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ANALYSIS- Florida power utilities fear return of 'Green Governor' Crist

Mon 1st September, 2014 1:00pm
By David Adams 
    MIAMI, Sept 1 (Reuters) - When Charlie Crist last governed 
Florida, his green energy and climate policies made him few 
friends among the state's powerful electricity corporations. 
    Now, as the Republican-turned Democrat bids to return to the 
governor's mansion, it may be payback time. 
    Florida's three largest utilities have poured money into the 
re-election campaign of Republican incumbent Governor Rick Scott 
in an expensive and closely watched political battle for the 
nation's largest swing state. 
    The election spending is notable in a tight race where the 
issues of energy and climate change have taken center stage in 
recent weeks, with both candidates asserting their environmental 
credentials.  
    As Republican governor between 2007 and 2011, Crist "sent 
shivers through the entire utility system," said Colleen 
Castille, who headed the Florida Department of Environmental 
Protection under Governor Jeb Bush. 
    Crist was a darling of clean energy advocates, hosting a 
climate change summit in 2007 alongside another green 
Republican, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. His focus 
on clean energy challenged the Florida utilities who are heavily 
dependant on natural gas and coal, as well as some nuclear. 
    In his bid to return to the office he left in 2011 - to run 
unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate - he has yet to outline his 
energy policy, but utilities aren't taking any chances. 
    According to current state records, Florida Power & Light 
 NEE.N , the state's largest electric utility serving 4.6 
million customers, over the last year has given a combined $1.2 
million to Scott's political action committee, Let's Get to 
Work, and the Republican Party of Florida. Duke Energy  DUK.N  
contributed another $1.2 million to Scott and the Republican 
Party. 
    A third company, TECO  TE.N , contributed $1.15 million to 
the Republican Party of Florida. 
    Crist's campaign does not appear to have received a penny 
from the utilities, though they have contributed a combined 
$500,000 to the Florida Democratic party. 
    "The big utilities aren't fans of his because as governor 
and Attorney General, Charlie Crist actually stood up to them 
and fought to keep families' rates low," the Crist campaign said 
in an emailed statement. 
    "Rick Scott has taken millions of dollars from them and let 
them hike Floridians' energy bills and stifle the development of 
renewable energy." 
    Earlier in his career, Crist was the beneficiary of the 
largesse of power companies, who have increasingly favored 
Republicans over Democrats in recent years. 
    It's not easy to precisely calculate the effect of the 
utilities' contributions on the 2014 governors' race as funds 
can be channeled in various forms through different entities. 
    A spokesman for FP&L, one of the largest rate-regulated 
utilities in the United States, declined to discuss the election 
race but pointed out that FP&L had made solar investments and in 
the past supported Crist's efforts to cut carbon emissions. 
    Duke Energy also declined to discuss contributions, but made 
clear its preference in the race. "We support Governor Rick 
Scott because we believe Governor Scott has a better plan for 
Florida," said a company spokesman. 
    A TECO spokeswoman confirmed its contribution to the 
Republican Party of Florida, adding, "We support candidates who 
focus on building the economy and creating jobs." 
    Both campaigns are brimming with money: Scott has hauled in 
about $28 million since November compared to $21 million for 
Crist.     
     
    BUSINESS FRIENDLY 
    While in office Scott has built a business-friendly 
reputation supporting utility rate hikes to cover massive 
investments in new power lines, natural gas pipelines and 
nuclear plants that environmentalists oppose. 
    Under Scott's watch the state's renewable energy programs, 
including solar installation rebates, were dismantled. 
    Scott denies his campaign is in bed with the utilities, 
saying his policies have kept rates in check while limiting 
government meddling. 
    "Governor Scott is always looking at ways to diversify 
Florida's energy sources, but unlike Charlie Crist, he does not 
believe that Floridians should pay higher energy costs due to 
overly burdensome government regulations," said Scott's 
spokesman, Greg Blair.     
    California billionaire Tom Steyer, a former hedge-fund 
manager turned environmental advocate, in August began targeting 
Scott's environmental record, as well as the political 
contributions the governor has received from the utilities. 
    Steyer's Super-Pac, NextGen Climate, has run ads 
highlighting the Scott administration's approval of a plan to 
let Duke Energy continue billing consumers for $3.2 billion in 
higher electric rates to pay for two failed power plants. 
    Scott hit back with his own barrage of ads, accusing Steyer 
and Crist of inventing "fiction," noting that Crist backed 
nuclear expansion as governor. 
    In one ad the Scott campaign agreed that Duke got a soft 
deal, but blamed it on Crist. "Crist made it easier for Duke 
Energy to take your money," the campaign said. 
    In March the non-partisan watchdog, Integrity Florida, 
published a report critical of the political influence of 
Florida's top energy corporations. 
    "Increasingly, the Florida Legislature sets its agenda and 
policy outcomes based on the needs of large political donors 
rather than the public interest," it concluded. "For the last 
five election cycles, these electric utilities were among the 
largest donors to state-level campaigns in Florida." 
    Electric utilities contributed more than $18 million to 
state-level candidates and party organizations between 2004 and 
2012, two-thirds of which went to Republicans, it said. 
    During that period legislators approved higher consumer 
electricity prices while removing consumer-friendly state 
regulators who opposed the rate hikes, the report found. 
 
 (Additional reporting by Bill Cotterell in Tallahassee and 
Letitia Stein in Tampa, editing by Ross Colvin and John 
Pickering) 
 ((david.c.adams@thomsonreuters.com; +1)(305-810-2690; cell: 
305-3368452; Reuters Messaging: 
David.c.adams.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)) 
 
Keywords: USA FLORIDA/ELECTION ENERGY
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