Critics in FL condemn U.S. Supreme Court ruling that hinders action on climate

With state in the crosshairs of worsening weather, FL senators and big industry backed the ruling

By: - July 6, 2022 7:00 am

Climate-induced weather disasters include record wildfires in the West, record-setting heat waves and droughts, and aggressive hurricanes. Here, smoke plumes and hurricane clouds are visible at once. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Organizations and lawmakers at the forefront of climate action in weather-sensitive Florida are among critics condemning the U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week that slashes the federal government’s ability to restrict power-plant pollution that fuels climate change.

Regulated industries in Florida and Florida’s Republican members of Congress were less vocal after the ruling than before it.

“By hamstringing the EPA’s [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] ability to reduce pollution, the Supreme Court is endangering public health so it can give fossil-fuel corporations another handout, brought to you by the extreme, court-packing Republicans who are also blocking clean energy legislation in Congress,” said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa Democrat and chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, in a written statement issued on behalf of the committee.

A Sunrise Movement climate activist demonstrates at a town hall meeting in 2019. Credit: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

“As Justice [Elena] Kagan underscores in her dissent, Congress granted the EPA the authority to respond to the most pressing environmental challenge of our time — and the court is wrong to dilute this power at the request of polluters and their Republican allies,” Castor said.

Associated Industries of Florida, which includes large companies regulated by the EPA, did not respond to a request for comment.

But as a member of the National Manufacturers Association, AIF did co-author a June 29 letter to President Joe Biden urging him not to favor clean energy over fossil fuels but instead support all energy sources and to prioritize distribution of $2.5 billion in federal infrastructure funds for modernization of the nation’s power grid.

“Your administration can streamline permitting processes for all energy sources as well as critical minerals, materials, and chemicals. This includes committing to on- and offshore energy production and mining on federal lands and waters to ensure reliable sources of fuels and minerals,” the letter says, in part.

An all-of-the-above approach

“We have long supported an all-of-the-above energy approach, but renewable energy sources alone are incapable of meeting the demand created by increasing electrification. DOE [the U.S. Department of Energy] and North American Electric Reliability Corp. experts predict that existing fossil and nuclear generation, which produces more than two-thirds of our nation’s electricity, will be critical to power generation for decades to come,” it continues.

AIF President and CEO Tom Feeney also opposed the Clean Power Plan to reduce greenhouse gases when it was proposed under President Barack Obama.

“AIF and its members oppose the new proposed standards that the EPA would like to place on existing power plants. These new, onerous regulations will weigh down businesses and make it more difficult for them to expand here in Florida and across our nation,” Feeney said in a June 2, 2014, statement.

“Affordability and reliability must continue to guide the evaluation of all potential energy sources. As a Florida affiliate of the National Association of Manufacturers, AIF believes there are more cost-effective and sustainable solutions to create energy efficiency and conservation.”

The Clean Power Plan, challenged in court and never implemented, aimed to zero out carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 and cut emissions nationwide in half by 2100.

Florida Republican U.S. senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott joined in filing court briefs opposing the EPA having such regulatory power over the industry.

Emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted at sunrise. When burned, oil, coal and natural gas emit greenhouse gases that accumulate in the atmosphere and cause Earth’s climate to change. Credit: Getty Images

Without mentioning clean energy or climate change, Rubio commented on the ruling Thursday in this statement: “Congress writes the laws, not government agencies. The Supreme Court is sending a strong signal to unelected bureaucrats throughout the federal government to stop reaching beyond their legislative mandate. It is long overdue.”

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, Rep. Lois Frankel, and other Florida Democrats in Congress filed court briefs in support of the EPA and the Clean Power Plan.

The court said Congress empowered the EPA to narrowly regulate the emissions of individual power plants, not establish sweeping industry-wide caps on carbon emissions.

Upper limit on rising heat and flooding

Florida’s largest utility company, Florida Power and Light Co., owned by NextEra, said the ruling has no effect on it because the company has pledged to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions regardless whether federal regulators require it.

“Earlier this year, NextEra Energy, the parent company of Florida Power & Light Company, announced Real Zero, the most ambitious carbon emissions reduction goal ever set by an energy producer — committing to eliminate carbon emissions from the company’s operations by no later than 2045,” said FPL spokesperson Lisa Paul, in a written response to questions.

“The ruling by the Supreme Court does not affect our current plan or detailed blueprint we’ve laid out to achieve this industry-leading goal.”

The response did not disclose FPL’s viewpoint on the Supreme Court ruling.

Susan Glickman, a consultant to the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy and director of Florida Clinicians for Climate Action, said it is alarming that power companies will be more autonomous in choosing whether to convert to clean energy.

Without federal oversight, and because the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature has long rebuffed clean-energy plans at the state and local levels, Glickman said, “Floridians will suffer.”

“Florida’s economy and our very lives are at risk with heat stress, disease-carrying insects, rising sea levels, infrastructure damage, as well as diminished agricultural productivity. Insurance rates are skyrocketing with more extreme weather. Electric bills are through the roof because Florida utilities largely fuel power plants with out-of-state methane gas. These are impacts of a warming climate and it will only get worse,” Glickman said in a prepared statement.

