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.”

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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



January 29, 2016

House advances Legacy Florida bill to earmark up to $200 million for Everglades

SW Big Birding Day AdventurAfter Florida lawmakers drew two lawsuits and bad publicity last year for diverting Amendment 1 money to salaries and expenses instead of devoting it exclusively to land and water conservation, a House committee approved a measure Thursday that not only attempts to repair their record but aims to repair decades of damage to the Everglades.

The Legacy Florida Act, proposed by incoming Senate President Joe Negron and Rep. Gayle Harrell requires the state to set aside 25 percent of Amendment 1 funds — up to $200 million a year — to fund Everglades restoration projects over the next 20 years.

The carve out, HB 989, was approved unanimously by the House Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee Thursday, and is expected to win easy passage in the Senate and be included in the Legislature’s final budget.

It will supply a stable funding source to the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Program, a 30-year partnership with the federal government to spend $13.5 billion on restoration projects to clean up the ecosystem that is central to the state’s water supply.

Although the CERP program was established in 2000, both state and federal governments have struggled to provide the funds necessary to finance the planning and construction needed for the elaborate restoration projects.

Harrell, R-Stuart, said by dedicating the money each year to the restoration efforts, legislators can avoid “the food fight every year” as they scramble for the money. Story here.

Photo: A double crested cormorant suns itself along the Anhinga Trail during the Big Day Birding Adventure, a ‘citizen science’ activity to count birds within the varied habitats of Everglades National Park on Jan. 10, 2016. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

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January 26, 2016

House rejects attempts to impose more testing and regulation on oil and gas fracking in Florida

Fracking PennThe Florida House smacked down a series of Democratic amendments aimed at weakening a bill that prohibits local governments from banning high pressure well stimulation known as fracking and positioned the bill for approval by the full House on Wednesday.

The amendments, by Reps. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey, Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, and Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, would have allowed local governments to regulate the activity, impose testing of water quality and water wells, study the effects of the fracking chemicals on human health, and require local voter approval before fracking activities being.

Fracking involves the pumping of large volumes of water, sand and chemicals into the ground using high pressure to recover oil and gas deposits.

The bill, HB 191, is sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodriques and is being pushed by the oil and gas industry. But it is also vigorously opposed by environmental groups and 41 cities and 26 counties -- including Miami Dade and Broward counties.

A similar measure, SB 318, is also moving quickly in the Senate. According to an analysis by the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau, the oil and gas industry contributed at least $443,000 to the political committees of top Republican lawmakers since the last election.

The top contributor, the Barron Collier Companies, which wants a permit to use hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and gas in Naples, steered $178,000 to lawmakers since December 2014, including $115,000 since July. Other members of the petroleum industry have contributed another of $265,000 this election cycle. 

Proponents of the bill said they won the support of the Florida Association of Counties and the League of Cities with a provision that postpones the prohibition on fracking bans until  a study on the impact of the state's geology is completed in 2017.

After that, the bill allows the controversial practice to go forward with minimal local regulation but requires the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to enact rules to regulate and monitor the practice. The rules would then have to be ratified by the Florida Legislature.

A similar bill, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, has passed one committee in the Senate, where the bill died last year.

Photo:  Ray Kemble, a former fracking industry worker from Dimock, Penn., shows water from his and neighbors well after infiltrated by fracking chemicals. 

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January 25, 2016

South Florida mayors press Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush on climate change


Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have given little priority to climate change on the Republican presidential campaign trail, and a group of South Florida mayors have had enough.

Fifteen mayors from cities in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties wrote the two Miami candidates a letter asking them to meet with local leaders to "discuss the risks facing Florida communities due to climate change and help us chart a path forward to protect our state and the entire United States."

"As mayors representing municipalities across Florida, we call on you to acknowledge the reality and urgency of climate change and to address the upcoming crisis it presents our communities," both letters begin. "Our cities and towns are already coping with the impacts of climate change today. We will need leadership and concrete solutions from our next president."

Most of the mayors are Democrats, and most of them serve in nonpartisan posts. But at least two are Republican, Tomás Regalado of Miami and Jim Cason of Coral Gables. Regalado is a Rubio supporter who showed up to the Florida senator's fundraiser at the InterContinental Hotel downtown two weeks ago.

"We are in ground zero, and we need to have our candidates from Florida address the issue," Regalado told the Miami Herald on Monday. "I understand that it's a very delicate issue for them, because some of their constituents do not agree or understand."

The mayors were prompted to sent the letter by ClimateTruth.org, a liberal environmental activist organization formerly known as Forecast the Facts.

Regalado said the mayors, some of whom have already worked together dealing with Florida Power & Light's proposed new power lines, "aspire to get climate change into the national conversation."

"We don't have any leverage with the Trumps and the Christies or the Cruzes of the nation, but I think that they are closer to home," he said of Bush and Rubio.

During high tides scientists say have been worsened by sea-level rise, Miami has seen flooding in its Upper Eastside and Brickell neighborhoods, Regalado said. The city created a committee to take on the issue only recently and needs resources, he added. Miami-Dade has had a task force in place for a couple of years; the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which comprises Monroe, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, was formed in 2009.

