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Lawmakers could short-circuit FPL court rulings

The state’s largest electric utility is pushing two proposals — put on the fast track by Republican leaders — that amount to end-runs around recent court rulings, drawing outrage from consumer groups and large utility customers.

The Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee unanimously approved both measures Tuesday, despite objections from AARP and proponents of alternative energy.

“It’s not surprising because the big investor-owned utilities have traditionally gotten their way in the Florida Legislature,” Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, told reporters after the meeting. “We don’t capture energy efficiency in the state of Florida, and we’re building power plants that we don’t need, and consumers will pay for that for decades.”

One of the measures approved Tuesday focuses on a long-standing dispute related to Florida Power & Light’s proposal to build two nuclear reactors at its Turkey Point complex in Miami-Dade County.

A second, even-more divisive piece of legislation was spawned by a decision about a controversial plan by FPL to use ratepayers’ money to invest in an Oklahoma natural-gas project. The Florida Supreme Court last year ruled against the utility and the state Public Service Commission in a lawsuit over the project.

The bill would allow state regulators to give permission to utilities like FPL to charge customers to recoup costs on exploratory natural-gas projects in other states, such as the Oklahoma fracking plan.

The measure (SB 1238), sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, would essentially override the Supreme Court ruling that found utility regulators exceeded their authority in allowing FPL to invest in the drilling and production of natural gas in what is known as the Woodford Gas Reserves Project.

Opponents, including the state Office of Public Counsel, which represents consumers in utility issues, and the Florida Industrial Power Users Group, comprised of large commercial customers, appealed to the Supreme Court after unsuccessfully fighting the FPL plan at the Public Service Commission.

FPL uses massive amounts of natural gas to fuel power plants and argued that the project would provide a stable source of gas that, ultimately, would save money for customers. The project, however, led to losses in 2015, according to testimony in a separate case.

The investment was a departure from the typical practice of utilities buying natural gas and then passing along costs to customers.

State law allows the Public Service Commission to set the amounts of money that utilities can recover from customers for a variety of expenses, including “cost recovery” to compensate for expenses such as fuel.

However, the Supreme Court decided that allowing the utility to use the project as a hedge “would require FPL’s ratepayers to guarantee the capital investment and operations of an oil and gas venture without the Florida Legislature’s authority.”

Sam Forrest, FPL vice president of energy marketing and trading, told the Senate committee on Tuesday that reversing the court decision will allow the power company to save money, which would help customers in the long run.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to find solutions for our customers … to manage costs and reduce risk,” Forrest said.

FPL already purchases all of its natural gas — which makes up more than two-thirds of the fuel used to power its plants — outside of Florida, Forrest said.

But critics maintained that customers — instead of shareholders — would bear all the risk of the out-of-state projects, while FPL could make a profit.

The utility’s “core business” is “electricity providing, not oil and gas ventures,” said Jon Moyle, an attorney and lobbyist who represents the Florida Industrial Power Users Group. “If they want to get into the oil and gas wildcatting business, wherever, as long as they’re not doing it with ratepayer money, that probably would not draw the opposition that it has.”

The proposal needs to get through one more committee before heading to the floor for a full Senate vote.

The other FPL-backed proposal (SB 1048) approved Tuesday centers on a lawsuit about whether the utility could be required to install underground transmission lines as part of a nuclear-power project in Miami-Dade County.

In 2014, Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet, acting as the state’s power-plant “siting board,” signed off on the project.

But the 3rd District Court of Appeal sided with local governments and overturned the decision by Scott and the Cabinet. A key part of the ruling said Scott and Cabinet members erroneously determined they could not require underground transmission lines as a condition of the project approval.

Last month, the Florida Supreme Court refused to take up the case, a decision viewed as a victory for local governments, including the city of Miami, that have tangled with FPL about the transmission-line issue and local development regulations.

The proposed legislation, sponsored by Sen. Tom Lee, would give the Public Service Commission the exclusive authority to force utilities to bury lines underground — something that would have cost FPL nine times more than the above-ground lines, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.

The appellate court decision “flies in the face of decades” of interpretation of the law’s intent, Lee, R-Thonotosassa, told the committee Tuesday.

“If we don’t clarify this statute, it is very, very difficult … for us to see any way you’re going to be able to site the transmission lines to produce” the energy Florida will need in the future, Lee warned. A similar measure will get its first House committee vetting Wednesday.

The Senate committee’s overwhelming approval of the two bills came after a report by the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau about FPL last month paying nearly $2,000 for committee Chairman Frank Artiles, R-Miami, to travel to Daytona Beach and Epcot Center. Artiles reported the contributions to his political committee late Monday, after being questioned by the Herald/Times. Artiles was photographed at the Daytona Beach 500 wearing a jacket bearing the insignia of NextEra, FPL’s parent company.

Artiles told reporters after the meeting that he did nothing to pressure the committee to support the proposals.

“It was a unanimous vote. I didn’t influence the committee. I voted last. And at the end of the day, you know, the committee made a decision and passed this unanimously,” he said.

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