to Europe next month to develop energy partnerships.

The governor created a high profile Action Team on Energy to do a thorough study and make detailed recommendations to address Florida's energy future. One of the panel's top recommendations, phased-in auto emissions standards, got watered down amid heavy lobbying and campaign cash from auto manufacturers.

The Republican-led House and Senate delayed the start of the emissions standards until 2010 and gave themselves veto power over the final rules. The Legislature also gave itself veto power over the Department of Environmental Protection's proposed cap-and-trade program that would limit carbon emissions in Florida, impose penalties on polluters and sell credits to green companies, an issue utility companies and businesses lobbied. Crist is expected to sign the bill Wednesday at the first of the two-day ''Serve to Preserve'' summit.

Environmentalists and utility companies say the governor has made great strides in a state that until now has been at the back of the pack on emissions issues -- but he has far to go.

''Environmentalists are assuming we have an eight-year governor and this is an eight-year process,'' said Jerry Karnas, Florida climate project director for the nonprofit Environmental Defense. ``Given our region, that energy bill was a big deal and took a lot of political capital to get done.''

Holly Binns, director of Environment Florida, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, is less encouraged. ''The energy bill the governor will sign gets us back to the starting gate,'' she said. ``The thing that worries me the most is that all these initiatives have to get final approval from the Legislature, which is where good legislation often goes to die.''

House Democratic Leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach says the governor deserves credit for moving a recalcitrant Legislature. ''Did the governor get everything he wanted? Of course not, but the truth is he aimed pretty high,'' Gelber said. ``It's a measure of leadership when you're doing things that probably won't come to fruition in the immediate future.''

Meanwhile, utility companies and business groups used the bill to leverage support for fast-track approval of nuclear power plants. They persuaded legislators to add a provision that gives them the right to pass on to customers the cost of building the nuclear plants and new transmission lines.

Florida Power & Light spokesman Mayco Villafaña said the company was pleased with the bill and ``the Legislature's endorsement of nuclear power as a critical part of Florida's low-carbon energy strategy.''

The company touts its experience as a leading producer of wind and solar power and its CEO, Lew Hay, will be a keynote speaker at the conference. Business groups are concerned the governor's plan to require utilities to generate 20 percent of their power from renewable energy would increase utility bills substantially.

''We're like around 2 percent now. In order to get up to 20 percent, we would have seen some pretty dramatic measure and some pretty dramatic price increases,'' said Joanna Bonfanti of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

The Legislature ordered state utility regulators to study the issue and propose a standard no sooner than 2010.

''They're now going back to the drawing board,'' she said, noting that national legislation could make state action moot by that point.

The two-day summit will bring together industry leaders, policy makers, academics, scientists, environmentalists and the business community to focus on stimulating economic development in clean technologies and encouraging ways to ''green'' Florida business.