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Looking Back on an Eventful Week in State Politics

To drill or not to drill, that was the question yet again facing energy stakeholders this week as they gathered in Orlando to talk about how the state should fuel it’s automobiles in the future.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson left some attendees of the fourth annual "Farm to Fuel" summit feeling gassed when he revealed during the biofuel summit that he was also supporting drilling for old-fashioned oil in near shore Florida waters. After addressing the convention, Bronson told the News Service of Florida that the state and the nation need to be energy self-sufficient and there would not be enough biofuels to sustain the state fully.

Bronson said biofuel, which most experts agree is the most available clean energy type in Florida, could probably only cover about 30 percent of the need. With that in mind, Bronson, a champion of biofuel, said that he was also in favor of underwater offshore drilling, which he said was safer than above-ground oil rigs.

Generally, the drill at the "Farm to Fuel" summit was mostly that biofuel will wean the country's dependence on foreign oil. But Bronson said drilling off the Gulf Coast, which surfaced during the most recent Florida legislative session and is also being debated in Congress, could also help Florida do that.

And including drilling in an "all of the above" energy policy would also help the state control gas prices, Bronson added.

But a Democratic candidate to replace Bronson next year when he's term-limited said Bronson's position was a betrayal of those who are seeking more use of biofuels as an environmentally friendlier alternative to oil. Eric Draper, who is also deputy director of Audubon Florida, said safe drilling was an oxymoron.

This spring, the environmental community appeared ready to accept concessions such as including nuclear technology in the proposed renewable energy standard for power companies, which it had fought for months, in the hopes of getting a bill passed last session. But the drilling proposal was a non-starter when the House proposed it. And despite Bronson's new backing, apparently it did not hit pay dirt this time around either.

Bronson's support for more oil drilling in addition to greater investment in biofuel technology found a more receptive audience in Gov. Charlie Crist, who is nationally regarded as one of most sensitive Republican leaders to climate and energy issues.

"My feeling has always been that if it is far enough, clean enough and safe enough, we have to be open-minded about it," Crist told reporters after his own speech to the "Farm to Fuel" summit. "We're so dependent on foreign oil that it is compromising our security. If we can do it safely where Florida can benefit, I think it's something we need to look at."

While Bronson and Crist were showing their new open-minds about looking for gas on Florida’s Gulf coastline, a state representative acknowledged her vote in favor the plan last session had landed her in a bit of a drill pickle. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda said this week that that her vote in favor of a controversial bill that could have allowed offshore oil drilling as close as three miles from Florida's Gulf Coast was part of a deal that would have resulted in more renewable energy in the state.

Speaking during a roundtable discussion about clean tech businesses hosted by the Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association, Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, said she voted for the bill last session because House Speaker Designate Dean Cannon and sponsor Charles Van Zant said they would have allowed her to attach amendments to it that would have result in $160 million in investment in renewable energy. If it had been approved, the governor and Cabinet would have been allowed to consider approving Gulf drilling fields.

The deal fell apart when the Senate showed little appetite for the late-emerging drilling plan, but Vasilinda said the vote was "courageous" and stood by it this week despite taking heat from former Leon County Democratic Party Chairman Rick Minor, who resigned his post to challenge her for the House District 9 seat partially because of the vote.

Vasilinda told the group of renewable energy producers that the drilling vote was not easy, but she also said that she "proud" of it because getting investment in renewables was one of her chief campaign promises.

But Minor, Vasilinda's new opponent for the 2010 Democratic nomination, did not share her pride. When he launched his candidacy last month, Minor cited the drilling vote as a major reason Vasilinda deserved to be replaced after just one session in office and said this week that Vasilinda's explanation of her drilling vote was not good enough to excuse it.

While the politicians were talking about where Florida should get its gas this week, the largest investor-owned power company in the state was more concerned with how it was going to be transported. Florida Power & Light laid out its case to the Public Service Commission for a new $1.6 billion underground natural gas pipeline that has fueled intense debate between the company and opponents who say the project is too expensive and unnecessary.

The Florida Public Service Commission began taking testimony about FPL’s plan to build a nearly 300 mile pipeline from Bradford County in northeast Florida to Martin and Palm Beach Counties, a third such portal for transmitting natural gas in the state. The company argued the new pipeline, known as the Florida EnergySecure line, will increase the availability of clean energy in the state and create jobs in 14 counties if it goes into service as scheduled in 2014.

