March 09, 2016

Legislators put solar energy incentives on August primary ballot

Solar panelsFlorida legislators voted Wednesday to put a clean energy amendment on the August primary ballot, allowing voters to decide whether or not to give businesses two different tax breaks when they install solar panels on their properties.

The proposed amendment, HJR 193, passed unanimously in both the House and Senate after sponsors moved the ballot question to the August 30 primary instead of the general election.

The House and Senate also passed a companion measure, HB 195, which will give the Legislature until 2017 to establish the rules to implement the tax credits if voters approve it. Under the amendment, lawmakers would be required to enact tax credits that exempt the assessed value of renewable energy devices from property taxes as well as exempt the products from the tangible personal property taxes by 2018. Once the tax incentives are in place, they will last for 20 years.

The proposed amendment is sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, and has the support of the Florida Retail Federation, the Christian Coalition, Conservatives for Energy Freedom, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other business groups whose members want the opportunity to install solar arrays on their properties. They have said that the existing tax laws serve as a disincentive for companies like Solar City to enter the Florida market by adding as much as five cents per kilowatt hour for solar energy.

"The proposal opens the door for significant expansion of solar and renewable energy production in Florida,'' Brandes said in a statement Wednesday.

Continue reading "Legislators put solar energy incentives on August primary ballot" »

Radioactive isotopes found in bay from FPL's nuclear plants are violating laws

FPL salt at turkey pointvia @JenStaletovich

Florida Power & Light’s troubled cooling canals, blamed for contaminating groundwater and now found to be leaking into Biscayne Bay, are likely violating local water laws and federal operating permits, critics said on Tuesday.

Following the release of a report that found a radioactive “tracer” at levels up to 215 times more than normal in Biscayne Bay, Miami-Dade County commissioners called for quicker action and closer scrutiny of the nuclear power plant’s canals. The county’s chief environmental regulator said he planned to issue another violation — the county cited the utility in October for polluting groundwater — to force FPL to take more steps to fix the chronic problems.

Critics, including state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, environmentalists and neighboring rock miners, also demanded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency intervene.

Rodriguez and others said the state has repeatedly failed to address worsening conditions. In February, a Tallahassee judge ordered the state to redo an administrative order managing the canals, saying it lacked the most “fundamental element of an enforcement action: charges.”

On Monday, County Mayor Carlos Gimenez released the latest damning document: A county monitoring study that found water sampled in December and January contained high amounts of tritium, a radioactive isotope found in water used to cool nuclear reactors. While the tritium falls far below levels that experts consider dangerous, the telltale tracer provided the critical link that high levels of ammonia and phosphorus in sections of bay bottom — pollution that is more damaging to marine life — likely came from the canals.

Environmentalists now suspect that new outbreaks of algae blooms detected in the bay over the last decade may be tied to canal water. They say the utility’s federal operating permit also prohibits it from dumping water into the bay. Story here. 

March 08, 2016

Florida mayors to debate moderators: Ask presidential candidates about climate change

@PatriciaMazzei

Miami is the poster-child city for climate change. And with two presidential debates here this week, some local politicians want to make sure the candidates for the White House get pressed about the issue.

Twenty-one mayors signed letters to debate moderators imploring them to ask about climate change, and offering a few suggestions. 

"It would be unconscionable for these issues of grave concern for the people of Florida to not be addressed in the upcoming debate you will be hosting in the state," write the mayors. Most hail from South Florida, though a handful are from elsewhere in the state.

The letter to moderators of Thursday's Republican debate singles out Florida Sen. Marco Rubio: "In particular, Senator Rubio represents this state and should not be allowed to fail to provide, or side step, substantive answers to these questions," the letter says. The Democratic debate will be held Wednesday.

The leading signature on the letter is from Pinecrest Mayor Cindy Lerner, a Democrat and former state lawmaker. Most, but not all, of the mayors on the list are Democrats too.

Fifteen of the mayors had sent letters in January to Rubio and then-Republican presidential contender Jeb Bush urging them to meet with local leaders to discuss climate change, after neither candidate made the topic a campaign priority.