“The state must recognize there is an upper limit to the heat and sea rise that the state can withstand and still thrive,” Glickman continued. “The only way to combat this is to limit pollution by reducing energy waste and using renewable resources to power our lives. In the end, we will save money and stop climate change from becoming catastrophic.”

The Florida chapters of Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity pointed to national statements by those organizations, both condemning the ruling as an attack on the EPA’s authority to prevent pollution and a life-threatening setback in the fight against dangerous climate change.

They said the ruling does not eviscerate the EPA’s authority but hinders it — and that it sets a precedent for possibly weakening other federal regulatory agencies.

‘Huge step forward in judicial activism’

Florida state Sen. Lori Berman, a Palm Beach Democrat who for years has sponsored climate-action legislation — including boosts for rooftop solar for public schools — disregarded by the Republican legislative majority, called the court’s opinion troubling on multiple fronts.

It’s very disturbing that the Supreme Court has taken such a huge step forward in judicial activism. To say that the EPA cannot regulate greenhouse gases is a tremendous backward step for us in the war against climate change, especially living in a state such as Florida. It’s going to have very strong negative impacts on our state,” Berman said, citing sea-level rise among the climate-related hazards undeniably worsening here.

Solar panels generate clean energy. Credit: Florida Power & Light, 2022

“We’ve tried for years to put in place renewable energy goals in Florida and limits on carbon emissions by certain dates, and that legislation doesn’t get any hearings in the Florida Legislature,” Berman said. She expressed hope that utility companies promising to convert to clean energy such as solar in Florida and the Southeast will not be dissuaded by the Supreme Court ruling.

Frequently a sponsor of climate-action legislation in the state House of Representatives, Orlando Democrat Anna Eskamani blasted fossil-fuel companies and their allies for fighting efforts to sustain Earth’s climate, which international scientists say is near the tipping point for catastrophic overheating.

The latest report by the International Panel on Climate Change, described as a “code red for humanity,” concluded that time is running short to hold average global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a critical threshold for irreversible climate damage. The IPCC, a consortium of scientists from around the world, documents real-time evidence of climate change — from massive wildfires to melting glaciers and sea-level rise — and insists greenhouse gas emissions must fall drastically by 2030 to forestall the worst consequences of altering the planet’s climate.

Eskamani blamed the crisis on the fossil-fuel industry and the political/financial sway it holds on elected officials.

“This is a devastating decision, a huge loss for planet Earth and in large part due to the destructive influence of fossil-fuel companies and utilities in America,” Eskamani said in a press statement.

“It was the Republican Attorneys General Association that has led the legal assault on the EPA, and they are heavily funded by special interests including fossil-fuel-burning utilities. It’s disgusting that these companies wield so much influence in America.” 

Florida’s Republican attorney general, Ashley Moody, is not among those who fought the EPA in this case.

No statewide goals

Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Nikki Fried, whose department includes the state Office of Energy, said Florida is ground zero for climate damage and pointed to her office’s attempts to address climate pollution since the Republican-controlled Legislature has not. Those include setting statewide renewable-energy goals and backing related legislation.

Neighborhood flooding in Fort Lauderdale after a rainstorm is a common occurrence, as coastal and inland flooding worsens. Credit:
Jillian Cain/Getty Images, 2020

The Legislature has approved money since 2021 to help Florida cities armor against flooding but has passed no laws to convert to clean energy. In fact, it went the opposite direction in 2021 by blocking cities with clean-energy goals from excluding fossil fuels such as oil and natural gas from their communities.

We’re in a race against time to minimize and avoid the host of calamities that will ensue if we fail to act on climate change. Florida is ground zero for climate change. We are already seeing more destructive storms, extreme heat, and sea-level rise,” Fried said.

“It’s up to all of us to mitigate these impacts, which is why I’ve proposed one of the boldest climate change mitigation plans in Florida’s history as well as setting new statewide renewable energy goals [to increase clean energy] used by the state on an incremental basis until reaching 100 percent by 2050.” 

U.S. Rep. Val Demings an Orlando Democrat, said in a statement, “We cannot continue to allow our air and water to be polluted by big corporations putting their profits before the health of Florida families. I will continue to work to protect clean air and clean water for Florida, to combat climate change, grow green jobs, and build a better future for the next generation.”

Sen. Berman said opportunities to save Earth’s climate through law-making are slipping away as the U.S. Supreme Court — the majority appointed by Republican presidents, including three by Donald Trump — overturns precedents such as Roe v. Wade and weakens federal regulatory authority.

“I can’t stress enough, with all the Supreme Court decisions, how important it is for people to vote, and for people to vote Democrat because we seem to be the only ones concerned about climate change, about reproductive health care, about separation of church and state. So voting is the only option at this point, given what’s going on this country,” Berman said.

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Laura Cassels
Laura Cassels

Laura Cassels is a reporter, former statehouse bureau chief, and former city editor. She is a classical pianist, a Florida State University graduate and proud alum of the Florida Flambeau, an independent college newspaper.