But opponents of the pipeline like Florida Gas Transmission Co., a competitor that operates one of the other two pipelines already in use, took issue with FPL’s presentation of the facts, touching off two days of back-and-forth before the state’s main utility regulators.

As the PSC was considering gas transportation, the leader of a group dedicated to developing renewable energy in Florida said Tuesday that part of the problem with getting the market off the ground is the way the state selects members of its Public Service Commission.

During a roundtable discussion hosted by the Florida Renewable Energy Producers Association called "Florida Big Bend Cleantech Business," FREPA president Michael Dobson described the PSC as too fraught with politics because commissioners' futures depend so much on politicians. Dobson compared the Florida PSC with other states' regulatory panels, which he said are more independent and "seen as experts."

The comments, made during a summary of the effort to win passage last year of a proposed renewable energy standard for power companies that was ultimately successful at the PSC but not in the Legislature, touched off a polite but pointed exchange between Dobson and Florida Energy & Climate Commissioner and energy lobbyist J.B. Clark.

Dobson said the problem was not the commissioners, but the way they were selected. Prior to the 1978 legislative session, the three-member PSC was elected in statewide elections. But beginning in 1979, the PSC was expanded to its current five-member format and its members were appointed to the panel by the governor and had to be confirmed by the state Senate.

A PASSING OF NOTE: Affable longtime lawmaker and former Senate President Jim King died Sunday at age 69, succumbing to a rapidly spreading cancer that he had recently thought he'd beaten. King., a Republican from Jacksonville, was one of the most well-liked lawmakers in either chamber - quick with a joke, often about his zest for life, widely seen as fair and genuinely interested in all sides of a debate, but also well versed in the art of politics.

ALL POLITICS IS NATIONAL

Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously said that “all politics is local,” but this week a few local politicians made national waves when they waded into national issues. Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer won a first-ballot election as Rules Chairman of the Republican National Committee, positioning him for an influential role during the 2010 elections, when mentor Gov. Charlie Crist is running for U.S. Senate.

Greer captured 27 votes to second-place finisher Bruce Ash, the Arizona national committeeman. Curly Haugland, the committeeman from North Dakota, finished third with four votes among RNC members casting ballots.

Greer's election came despite a hard-hitting story in Thursday's Washington Times that handicapped the field and included some unflattering assessments of the Florida chairman.

"Greer is the single most disliked guy on the RNC -- that would be my guess," former South Carolina Republican Chairman Katon Dawson was quoted as saying in the Times. Dawson lost a bid last year for national chairman to Michael Steele, who was endorsed by Greer.

Elsewhere, two Florida state lawmakers said this week that they wanted to ask voters to change the state constitution to guarantee that no one can be required to participate in "any health care system," and to enshrine in the constitution the right to buy private health insurance. The proposed constitutional change (HJR 37), filed by Rep. Scott Plakon and Sen. Carey Baker, is in response to some elements that may end up in the federal legislation that seeks to restructure the nation's health care payment system.

If the Florida measure were to be approved by at least three-fifths of lawmakers in session early next year, it would go before voters in November 2010, where at least 60 percent would have to vote for it for it to go into the Constitution.

But the Florida Democratic Party, which supports the national party’s health care plans, was dismissive of Plakon and Baker’s effort to way into the issue dominating the national agenda this summer.

The Republican-led Florida Legislature "couldn't even pass a budget on time, now they want to be tackling federal issues?" responded Florida Democratic Party spokesman Eric Jotkoff.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gas prices are not nearly as high this summer as they were last year when national Republicans began chanting “Drill Baby Drill,” but this week a few Florida leaders echoed the sentiment anyway. Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson came out in favor of limited drilling off the Gulf Coast and Gov. Charlie Crist said he would be “open-minded.”

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Investing in drilling is like buying an 8-track cassette when the whole world is buying iPods,” Natural Resources Defense Council consultant Susan Glickman, reacting to Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda’s suggestion that she voted in favor of the proposal to allow oil drilling off the Florida Gulf Coast in exchange for Republican support for renewable energy initiatives.

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