Commentary

Florida could cash in on President Biden’s infrastructure bill — if we had a plan

Clean energy plan existed under Crist, but under Scott it went away

November 11, 2021 7:00 am

Florida has no plan to switch from dirty to clean energy. Wikimedia Commons photo

Are you having trouble getting to sleep after this weekend’s time change? Some people do. Switching from Daylight Saving Time to Back On The Regular Time can be a tough thing for your body to handle.

Fortunately, I have a special word that is guaranteed to make your eyelids flutter and close. Want to hear it? Here it is: “Infrastructure.”

Whoa, wait! Don’t doze off yet. We’ve still got something important to discuss. Yes, it involves infra — whoops, let me not say it again! It may conjure up something bad, like saying “Beetlejuice” three times. Instead, let’s just call it the “I-word.”

As you may have heard in between resetting your clocks from EDT to EST, Congress finally passed a big I-word bill this weekend. Now all it lacks to become a law is President Biden’s John Hancock. For the low, low price of $1.2 trillion-with-a-T, it’s supposed to cover everything from repairing bumpy roads and fixing broken bridges to upgrading our power grid.

That it passed is a shock, after four years of Inf – er, I mean “I-word” – Week being treated more as a punchline than a government policy.

Former governor and current Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida. Official Senate portrait; U.S. Senate website.

How sweeping is this almost-law? It’s so good that Florida’s junior senator, Rick Scott, told CNN that the Republicans who voted against it — as he and Sen. Marco Rubio did — are likely to claim credit for at least some of the things it does.

Gov. Ron DeSantis sneered that the bill is nothing but pork-barrel spending. But if this is pork, it’s just the kind of barbecue that Florida needs right now.

For instance, it’s supposed to help pay for warding off cyberattacks on water supplies, such as the one earlier this year that aimed to poison Oldsmar’s population. There’s funding for building wildlife crossings, something our state animal, the frequently flattened Florida panther, sure could use. And there’s money for fixing our faulty sewage systems that keep spilling poop in our waterways.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s money for “climate resilience,” which is code for building seawalls, raising highways, and otherwise coping with rising sea levels and other symptoms of a warming world — something we here in Florida definitely need, and quick.

The I-word bill also includes a pot of money for clean energy — solar, wind, that kind of thing. But I am sorry to report to you that Florida is in no position to take advantage of that.

The reason is simple: Florida has no real clean energy plan for ditching fossil fuels and moving to better sources of electricity.

We used to, but not anymore.

Climate change? What climate change?

Remember, more than a decade ago, when Florida had a governor who had an indeterminate orientation — I mean politically?

I am referring, of course, to the perpetually tanned and toned Charlie Crist, who while governor from 2007 to 2011 was a registered Republican, then switched to an independent to run for the U.S. Senate against Rubio but lost, and then became a Democratic congressman representing Pinellas County. Now he’s running for governor again.

After being elected governor in 2006, the Tan Man surprised everyone when he announced, during his first State of the State speech, that climate change was a big challenge he planned to tackle. He called it “one of the most important issues that we will face this century.”

I suspect his interest in energy generation derives from his insistence on carrying an electric fan everywhere. For whatever reason, though, he became the first — and so far only — Florida governor to tackle the issue in a serous way.

In short order, he blocked a coal-fired power plant from being built near the Everglades, convened a two-day summit on climate change, and signed a series of executive orders that called for cutting power plant emissions, requiring state agencies to use alternative fuels, and rewriting building codes to require more energy efficiency. People started calling him “Governor Green,” at least until he ditched all that in his unsuccessful quest for higher office.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Crist’s climate change drive included a plan, produced in 2008, that spelled out 50 recommendations for how Florida would phase out its reliance on oil, coal, and gas and drastically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. It was Florida’s first-ever clean energy plan, longtime clean energy advocate Susan Glickman told me.

So what happened to it?

“Once he left office and we had a new governor, it virtually disappeared,” Glickman said.

Who was that new governor? Why, none other than Rick Scott, of course.

In his two terms as governor, Scott had a rather well-publicized problem with not just the concept of climate change but with the actual words. Like “Beetlejuice,” state employees weren’t supposed to say it or bad things would happen to them.

Now that he’s a U.S. senator, Scott not only admits climate change is real, but he’s tried to rewrite history to claim he was a real champ at battling it.

The fact is, under Scott, Florida’s clean-energy plan disappeared from view faster than the last remaining hairs on his bald noggin, never to be seen again.

You may recall that DeSantis, when he became governor, briefly flirted with the idea of being the anti-Scott and doing something about the threat of climate change. To the delight of environmental advocates, he even appointed someone to formulate a plan for the state to deal with rising seas and other climate-related problems.

