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5 rivals target energy issues

In the Democratic primary contest for the District 11 congressional seat, alternative fuels and conservation are hot topics.

By BILL VARIAN
Published June 14, 2006


TAMPA - With gas prices causing global warming in the wallet, Democrats nationally are sensing a campaign issue with legs.

The five competing to replace Jim Davis in the District 11 congressional seat are no exception, with each staking out distinct approaches to energy matters that give Democratic primary voters some choices.

One wants to see the nation spend more money to make coal and nuclear power cleaner for the environment because the United States has plenty of the ingredients for both. Another bought for his campaign a recreational vehicle powered by discarded restaurant grease to promote investment in alternative fuels, so strong are his feelings about the issue.

"We're walking door to door quite a bit now, and people are frustrated,'' said Kathy Castor, a Hillsborough County commissioner who is pitching a mix of short- and long-term tactics for decreasing the nation's thirst for foreign fuels. "The energy issue is at the top of their list next to (property) insurance and health care.''

Castor announced a platform last month that includes investing in study of alternative fuels and promoting conservation. She'll float a proposal this week to increase partial rebates for county employees who ride a bus to work.

Her proposals helped her land an endorsement from the environmental advocacy group League of Conservation Voters.

State Sen. Les Miller expresses a note of skepticism about the prospect for such things as ethanol and biomass being available in large enough quantities to solve the nation's oil dependence.

It certainly merits study, he said.

But he said the real money should be spent on figuring out how to make coal and nuclear power cleaner energy sources. Nuclear power is nearly limitless in its availability for heating and cooling homes. And the United States reportedly has enough coal to meet current demand for the next 200 years. Indeed, the U.S. Geological Survey has reported there is enough coal, at current consumption levels, "to last the country for another few hundred years.''

That might not be a popular position with environmental groups because both sources have pollution ramifications. Burning coal adds heavily to greenhouse gases blamed for global warming and nuclear power leaves toxic waste that remains for generations, but Miller says the nation should put its money toward solving those problems.

"That's something, of course, that we need to put our scientific minds on,'' Miller said. "But we've got to utilize sources of energy we have right now.''

Lawyer Scott Farrell has built much of his campaign around the energy issue. He bought the grease-powered RV, which has consumed much of his campaign war chest to purchase and fix. The cost has had more to do with the age of the used vehicle than its source of fuel, he has said.

He emphasizes the need to begin investing in biodiesel and other alternative fuels made from natural waste products and crops grown in the United States.

Among other things, he proposes fast-tracking biodiesel production for the nation's transit and commercial trucking fleet, which he said would have the twin benefit of lowering polluting emissions and consumption of diesel made from petroleum.

Farrell has said he also believes in investing in technology that removes carbon and mercury from coal-burning emissions.

"We're the Saudi Arabia of coal,'' he said. That, not oil, should be our focus.

"The day oil rolls up on Clearwater (from offshore rigs) is the day Florida changes forever,'' said Farrell, alluding to increasing pressure from Congress to drill for oil and natural gas off the coast of Florida.

Al Fox has an approach to reducing America's need for Middle Eastern oil. An advocate of opening relations with Cuba, he says the energy issue is one of his best arguments.

Cuba is preparing to drill oil in the deep waters off its coast and within 70 miles of Florida. He has been advocating that the United States partner with Cuba so that the drilling conforms to clean standards and Americans are the first customers.

Indeed, bills in the Senate and House of Representatives would open oil relations with Cuba. Fox said the sponsors of each bill - Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho - have accompanied him on one or more of the many trips he has organized to the Communist country.

Sen. Bill Nelson has penned a bill seeking to block Cuba from drilling within 45 miles of Florida, a proposal Fox calls "asinine.''.

He acknowledges the issue may be moot. Cuba's state-run oil company has recently inked a production-sharing agreement with a Chinese company. Fox said that development has even more dire implications than when Cuba forged relations with the Soviets in the 1960s.

"It's going to happen in Cuban waters,'' Fox said. "If we're Cuba's first choice, then doesn't it make sense that we do the joint venture?''

Regardless of whether trade relations are opened, Fox said, Congress must put its muscle to forcing automakers to produce cars that get better mileage and to giving people who buy them bigger tax incentives.

Michael Steinberg, a Social Security lawyer who is primarily campaigning on improving the safety net program for seniors as well as Medicare and Medicaid, said the energy discussion has relevancy on those fronts. He said disability and other benefits should be increased annually at rates that reflect increasing costs for gas, food and health care, the main expenses for people on fixed incomes.

Currently those benefits rise with the consumer price index, which can be artificially deflated by smaller increases in the cost of other goods.

Steinberg said he supports investing in alternative fuels and better mass transit as well.

The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican challenger Eddie Adams Jr. of Tampa in the general election in November.

Times researchers Cathy Wos and John Martin contributed to this report, which includes information from the Arizona Republic and International Oil Daily.