The new mayors on the list are Bob Buckhorn of Tampa, Alice Burch of Miami Shores, David Coviello of Biscayne Park, Andrew Gillum of Tallahassee, Rick Kriseman of St. Petersburg and Philip Levine of Miami Beach.

Read the letters.

March 07, 2016

Florida Supreme Court hears solar arguments as justices appear divided

Florida's Supreme Court justices indicated Monday they are divided over whether or not a utility-backed amendment relating to solar energy is misleading and should be thrown off the ballot.

Environmental advocates argued in oral arguments that the proposal by "Consumers for Smart Solar" is unconstitutionally misleading because it lures voters into thinking it will increase access to rooftop solar when in fact it will reduce solar options.

Proponents, however, defend say the amendment is needed to enshrine the right for people to install solar panels into the state constitution. They deny the proposal is intended to protect the regulated utilities, who control the current solar market, from competition.

"Any person that wants solar should vote for this amendment,'' said Alvin Davis, attorney for the regulated utilities. He warned that rival companies could come to Florida, sell solar panels, go "back to where ever they came from and, when the panels don't work or when the prices aren't fair, you are stuck with it."

But Bob Nabors, attorney for Floridians for Solar Choice, the solar industry-backed organization that started the solar wars, disagreed.

The proposed amendment is titled: "Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice" but it "puts in place the majority of rights that are already here, which creates the false impression to the voter that he's getting something he is not,'' Nabors said. 

Consumers for Solar Choice tried and failed to get an amendment on the November ballot that would have prevented legislators and regulators from erecting barriers to homeowners who want to allow a third-party companies to install up to 2 megawatts of solar energy on their homes and businesses and sell it to neighbors.

Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Tampa Electric and Gulf Power joined forced to raise $6.98 million to fund the "Smart Solar" campaign and a counter-offensive to undermine the "Solar Choice" amendment, the pro-alternative energy group failed to get enough signatures by the Feb. 1 deadline. The group has announced it will now attempt to put it on the 2018 ballot. 

The utilities, however, continued to pursue their counter amendment, arguing it is a needed to protect the access to solar energy. 

But on Monday Justices Peggy Quince, Barbara Pariente and James E.C. Perry were skeptical.

Continue reading "Florida Supreme Court hears solar arguments as justices appear divided " »

February 25, 2016

By a 10-9 vote, Senate committee rejects bill to regulate but allow fracking in Florida

A divided Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted 10-9 to reject a controversial bill to give state regulators the framework to authorize fracking for oil and gas reserves in Florida but, because of a parliamentary maneuver kept the issue alive, but limping.

The bill, SB 318, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, imposes a temporary moratorium on fracking permits until a study of Florida's hydrology is completed to determine what potential impact the operations will have on the state’s geology and fragile water supply.

The study will then be used to inform regulations by the Department of Environmental Protection by March 2018, and the proposed rules must come back for legislative approval. The House passed a similar bill, HB 191, by a 73-45 vote with seven Republicans joining Democrats to oppose the measure.

Richter agreed to modify the bill to expand the fracking technologies that would be regulated, an effort to address concerns by environmentalists, but several senators suggested they would prefer to see a ban on fracking or called for changes that require the disclosure of chemicals used in the process. 

"The people of the State of Florida don't want fracking,'' said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, comparing the potential damage in Florida to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the Love Canal tragedy, in which a toxic waste site contaminated the ground and water in Niagara Falls."When we start messing with the aquifer and not noticing what's going on, then things start happening to people."

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she opposed the bill because there remained "too many unanswered questions as to what does fracking mean for our environment.

"Are all these risks worth what we would be getting in return?,'' she asked. "The answer for me is no."

Sen. Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, sided with Richter who argued that without the bill to create a regulatory framework for fracking the state is in a more vulnerable position than without out it. 

"Doing nothing is not a solution,'' he said. 

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, asked officials from Department of Environmental Protection how they could agree to a provision in the bill that allows companies to use the state's trade secret exemption from disclosing to the public the chemicals it is using in the fracking process. 