However, his climate czar, Julia Nesheiwat — technically, she was chief resilience officer — produced a report full of recommendations but quit after just six months. He has never bothered to replace her or do anything about the report she filed. I asked the Department of Environmental Protection press office if the current agency secretary was still supposedly doing her job as well as his own and got zero response, which is probably a yes.

This leaves us Floridians wondering which is worse: The governor who wouldn’t admit climate change exists, or the one who admits it exists but decides it’s politically safe for him to do nothing about it.

Lots of ‘rah-rah’ but no strategy

Lest you think I am unfairly picking on Republicans just because they’ve been in charge of Florida government since Jeb “Exclamation Point!” Bush was governor — well, there’s a Democrat in the mix too.

You know that one drawer in everyone’s kitchen that serves as a catch-all for spare keys, old Allen wrenches that you used only once, and other bits of household flotsam and jetsam that don’t belong anywhere else? That’s what Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services is like.

The agency promotes farm products, regulates plant shipments, runs all the state forests, protects consumers from fraud, oversees charities, issues concealed weapons permits, and, oh, by the way, it’s in charge of the state Division of Energy too.

The energy office used to be under the state DEP, but legislators transferred it over to the Department of Agriculture in 2011 at the behest of the newly elected Ag commissioner, Adam Putnam, a Republican. Once Democrat Nikki Fried was elected to replace him, some legislators tried to put it back under DEP but failed.

Thus, as agriculture commissioner, Fried — also now running to replace DeSantis — is in charge of Florida’s energy policies. I asked her office why she has not created a clean energy plan. The response was that she had. In 2019 she and her staff produced a 76-page report called “Florida Energy and Climate Plan.”

When I looked this document over, I noticed that instead of commandments such as, “Thou shalt do this or that,” it’s full of namby-pamby language such as: “Encourage the development of clean energy technology and job training programs” and “Encourage state procurement to purchase alternative fuel vehicles.” If I can trust my word search ability, the word “encourage” appears 52 times in those 76 pages.

Folks, I am not encouraged by this “plan.”

It contains no road map for how to get to a 100 percent clean energy future, just a lot of vague platitudes. It’s as if instead of a coach telling the team what to do to win the game, we’ve got a bunch of cheerleaders all giving us a lot of rah-rah. Thanks for the pep talk, but how are we supposed to score points?

Fried’s office is holding a clean energy summit meeting in Orlando next week. I sure hope they’ll clear out some space on the agenda for how to get the state to do what needs to be done. We are running out of time to end our reliance on fossil fuels. The sea level is already rising and even our evenings are growing warmer, among other consequences.

Local governments, to their credit, are not waiting around for the state to get off its duff and do something. About a dozen of them have declared their own intent to go 100 percent carbon-free. The only thing really standing in their way is — surprise! — the people running our do-nothing state government.

The Legislature and Gov. DeSantis have repeatedly bigfooted our local governments on everything from cruise ships to mask mandates. They bigfoot the locals so often they ought to all be required to wear Yeti costumes when they go out in public. They have tied local officials’ hands behind their back on climate change, as well.

Legislation passed and signed into law earlier this year says local governments are prohibited from taking “any action that restricts or prohibits” energy sources used by the powerful utilities that serve their area. Good luck getting to 100 percent clean energy that way, folks.

Anna Eskamani
Anna Eskamani

One legislator, Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, recently filed a bill calling for the state to switch to 100 percent clean energy by mid-century. She tried getting this passed last year and the bill never even got a committee hearing, which should give you an idea of how well it’s likely to go this coming year.

Don’t worry, though. I have a plan to fix all this.

Here’s what we do: We all show up during the legislators’ special session next week when the members of the House and Senate will all be gathered together to make lots of speeches about “freedom.”

We tell them we have something special to tell them about a threat to the state much bigger than mandated vaccinations. And then, when they lean in close to hear, we tell them all the “I-word,” and we keep saying it until they’re all snoozing peacefully. We’ll have to do it to the governor too. Only then can we check the state into rehab so we can stop being hooked on dirty fuels.

I know this sounds drastic, putting the entire executive and legislative branches to sleep just so we can work on ways to end our fossil fuel addiction. Honestly, though, the only way you can trust the governor and Legislature not to screw up our move to cleaner power is to knock them out. Otherwise, no matter if we’re on EDT or EST, Florida state government will remain way way waaaay behind the times.

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Craig Pittman
Craig Pittman

Craig Pittman is a native Floridian. In 30 years at the Tampa Bay Times, he won numerous state and national awards for his environmental reporting. He is the author of six books, including the New York Times bestseller Oh, Florida! How America's Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, which won a gold medal from the Florida Book Awards. His latest, published in 2021, is The State You're In: Florida Men, Florida Women, and Other Wildlife. In 2020 the Florida Heritage Book Festival named him a Florida Literary Legend. Craig is co-host of the "Welcome to Florida" podcast. He lives in St. Petersburg with his wife and children.

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