The mayors who signed the letters, in addition to Cason and Regalado, are: Peggy Bell, Cutler Bay; Joy Cooper, Hallandale Beach; Daniel Dietch, Surfside; Eugene Flinn, Palmetto Bay; Connie Leon-Kreps, North Bay Village; Cindy Lerner, Pinecrest; Mayra Peña Lindsay, Key Biscayne; Jeri Muoio, West Palm Beach; Martin Packer, Bal Harbour; Gary Resnick, Wilton Manors; Jack Seiler, Fort Lauderdale; Glenn Singer, Golden Beach; and Philip Stoddard, South Miami.

Download the letter to Rubio

Download the letter to Bush


January 20, 2016

White House sends science adviser to talk climate change in Miami

via @NickNehamas

South Florida business and political leaders must work together to protect the local economy from flooding and climate change, a White House adviser told a room of about 50 people including Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine at a meeting in Brickell.

“There’s probably no place in the country where you can have less of an argument about climate change than South Florida,” said Robert Simon, an adviser in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “You see it everyday in Miami Beach.”

Flooding and coastal erosion could threaten Miami’s tourism and real estate sectors, he said. And climate change-caused disruption around the world could disrupt the global supply chain, killing the region’s ability to import and export valuable goods.

“Business leaders are getting more and more engaged in discussion about climate change as they see it as a core threat to their future profitability and even their existence,” said Simon, who added that global warming was undeniably the result of human activity.

More here.

Scott's DEP chief gains ground in Senate confirmation journey

Gov. Rick Scott's top environmental regulator moved a step closer to keeping his job Wednesday after a rigorous but successful confirmation hearing. The Senate Ethics & Elections Committee approved DEP Secretary Jon Steverson on a 7-2 vote, with Democrats Jeff Clemens and Geraldine Thompson voting no.

Steverson is one of a number of Scott agency heads who were not confirmed by the Senate in 2015, and they would lose their jobs if not confirmed by the full Senate in the current session. His confirmation now goes to the full Senate, where approval is considered likely.

Senators questioned Steverson on commercial activities in state parks, bidding on contracts, hydraulic fracking and hiring, and he staunchly defended his choice of Gary Clark as deputy secretary of state lands and parks.

January 15, 2016

Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and the politics of climate change



Not 15 miles from the homes of Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush on the mainland, Miami Beach work crews elevate the streets, turning ground floors effectively into windowed basements, to try to stave off the implacable rise of sea water. Up comes the powerful ocean, threatening people, property and the underground freshwater supply.

Can’t control nature, Rubio quips with a smile. Got bigger problems, Bush insists with exasperation.

“I don’t have a plan to influence the weather,” Rubio said dismissively at a town-hall style meeting in New Hampshire last month.

“It wouldn’t be on my first page of things that wake me up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat,” Bush said in the same state on the same day.

Miami’s two Republican presidential candidates don’t sound much worried about one of their hometown’s most pressing environmental problems.

They’re not “deniers” who question climate change’s existence, as some of their presidential rivals do, though both say they’re skeptical about how much of it is man-made. Bush has gone further than Rubio, acknowledging sea rise’s long-term effects for Miami; he said in New Hampshire even a five-inch increase “would create some real hardship.”

But they sound markedly different from their local politicians who have resigned themselves to a harsh reality. Even if some of them don’t want to talk about how mankind’s thirst for fossil fuels is to blame for global warming, city and county leaders of both political parties have stopped debating whether South Florida is going under water.

More here.

Photo credit: Emily Michot, Miami Herald staff

January 14, 2016

Senate advances fracking bill but imposes new testing and legislative review

Florida Oil Exploration

As the prospect of drilling for oil inches ever closer to the Everglades, a Senate committee passed a measure to prohibit local governments from banning the controversial practice of drilling for natural gas known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but only after strengthening the protections against possible contamination and requiring lawmakers to sign off on any regulations.

The Florida Senate Environmental Protection and Conservation Committee surprised environmentalists by agreeing to a series of amendments that strengthen oversight of the practice — by requiring inspection of groundwater before and after the drilling begins — but the bill still allows companies to seek a permit to shoot thousands of gallons of water and acid into rock formations to release oil and gas trapped in the bedrock, known as acidization.

The proposal, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, would require the Department of Environmental Protection to establish rules governing the process but it would also halt the ability of local governments to write local ordinances. Broward County has scheduled a hearing to become one of about 60 local governments that ban the practice as a wealthy developer has applied for a permit to drill for oil on the edge of the Everglades.

John Kanter, of Kanter Real Estate, has requested a drilling permit to conduct exploratory drilling for oil and gas along a major drainage canal about a half-dozen miles west of U.S. 27 and Miramar. Under current law, the state may grant the permit and impose no requirement that the chemicals be disclosed or groundwater be tested.

Under the bill, SB 318, a version of which is also moving in the state House, state regulators would conduct a $1 million, one-year study to determine what impact the chemicals used in the fracking process would have on the state drinking-water supply and then write new rules regulating the practice, beginning in 2017.

The regulations would include how the contaminated water and chemicals will be disposed of and the study will consider the potential for water contamination once a well has been plugged. Concerned about the impact to the state’s water system, the Senate included a provision that will require testing of ground water before and after the drilling occurs and require that any rules developed by state officials get a vote of approval from the Legislature.

“It would give our constituents who have a lot of nervousness about this a little more comfort in knowing the folks they are electing are going to take one more look before we start fracking in the State of Florida,” said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who proposed the amendment.

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