Continue reading "By a 10-9 vote, Senate committee rejects bill to regulate but allow fracking in Florida" »

Sponsor of fracking bill agrees to modifications but offers vigorous defense of allowing the practice

Richter frackingThe sponsor of a controversial bill to give state regulators the framework to authorize fracking for oil and gas reserves in Florida mounted an aggressive defense of his bill Thursday, urging a potentially hostile Senate Appropriations Committee to support SB 318 to regulate the practice.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said that he believes it is "unrealistic" to ban fracking in Florida, despite mounting public opposition to the practice, because he believes the House and Gov. Rick Scott instead believe Florida should effectively regulate it. The House passed a similar bill, HB 191, by a 73-45 vote with seven Republicans joining Democrats to oppose the measure.

"There is no moratorium on fracking in the State of Florida now,'' Richter said, acknowledging the public's opposition. "I wish I was on a bill that was 40-0 and out the door -- scoop of vanilla ice cream only."

Instead, the bill imposes a temporary moratorium on fracking permits until a number of conditions are met -- including a study of Florida's hydrology to determine what potential impact the operations will have on the state’s geology and fragile water supply. The study must have a peer review and be scientifically completed "in order to understand the impact of fracking in Florida," Richter said. The study will then be used to inform regulations by the Department of Environmental Protection by March 2018, and the proposed rules must come back for legislative approval. 

Richter said the fierce opposition by community groups, environmentalists, and some local officials "have become extremely emotional" and, while he thanked them "for staying engaged," he added that "when debate becomes emotional, it magnifies the controversy."

That included the appearance of the fifth grade class of the Cornerstone Learning Academy, who each arrived with a speech to urge the committee to oppose fracking but had one student, Jenna Caskey, speak on their behalf. 

Richter told them that without his bill, fracking would still be allowed. 

The bill bans the high pressure well stimulation until the study determines what potential impact the operations will have on the state’s geology and fragile water supply and it also prohibits local governments from imposing their own bans or regulations. 

Continue reading "Sponsor of fracking bill agrees to modifications but offers vigorous defense of allowing the practice" »

February 24, 2016

Update: Simpson removes controversial 'pipes and pumps' provision in state lands bill

With a late-filed amendment before a Senate committee vote, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, agreed to amend his controversial lands bill to remove a provision that would have allowed land and water conservation money to be used for sewer lines and pumps for water supply projects.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government approved SB 1290 after Simpson agreed to revise his original bill to reflect changes agreed to between the House and environmentalists. The bill is a top priority of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to consolidate state laws relating to land management and give the agency more flexibility as it attempts to manage the more than 13 million acres of land in the state’s control. 

A similar provision, HB 1075, is set for a vote by the full House and was amended last week by its sponsor Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, to remove the provision that allows the state to tap into conservation money to pay for water resource development projects that previously have been paid for with local water management district funds, including bonds.

That provision was vigorously opposed by environmentalists, many of whom argue that DEP was attempting to misuse Amendment 1 land and water conservation funds to pay for infrastructure because Gov. Rick Scott pushed for reducing tax revenues to water management districts so deeply, the districts need to find other sources to pay for projects to keep water safe.

Simpson initially filed an amendment that included the provision to use conservation funds for what is being called the "pumps and pipes" provision but filed a last-minute change that took the language out, thereby silencing the environmental critics.

Caldwell told the Herald/Times that DEP wants the provision because it provides "more flexibility with the money that we have" because of the long list of conservation commitments and infrastructure needs already lining up.  

But, "at the end of the day, we took that out because we just couldn't see where that would make it to the end,'' he said.

Environmental groups roundly praised Caldwell for working out an agreement with them and on Wednesday also commended Simpson for removing the provision the language sought by DEP.

"This particular change is really integral to us being comfortable to the bill,'' said Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy, which is now neutral on the bill.

Stephanie Kunkel of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said thanked Simpson "for making such an incredible movement forward on some of the issues we brought to you initially."

She and Dave Cullen of the Sierra Club said they continue to have problems with a provision that remains in the bill -- a priority of Caldwell's -- that allows private landowners to take ownership of public land that abuts at least 30 percent of the landowner's property. In exchange, the private owners would agree not to develop the land. Kunkel and Cullen said they fear that state parks could be swapped, limiting instead of expanding public access.

