Barry G. Parsons

Florida Says No to Coal

Madison, Fla.

"The coal plant's DEAD!" shrieked Joy, as two of the longest years of our lives reached closure. Betty Jean had called minutes before with the same news but unable to let down her guard. Was it real? Or was there a scurrilous plan underneath? She read the Taylor Energy Center's press release to me. Yes, it really, really was a swan song. I didn't need to call the others of our steel-spined circle of sanity-seekers; we'd worked together so hard, so long, so closely.

Yes, the two years seemed like 10 since the fall of 2005, when an intense summer led to the defeat of the coal plant here in Madison County ("Small Win Over Big Coal" 10/15/05 TPP) and it moved down the road, only 15 miles south of our county line. Big money, inside-the-box-only thinking, and a compliant (some say corrupt) Taylor County government that rubber-stamped a land-use change allowing multiple coal plants, plus projections of burgeoning Florida population and electric power consumption (per capita, currently twice that of California), all made it a swampy road.

Then this year a few ingredients started to change. The state public service commission asked more questions than usual of the Taylor coal plant (TEC) applicants. Hearings were expanded, then rescheduled. Cost estimates soared. Conflict of interest among Taylor County commissioners and planning board members were exposed. Our expert witnesses outnumbered and trumped theirs. And late word was that the City of Tallahassee utility was going to pull out of the coal consortium. Bit by bit our case was building. Then the first of two bombshells hit, tilting the playing field more strongly in our favor.

In June of this year the public service commission rejected a similar monster coal plant right on the edge of the Everglades down south (yes, the Florida Everglades, for God's sake!). This was the first time the PSC had rejected a power plant application in 12 years. Rumors flew. Our brethren happily cried "precedent!" Others of us said, wait a minute -- that's the Everglades. Everybody loves the 'Glades and knows how battered they've become at the hands of Big Sugar and other polluters; and the state's been pouring millions into their restoration. Wetlands and a 100-year floodplain, yeah, but there ain't no Everglades up here in Taylor County.

Still, it gave us more hope than we'd had in 10, uh, two years. Within hours of the PSC announcement, our new Governor, Charlie Crist (pronounced as in "crisp"), praised their action publicly. And weeks later in an interview he said, "I'm no fan of coal."

Then, just a month later, on July 3, came that second, lovely bombshell: the Taylor coal group withdrew its state application. That is, they threw in the towel. It was over. And we got two bonuses: the governor's statewide Summit on Global Climate Change in Miami July 12-13 and the new Florida Energy Commission to set a new direction for energy policy for this state. The commission, independent and made up of lots of environmentalists as well as the usual leading power company folks, has a December 2007 deadline to submit its report to the governor. It's safe to say that these latter events would not have happened had we still been under the boot of brother Jeb, who seems to have kindly faded out of sight.

As I write this in mid-July, Gov. Crist has issued three executive orders, tailored directly from the Schwarzenegger example in California. They push all Florida state government buildings and contractors to incorporate strong energy efficiency standards, and adopt the controversial strong energy efficiency standards. And, shades of Jimmy Carter, our governor has thrown up solar hot water panels and a hydrogen unit at the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee.

Now we're speculating about where the coal plant folks go from here. Will it be coal gasification? Natural gas? Or the dreaded nuclear plant option? Or might they "flip" and start manufacturing nanosolar film or components for Florida Atlantic University's promising ocean energy project off Dania Beach? Always uneasy partners, hope and skepticism reign, coequal.

Right now hope has the upper hand, thanks to tenacious, principled citizens groups that have popped up, like Rhonda Roff's Save It Now, Glades! (SING!) and Jefferson County's Stewards of the Earth, joining the veteran grassroots men and women like Tallahassee's Big Bend Climate Action Team (BBCAT) that turned the City of Tallahassee utility around to embrace more efficiency measures and a biomass plant; and the lead group in the coal fight, the heroic Taylor Residents United for the Environment (TRUE). And, of course, one Gov. Charlie Crist.

Speaking of Charlie, besides inviting Schwarzenegger to Miami as keynote speaker (pundits are already comparing Crist to Arnold), Crist dropped another nifty bombette -- he lined up Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Let's fade to black on this final scene. Savor it. A white male, Republican governor of a deep south state inviting Bobby Kennedy Jr., devil incarnate to the region's conservatives. Yes, Charlie has near-Reagan poll numbers (70%), but that's still a history page-turner, no matter how you dice it.

Barry Parsons is a writer in Madison County, Fla. He is cofounder of the Environmental Alliance of North Florida.

From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2007

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