Enviros win one energy vote, lose another

A Senate committee today voted to support tougher automobile emission standards while a House committee went against environmentalists by voting to expedite drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Despite opposition from automobile manufacturers and farm and business groups, the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation voted 6-0 to approve a bill that would adopt California’s auto emission standards as requested in 2007 by Gov. Charlie Crist.

“It will save the consumer money,” Florida Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Sole said. “It will help Florida’s energy security. And it will help our environment.”

But opponents said the California rule, which would be adopted in SB 1994, would lead to higher vehicle costs and a possible shortage of light trucks used for farming.

Auto dealers said they can’t sell hybrid cars now because of falling gas prices and that those vehicles couldn’t pull a boat and trailer.

“I drive a (Toyota) Prius,” said Ken Plante, representing J.M. Family Enterprises Inc. of Deerfield Beach, owner of Toyota dealerships in the Southeast. “My big problem is trying to find out where I can put my gun rack.”

An amendment adopted today requires the Legislature’s approval of any future changes in the emission standards if California adopts changes to its standards. That was intended to address the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee ruling that the bill granted authority to California officials in violation of the Florida Constitution.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said people were outraged that automakers requested a financial bailout from the federal government while they are not making cars that people want.

“If we don’t do this, I believe we will jeopardize the environment,” she said. “I think it’s time Florida was the leader rather than being last. I’m tired of that.”

The auto emissions bill likely faces a tougher fight ahead as it moves to other committees. The Legislature approved an energy bill requiring legislative approval of any auto emissions rule change adopted by DEP.

Meanwhile, some environmentalists were concerned that the House version of the bill is stalled. HB 1309 has not been heard yet in the House Government Affairs Policy Committee and is slated to be heard by six other committees or councils.

Crist told reporters he wasn’t concerned because the session is only about halfway over.

“Things really start to break the last few weeks, more so than the first week weeks,” he said. “I suspect that is what we’ll see again this session.”

In the House, the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee voted 7-5 to pass HB 1219, which was amended to direct DEP to develop a plan to expedite oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The plan would have to be submitted to Senate and House leaders by Dec. 31.

Florida’s opposition to drilling eased last summer when Crist said he would not oppose it if Florida’s coastal environment could be protected.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Charles E. Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, said drilling is needed to provide cheaper fuel and royalties for the state treasury while reducing dependence on Middle East oil. The drilling, he said, could occur in Florida waters within nine miles of the coast if DEP provided such direction.

“I’m saying in this bill we shouldn’t be afraid to drill it,” he said. “I’m saying we should do it responsibly. We should have the checks in place to gather our own natural resources.”

But Sierra Club representative David Cullen said drilling offshore is not without risk to Florida’s environment and its $39-billion annual coastal economy. And he said burning more fossil fuels will contribute to climate change.

“This is exactly the direction we should not be going in,” Cullen said.

Sole, the DEP secretary, said the department has concerns about the amended bill but he wants to see it before a position is taken.

“Currently drilling is something handled by the Department of Commerce and Minerals Management (Service) as part of their federal effort,” Sole said. “There is no drilling in state waters. The expectation is that would continue.”