While the two GOP frontrunners in Florida, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, both recognize human-caused climate change as a legitimate concern, no GOP candidate is sincerely addressing the critical climate and energy issues facing Florida, and the rest of the U.S. In fact, the GOP presidential field is largely avoiding energy issues altogether.
Granted, I am not so naive to expect any of the remaining GOP candidates to be barnstorming the lower 48 on biofueled-buses stumping on clean energy or climate change, but if the ultimate GOP presidential nominee hopes to have a shot in Florida, there are some key energy and climate issues that all Floridians really do care about — whether Gingrich, Romney or any of the other GOP hopefuls care to acknowledge them or not.
Offshore oil and gas
Long before the 2008 Republican Convention and the emergence of the "Drill, baby, drill" catchphrase, Republicans have urged the expansion of oil and gas development in just about every fossil fuel-rich corner of this country. But Florida is different. Because of the state's massive tourism industry, and the political and economic clout it brings with it, a two-decade-old ban on drilling in state waters remains in effect and extends out about 10 miles from the coast into the Gulf and three miles out into the Atlantic. And outside of the ban in state waters, federal law prohibits drilling within 125 miles of the Florida coast.
But geologists believe there are substantial oil and gas deposits in the Federal Outer Continental Shelf off of Florida’s western coast. And for this reason, bipartisan opposition to oil and gas exploration off the Florida coast is not the solid block it used to be.
But the 2010 BP oil spill tempered enthusiasm for drilling in Florida waters and public support for offshore oil drilling in Florida has waned in recent years. The recent uptick in opposition to offshore oil and gas development in Florida, spawned a ballot initiative to put the question of offshore oil drilling on the November 2012 ballot. Should the issue get on the ballot and pass, it would put a constitutional ban on drilling in state waters.
While this would not sit well with some Republicans, the new oil drilling trend in Cuban waters which could get within about 45 miles of Florida, doesn't sit well with virtually all Republicans, especially when a deepwater blowout like the one that spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 would send oil into the Straits of Florida and onto hundreds of miles of Florida beaches.
Clean energy & energy efficiency
Florida’s per capita residential electricity demand is among the highest in the country and the amount of petroleum-fired electricity generated in Florida is second to note. With a population of 18.5 million and climbing, energy demand will continue to tighten in the state, driving up the cost of electricity and just about everything else. Although energy efficiency has not really been part of the Florida lexicon to date, if efficiency is ignored for much longer, Florida will join California and the New England states in the uppermost tier of state electricity prices.
In terms of clean energy, just 2 percent of Florida's electricity generation comes from renewable sources, with the overwhelming majority of that coming from landfill methane capture and from the burning of wood/wood waste. But Florida's potential as a renewable energy powerhouse is staggering. The state's abundant solar, wave and tidal resource, combined with its untapped biogas and biofuel potential could be the basis of a clean energy boom in the state, given the right mix of policy drivers and political support. The City of Gainesville notwithstanding, Florida has fallen by the wayside in terms of policy support for renewable energy and moved into the minority of states without a renewable energy standard (RES).
If a national RES is ever passed by the federal government, which it certainly could even under Republican control, Florida is going to be way behind other states and will be forced to play catch-up during a time where national demand could temporarily drive the cost of renewables higher.
Drought and rising sea levels
The biggest elephant in the room when talking about energy and climate in Florida is the projected sea level rise given increased air and water temperatures. The Center for American Progress reports that almost half of Florida’s beaches, are already eroding enough to have an impact on existing development and recreation areas. That erosion already costs $100 million annually for beach nourishment projects, not to mention the threat it presents for real estate. According to an analysis by the American Security Project, real estate losses are projected to cost Floridians $11 billion by 2025, potentially doubling to $23 billion annually by 2050.
Rising sea levels also means salt water intrusion into inland waters, threatening to contaminate the state's already shaky freshwater supplies. And as of just this week, South Florida is officially in a drought. Again.
As I wrote at the outset, I don't expect climate and energy to be front and center of the political debate in Florida. But once this shooting match to see who can be the most conservative is over, someone is going to have some explaining to do to the millions of independent voters who ultimately control which candidate takes the state's 29 electoral votes.
Image credits: 1. Cartoon by Jeff Parker at Florida Today (courtesy of PoliticalCartoons.com); 2. Fire on Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig (U.S. Coast Guard); 3 Solar Panels (First Solar) ; 4. Map of predicted sea-level rise (EPA)