For the last four years, DEP has tried to find ways to reduce the state’s inventory of conservation lands or find ways to commercialize the state’s holdings, but it backed down in the face of public protests. In 2011, for example, the agency unsuccessfully proposed constructing an RV park at Honeymoon Island State Park in Pinellas County and adding campsites to 55 other states parks as a way to add revenue for the state. 

In 2013, DEP tried and failed to launch a statewide program to surplus state conservation land and sell it to the highest bidder. And in 2015, the agency proposed leasing a portion of the Myakka River State Park for cattle grazing but withdrew the proposal after public opposition.

Environmentalists view both Caldwell’s bill, and the companion measure by Simpson, as an extension of that effort by DEP. 

Penny Walker Bos of the League of Women Voters said they also continue to oppose the bill because it could open the door for state regulators to turn conservation land into logging and cattle grazing and convert state parks into golf courses and hunting. 

February 18, 2016

Bill to give DEP new flexibility to decide fate of state parks and preserves gets House committee approval

A sweeping lands bill that gives state regulators the power to repurpose state parks and preserves for hunting, grazing, tree farming and even RV campgrounds passed its final committee in the state House Thursday after its sponsor removed provisions environmentalists feared would undermine the state's conservation programs.

HB 1075, and its Senate companion SB 1290, is being proposed by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to consolidate state laws relating to land management and give the agency more flexibility as it attempts to manage the more than 13 million acres of land in the state’s control.

But some environmentalists warn that the broad-based changes gives regulators too much control by allowing them to change whether land that was acquired for conservation can be changed to be used for recreation, thereby diluting the oversight of the governor and Cabinet.

They fear that state preserves -- purchased over decades to protect sensitive aquifer recharge areas and endangered habitats -- could become hunting grounds, timber forests or leased by the state for farming and ranching.

"We think this is the case of the tail wagging the dog,'' said David Cullen, lobbyist for the Sierra Club of Florida, at a meeting of the House State Affairs Committee. “By legislative fiat, it employes a small piece of the executive branch -- that being DEP -- to overturn what the members of the Cabinet and governor have done.”

Continue reading "Bill to give DEP new flexibility to decide fate of state parks and preserves gets House committee approval" »

February 10, 2016

Thad Altman blasts Senate budget process that leads to rejection of Florida Forever funding

Land and water MHFlorida Senate leaders rejected a budget amendment Wednesday that would have restored $222.5 million to the Florida Forever land-buying program that has been left threadbare since the Great Recession, arguing that the amendment was "out of order" because it would have left the Senate's proposed budget out of balance. 
 
The amendment, by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, would have restored the funding to the state's once-vaunted land acquisition program, heralded by environmentalists as visionary approach to shielding the state's fragile ecosystems and waterways from pollution and other development encroachment.
 
The state program was wiped dry by lawmakers during the tight years of the recession and so environmentalists asked voters to approve Amendment 1 in 2014, creating a dedicated funding stream lawmakers would be required to use for land acquisition and water preservation.
 
Despite that, legislators have steadfastly refused to restore the land buying program -- which was first begun as Preservation 2000 by Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in 1991 -- to its traditional level of $300 million a year. The 2015-16 budget  includes only $17.5 million for the acquisition of vital conservation lands through Florida Forever. The Senate proposed budget raises that to $22.5 million. 
 
Altman's amendment would authorize $222.5 million in bond proceeds from recurring money used to fund the Land Acquisition Trust fund, to be used for land acquisition through the Florida Forever program. He argued that the revenue source -- the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions -- is "a robust fund and is expected to grow" so earmarking the money to pay bonds for land buying "will not affect the stability of our state." 
 
"It's the best stewardship of our tax dollars,'' he said. "These lands we want to purchase; we will lose them. They're escalating [in value] faster than our ability to purchase them."
 
But Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Senate majority leader, called a "point of order" saying the amendment was not appropriate because it upset the budget balance. Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Orlando, agreed and the amendment was withdrawn.
 
Altman was angered by the ruling and said it exposed a serious flaw in the Legislature's budget process. 

