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Crist picks green over red
The governor is well aware his warming initiative is unpopular with some in his party.
By CRAIG PITTMAN and ASJYLYN LODER
Published July 12, 2007
Republican Gov. Charlie Crist acknowledged Wednesday that his global warming initiative puts him at odds with the White House and some of his party's longtime supporters in the utility and construction industries.
But he's willing to risk political capital to make sweeping changes he believes are for the good of the state and the planet.
"Any time there's change, there's resistance," he said in an interview on the eve of his global warming summit in Miami. While he expects some fallout, he said: "I don't really concern myself with that. What I strive to do is what I think is right."
He noted that when he visited Israel recently, "I saw solar panels on almost every home." Why, he asked, can't homeowners in the Sunshine State emulate that?
Crist said he is hopeful that his climate change crusade to cut emissions from power plants will not clobber consumers. "How expensive is the sun? How expensive is the wind?" he asked. "It's just a matter of harnessing it."
The governor intends to sign three executive orders at the end of his summit Friday that will set up a cap-and-trade system for cutting greenhouse gas emissions from the state's utilities, rewrite the building code to require more energy-efficient construction and appliances and require utilities to get 20 percent of their power from sources other than fossil fuels.
"We're on this planet together, so we should work together to protect it, and Florida ought to be a leader in that," said Crist, who launched his initiative after California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger offered help in tailoring a program for the state.
Crist's proposals drew cheers from Democrats in the state House, who said reducing emissions is a moral obligation, and from several environmental groups.
His stance could also reap a major political windfall, said Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"It positions Crist nicely as an un-Bush, and more and more Republicans will have to do that," Sabato explained. "If you're a Republican like Charlie Crist, do you want to be the next Gov. Schwarzenegger or the next George W. Bush? The question answers itself. ... Bush is not just an albatross. He's a flock of albatrosses around Republican necks."
But Wade Hopping, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of Realtors and Florida Power & Light, said he was "a little disappointed that there weren't more opportunities for business input," before Crist announced his plans. Hopping said he and his clients worried about the impact, such as whether requiring more energy-efficient houses will push housing prices out of reach for the average Floridian.
"Everything sounds perfect in a vacuum, but the question remains: What does it really cost and what will we get?" asked Barney Bishop, president and chief executive of the state's most influential business lobby, Associated Industries of Florida.
One of Crist's predecessors, Bob Graham, warned that the governor is close to overstepping his authority.
Using an executive order to revamp the state's energy policy, rather than trying to get a law passed by the Legislature, "might push the envelope," warned Graham, a Democrat who served two terms as governor before being elected to the Senate. He could not recall another instance where a governor tried to make such a major policy change using an executive order.
Graham also pointed out that the power of an executive order "is limited to the tenure of the person who signed it." So unless Crist gets the Legislature to back him up with a law, Graham said, his initiative could be over as soon as he leaves the Governor's Mansion.
Legislature can help
Now that Crist has taken the first steps, it's up to the Legislature to give teeth to his orders, and create penalties for industries that fail to meet his aggressive targets, said state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, who chairs a committee overseeing public utilities.
Bennett predicted the GOP-dominated Legislature will back Crist - although he, too, acknowledged there is a political risk.
"I think financially for the state, we can do it, if the Legislature can develop the political will and the political courage to let constituents know that there's no free lunch," Bennett said. "In order to have cleaner air, and a cleaner Florida, and be independent of foreign oil, it's going to cost a little bit of money."
State lawmakers did pass a comprehensive energy bill during the last session, full of tax breaks and grants, but Crist vetoed it because he said it did not go far enough.
Crist said he talked to legislative leaders then about what his goals are but has not consulted them about the orders he will sign Friday. Senate President Ken Pruitt and House Speaker Marco Rubio could not be reached for comment.
Crist said he and Schwarzenegger have pushed ahead because the White House and Congress have been slow to take any action on global warming. Although he noted that some political leaders still doubt global warming is real, he said he does not.
Besides, he said, "whether people believe it's happening or not is almost irrelevant at this point." That's because taking steps to battle global warming will yield so many other benefits - in energy savings, for instance, and air pollution reduction, he said.
Governors take lead
Like Crist and Schwarzenegger, governors throughout the nation have taken the lead in combating climate change. States have imposed strict caps on emissions, demanded energy efficiency from the auto and building industries, and formed regional initiatives to cap and trade greenhouse gases, which allow companies that cut emissions to sell their pollution allowances to companies that have exceeded their limits.
It has left a state-by-state patchwork of regulations, and increasing pressure on Congress to create a nationwide standard, said Allan Bedwell, a former assistant director of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, who now tracks state greenhouse gas initiatives for the consulting firm Camp Dresser & McKee.
Despite that momentum, Florida may not get quick support from its neighbors, Bedwell cautioned. "It may take some time for other Southeastern states to pursue greenhouse gas reductions" like Florida, he said.
Bedwell counted five Southeastern states - Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama - that have joined a national climate registry for greenhouse gas reporting. North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi have formed groups to study the issue. But Florida will be the first to require reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
"While Gov. Crist is taking action," Bedwell said, "legislation mandating reductions in Southeastern states will likely be a long time coming."
"We look forward to more closely reviewing this, and looking at Gov. Crist's proposal." Edie Ousley, spokeswoman for the Florida Home Builders Association
"The Florida Energy Commission applauds Gov. Crist for taking bold leadership on the issues of energy and climate change. We support him in his endeavors taken on behalf of the state of Florida and its citizens." Tommy Boroughs, chairman, Florida Energy Commission
"I think Florida needs to be one of the leaders in the country on this. We in the nation should have a stronger policy moving toward alternative energies. I think it's appropriate for Florida to lead. Florida is uniquely positioned. The environment is very important to our state, and to our economy." Rick Baker, mayor of St. Petersburg and chairman of the Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida
"We share your desire to see Florida become a leader in today's global climate crisis, and we share your belief that it will take an ongoing and sustained commitment. We have a moral obligation to address climate change in a meaningful way." Written by Democrats in the state House of Representatives