Florida’s New GOP Conservation Governor? Time Will Tell

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By Chris Marr

Climate change may get less attention in Florida under incoming Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) than other environmental issues, but he has vowed to tackle toxic algal blooms, offshore drilling, and fracking. Just not greenhouse gases.

“Environmentalists have some optimism,” Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy Action Fund, told Bloomberg Environment on Jan. 7.

The new governor’s campaign commitments, a pending youth climate action lawsuit, and a new Democratic agriculture commissioner could help advance carbon emission reductions, she said.

A two-term congressman from the Sunshine State who won President Donald Trump’s endorsement in the 2018 gubernatorial primary, DeSantis will be sworn into office Jan. 8.

He takes office at a time of heightened environmental concerns in tourism-dependent Florida, months after severe algal blooms and red tide swamped the summer tourism economy of many coastal communities.

Also in a new role in Florida is Nikki Fried (D), who will be the commissioner of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees some aspects of water regulation and houses the state’s energy department.

Fried’s campaign listed sea-level adaptation and carbon footprint reductions among state policy priorities.

Promises vs. Voting Record

DeSantis described himself last fall as a “Teddy Roosevelt-style” conservationist whose priorities would include clean water and Everglades restoration. He offered a broad environmental platform addressing clean water, Everglades restoration, beach erosion, and oil drilling.

His congressional voting record, on the other hand, earned him a dismal scorecard from the League of Conservation Voters, which gave him a 2 percent for his lifetime record and 3 percent for 2017.

He replaces the term-limited Gov. Rick Scott (R), who was elected to the U.S. Senate. Scott drew criticism for cutting regulatory budgets and his predecessor’s greenhouse gas policies, although his administration often highlighted its significant funding for Everglades restoration and springs protections.

A DeSantis representative didn’t immediately respond for comment Jan. 7, and multiple calls to Fried’s office were unsuccessful.

The agriculture industry is taking a “wait-and-see kind of attitude” on the new administration after DeSantis backed away from earlier tough talk blaming algal blooms largely on farm fertilizer runoff, said Charles Shinn, government affairs director at the Florida Farm Bureau.

A state agriculture department program has been successful at reducing nutrient runoff from farmland largely because it’s voluntary, he told Bloomberg Environment on Jan. 7.

Shinn said he’s optimistic DeSantis will recognize the algae problem stems from many sources, including latent phosphorous that already sits at the bottom of Lake Okeechobee.

Sea-Level Rise, Algal Blooms

In a September interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, then-candidate DeSantis said he wasn’t sure whether or to what extent human activity is causing the climate to warm and sea levels to rise.

Nonetheless, adapting to sea-level rise, which is seen as a major threat to Miami and the rest of South Florida, is a part of the environmental platform DeSantis released last fall.

The incoming governor also vowed to fight the algal blooms and red tide that killed thousands of fish and other aquatic life that washed up, spoiling beaches in many coastal Florida communities last summer.

The latest National Climate Assessment directly linked algal blooms to global warming, Glickman said, and this link could motivate DeSantis to act on greenhouse gases.

A youth lawsuit calling for climate action could be another motivator, said Glickman and Melissa Baldwin, a spokeswoman for Florida Conservation Voters and other environmental groups.

The lawsuit, pending in state court in Tallahassee, is the Florida counterpart to the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit against the federal government. In it, young plaintiffs look to force government officials to create a “climate recovery plan,” Baldwin told Bloomberg Environment on Jan. 7.

The agriculture commissioner’s office is also named in the lawsuit, which could position the new administration to discuss a settlement, Baldwin and Glickman said.

The Algae-Everglades Solution

The near-term plan for fighting algal blooms is to move more nitrogen- and phosphorous-rich water from Lake Okeechobee south into Everglades-area reservoirs and wetlands, instead of sending it down coastal rivers and estuaries where it feeds the growth of toxic algae.

DeSantis has connections to the Trump White House that will help Florida win federal matching funds for these Everglades-area projects, said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. The state is committing $200 million annually and needs Congress to do the same, he said.

“We are extremely optimistic” that DeSantis will follow through on those projects, Eikenberg told Bloomberg Environment on Jan. 7.

Fracking Ban, Offshore Drilling

Perhaps DeSantis’ most specific promise was to advocate a ban on hydraulic fracturing—or fracking.

The Legislature considered and rejected fracking regulations in recent years, including a 2016 proposal that would have created statewide rules while barring local governments from banning the practice.

“With Florida’s geological makeup of limestone and shallow water sources, fracking presents a danger to our state that is not acceptable,” the DeSantis campaign said in its environmental platform.

DeSantis also vowed to oppose offshore drilling along Florida’s coasts, keeping with the position of his predecessors.

Federal and state policies have kept waters off the state’s shorelines closed to drilling for decades.

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