"All I was asking is to restore the right of this body in public to question an allocation,'' he told reporters after the Senate adjourned. "Horrific, horrific ruling that sets a horrific precedent."

The decision to limit the amount of money allocated to land acquisition to $22 million was done during the budget allocation process with no interaction from legislators, he said. 

"It sheds light on a huge, huge issue,'' he said. "It's the fact that allocations are done completely out of the sunshine, privately done and nobody even knows who does them in this back room and the public has no say...I think we should call for allocations to be done in public, they should be voted on. There should be debate. People should have a right to give input."

He said that when legislative leaders determine how much of the budget each budget area will get, they limit how much each area will have to spend. That is "bad enough for the appropriations process,'' he said, but by rejecting his amendment "they're saying we're telling you how you allocate your resources.  and by rejecting his amendment, "they're saying we're telling you how you allocate your resources."
 
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, disagreed that the ruling was wrong.
 

"When you have the support of your colleagues, there's a lot of flexibility,'' he said, adding that Altman didn't say where he was taking the money for the land-buying bonds. "If you can find the money somewhere else and shift priorities over and there's a higher priority for land acquisition than there is for something, springs or something else like that, then all of those amendments are available to us. You just can't break the bank."

As for the claim that the budget allocation process is done behind closed doors, Lee pushed back.

"Some [budget] chairs have a discussion about how everybody feels about life in the committee,'' he said. "Others have private conversations with members of the committee...but ultimately the subcommittee's chairman's responsibility is to roll out a budget tha reflects the composite of his committee. We don't tell them how to do that."

Audubon Florida issued an email earlier in the day urging its members to tell senators to support the Altman amendment. "At a time when Florida's population is exploding it is essential that our state protect its most important natural lands and waters by acquiring these lands outright or by purchasing conservation easements which prevent future development,'' Audubon Florida wrote.

 
 

February 04, 2016

Sen. Tom Lee says he's putting brakes on fracking bill until he gets 'honest answers' from regulators

Fracking APThe Senate's budget chief, Sen. Tom Lee, said Wednesday he is putting the bill to prevent local governments from imposing regulations on fracking for oil and gas on hold until the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, which he believes has been absent form the contentious discussion, is prepared to provide some "honest answers."

SB 318 allows the state to regulate and authorize the pumping of large volumes of water, sand and chemicals into the ground using high pressure to recover oil and gas deposits but allows the companies to shield from the public what chemicals are used by labeling them as "trade secrets."

The Senate bill is next scheduled for a vote before the Senate Appropriations Committee which Lee chairs. The bill's companion, HB 191, passed by a 73-45 vote in the House last week, with seven Republicans joined Democrats to oppose the measure.

Lee's home county of Hillsborough on Wednesday passed a resolution urging the legislature to remove the local preemption language from the bill and remove the provision that shields disclosure of the chemicals used.  Download Hillsborough resolution

Lee, R-Brandon, said he was not aware of the commission resolution but while he voted for the measure when it was before the Senate General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, he said he will not hear the bill until he gets more cooperation from state regulators. 

"My frustraiton was the DEP was nowhere to be seen,'' he said. "I have told the stakeholders that I will not hear the bill in this committee until such time as the Department of Environmental Protection, which is our regulator, is prepared to come before this committee and answer questions on the record about provisions of that bill.

"We want credible, scientific responses to questions. Not special interest responses. And so I think a lot of people have concerns about a number of differences in the bill as it relates to our substrate made of limerock -- versus where fracking is going on in other places of the country --as well as the preemption language and how there's no sunset to it."

He said he expects his committee "will ultimately agenda the bill" but "we will continue to work with the Department of Environmental Protection to try to get some straight answers."

Lee said that the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners is not alone in its reservations about the proposal.

"There is a growing number of people, not just in the environmental community but in local governments, particularly on the preemption issue, that are concerned about what they believe is an overreach by the state,'' he said.

Photo: In this March 29, 2013 photo, workers tend to a well head during a hydraulic fracturing operation at an Encana Oil & Gas Inc. gas well outside Rifle, Colorado. Brennan Linsley AP