Florida signFlorida governor candidate Rick Scott is largely an enigma on energy and environmental issues. The hospital-chain executive, who eked out a surprise win over an establishment candidate in the Republican primary, has no record in public office to evaluate. His website’s environment page consists of terse pledges to protect beaches and the Everglades. He hasn’t been bringing up environmental issues on the campaign trail. When a reporter asked him about the scientific consensus on climate change, he said, “I have not been convinced,” and was unsure what further evidence could convince him.

Scott would seem to be more certain on one issue: his support for offshore drilling. “It’s a naïve, knee-jerk reaction to call for a ban on drilling,” he says on his website in response to the Deepwater Horizon blowout that sent oil washing up on Florida Panhandle shores.

Yet Scott has backed off on this position too, saying in July, “We are not going to drill now. It’s not safe. It doesn’t make any sense … [but] if we figure out some day that it’s safe I think we ought to look at it.”

His opponent, Democratic state treasurer Alex Sink, has revealed more of her cards. She came out strongly opposed to offshore drilling when Republican lawmakers proposed opening state waters last year. She has released a detailed clean-energy plan centered on promoting efficiency, entrepreneurship, and partnerships between businesses and the state’s universities.

“Right now, Florida’s lack of a clear vision and a consistent energy policy is costing Floridians good jobs — that ends when I am governor,” she said in a news release.

So far, environmental issues haven’t gotten much attention in Florida’s jobs-focused gubernatorial race, despite the state’s vulnerability to climate change and its largely untapped renewable-energy potential. Florida is particularly susceptible to sea-level rise, saltwater encroaching on its water supply, and hurricanes and tropical storms of increased intensity. And the Sunshine State would seem to be a natural hotspot for solar installations, yet it generates less solar electricity than New Jersey (even Massachusetts and Connecticut outperform it on a per-capita basis).

That’s not for lack of effort from departing Gov. Charlie Crist, who became an unlikely climate leader, enacting a climate plan in 2007 and joining fellow Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger in organizing state-level action during the Bush years. But Florida’s legislature prevented him from taking important steps, like implementing a renewable energy standard — something 27 other states have used to attract cleantech businesses.

A renewable standard “is the holy grail of the [Florida] environmental community, something they’ve been working on for years,” said Adam Rivera of Environment Florida. Sink supports one, while Scott hasn’t made his position clear. 

Florida’s popular solar rebate program has a $40 million, 15,000-application backlog, and whether the next governor refuels it will be an early signal of his or her priorities, Rivera said.

The state also enacted a law last year that discouraged sprawl by making it easier for developers to build in dense urban areas. But a judge ruled it unconstitutional last month, and it could take leadership from the governor’s office to pass a new version next year. [Update: A Florida commenter says the law wasn’t clearly “anti-sprawl.” While encouraged urban infill, it also made exurban growth easier; it’s been called a sop to developers in response to the building-industry collapse.]

And, of course, Florida wields huge influence in national debates as a swing state and one poised to gain congressional seats in the upcoming redistricting process — which the governor will oversee.

So it’s worth knowing where the candidates stand on green issues, even if they aren’t bringing them up.

Alex Sink

Alex SinkAlex SinkIn her campaign, Sink is playing up her competence as the state’s chief financial officer and, more importantly, her “real world business experience” as a former Bank of America executive. Economic recovery is front and center in her platform, and she sees energy investment playing a part in that.

Her focus on efficiency — the cheapest of energy sources, and a job-intensive one — suggests familiarity with energy challenges. So does her vocal support of Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE), a promising (but currently stalled out) finance tool that makes energy-saving retrofits and rooftop solar more affordable for homeowners.

“She’s done a good job figuring out the easy and obvious intersections between helping the economy and harnessing Florida’s clean-energy potential,” said Rivera. “I think she’ll take that strategic and incremental approach to the governor’s mansion.”

Rivera thinks a renewable standard is unlikely to pass through the Republican-controlled legislature in the next year, but Sink still plans to push for one. She promises to create a renewable-standard task force to develop a strategy “that will not negatively impact ratepayers.”

Philip Fairey, deputy director of the Florida Solar Energy Center, a research institute, said this would be the single best way to bring cleantech companies to the state. “Florida would do much better in attracting clean energy enterprises — businesses and entrepreneurs — if it created a market in the state for the products these manufacturers produce,” he said. “[States that have standards] are attracting renewable-energy manufacturers at a greater rate than states that do not.”

The state could also make big strides in cutting its carbon footprint through smarter land-use and transportation strategies, though Sink has had less to say on these issues. She supports the federal high-speed rail project between Tampa and Orlando and talks about defending both rail and highway funding.

Rick Scott

Rick ScottRick Scott tal
ks with running mate Jennifer Carroll
ScottforFlorida via Flickr
Scott flooded the state with self-funded TV ads to overcome significant opposition from within the Republican Party to defeat Attorney General Bill McCollum in the primary. He then received a $2 million peace offering from the Republican Governors Association — though, as head of largest private, for-profit health-care company in the U.S., he doesn’t exactly need the money. His company has made him a multi-millionaire, but it’s also given him his biggest liability: It had to pay $1.7 billion in fines for Medicare and Medicaid fraud in 2002, the largest such settlement ever.

Scott’s general pro-drilling stance fits with his emphasis on energy independence. “We need to build more nuclear plants, invest in alternative fuels, and drill offshore in an environmentally sound way. But we must ensure that Florida’s beaches are protected,” he says on his website.

While he doesn’t want to push for offshore drilling in the near-term, the issue rarely stays settled for long in Florida. Republican lawmakers moved in both 2008 and 2009 to allow drilling as close as 10 miles to shore (in the portion of coastal waters controlled by the state), though neither measure passed. While public support for drilling plummeted after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, an August poll found that support rose again once the leak was believed to be capped.

Joe Browder, a Friends of the Earth co-founder and longtime Everglades restoration advocate, believes the issue could be tricky for Scott. “I don’t see [offshore drilling] playing strongly in the race unless Scott tries to make it an issue,” he said. “And if he does, I think it will hurt him.”

On other policy specifics, Scott has a lot of people wondering. Walter Rosenbaum, emeritus professor of political science at the University of Florida, called Scott a “political unknown” to much of the state. “He’s a bit of an enigma, even to the Republican Party in Florida,” he said.

Rivera of Environment Florida agreed. “I don’t think anybody, really, could go into that much detail about where he stands on some of the big clean-energy and climate priorities,” he said. “He just hasn’t had a lot to say about these issues … a lot of folks are interested in seeing where he stands.”

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