Energy companies were behind some bills filed in Tallahassee this year, public records show
The fossil fuel industry was a big player in Florida's recent legislative session, especially when it came to newer projects involving buzzwords like "renewable” natural gas and "green” hydrogen.
One measure on tax breaks for natural gas equipment, fuel and infrastructure passed and was signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. That means there's going to be less tax revenue going to Floridians and fossil fuel companies will be getting a benefit worth millions of dollars, according to Schafer.
Renewable Natural Gas
Schafer said when coming across the word “renewable” or “green” before the rest of a title, especially if it's a project coming from a corporation whose main goal is profit, it's critical to question how renewable and how green this project or initiative actually is.
“Are those projects truly green? Are they truly good for our planet? And the other aspect of that is how much money are they going to cost everyday Floridians, as well?” said Schafer.
“Renewable natural gas,” or RNG, is often created using animal waste, essentially “liquefied poop,” generating a highly concentrated amount of methane gas.
“Methane is very toxic, more toxic than some of the other greenhouse gas emissions,” Schafer said. “We have seen through research that at these RNG facilities, there's documented leakage … I've seen studies that show 2-4% is expected, and it could be up to 15% leakage. That could be catastrophic.”
Hydrogen gas itself is generating electricity through electrolysis, which is when an electric current splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. “Green hydrogen” is when the power behind that electrolyzer is being generated from a green source, like a solar farm.
“Unfortunately, and even with some of the new hydrogen plants that are being announced, there's one in Florida that's going to be operated by Florida Power and Light. They are mixing that hydrogen with what they call natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, it's a methane gas,” Schafer said.
“So, they're mixing it with fossil fuel. And the power, even though they are using some solar, a lot of the power for that hydrogen plant is also coming from fossil fuel, so they're calling it green, when in fact, it is still using use fossil fuels and still generating emissions from fossil fuels.”
Fossil Fuel Industry
Through public records, Schafer found out that a gas company based in Maryland called Chesapeake Utilities wrote at least a couple energy bills for the Florida legislature this past session.
“We saw, unfortunately, the fossil fuel industry show up in a very real way. Chesapeake Utility is just one example. We also saw the Florida Natural Gas Association registered on a lot of bills. And we saw our utilities that I think most Floridians are familiar with: we have TECO, People's Gas, Florida Power and Light, Duke. We saw them all this past legislative session," Schafer said.
“The records that we found from Chesapeake Utilities specifically focused on two things: cost recovery, which is a way for fossil fuel industries to — in the simplest terms — make more profit off of their investment by passing those costs on to customers. … And we also saw tax breaks. Both of these efforts are worth millions of dollars to these fossil fuel corporations. And those millions, of course, are impacting everyday Floridians, whether it's in lost tax revenue, or by impacting our monthly bills.”
The cost recovery legislation died in session, but the tax breaks made it through in the tax package, signed into law by DeSantis.
In Florida, most utilities function in a monopoly marketplace, so there aren’t many competitive options.
“So when a corporation comes in to a legislative environment with a bill proposal or word-for-word, what they want the legislation to be, what they want the law of the land to be, they're doing that with one priority, and that is increasing their profit,” Schafer said. “But if you take a step back ... Floridians are kind of being taken advantage of, unfortunately. And we're stuck with higher bills, millions of dollars in lost revenue as a state, as taxpayers.”
Compared to the rest of the country, Florida has very few methane gas stoves, but it’s become a hot topic nationally and showed up this legislative session, as well.
Within the tax package was a sales tax exemption on gas stove appliances, and a separate measure that was signed into law by DeSantis was a preemption on any legislation that would have the impact of restricting types of appliances, including specifically gas stoves.
“If you have anybody who may be more vulnerable when it comes to respiratory diseases, if you have an appliance in that home where you are cooking, living, sleeping, potentially working, there are emissions coming from that appliance that can be — and studies have shown have been — harmful to the people that are close to that appliance,” Schafer said.
“But the fact of the matter remains is there are not a lot of gas stoves being used in Florida. And so, we saw this really as a stunt to try and push a narrative that is not happening here. I'm not aware of any Florida city who is actively working to rip those gas stoves out of our homes. That is not something that's happening. This is political theater.”
Schafer’s team found the campaign pushing for this by way of Facebook advertisements called “Save Our Stoves” was being paid for by the Florida Natural Gas Association, a trade group that lobbies for the interests of fossil fuel companies.
Inflation Reduction Act
The federal Inflation Reduction Act has billions of dollars’ worth of potential incentives for green hydrogen. The big question, Schafer said, is how “green” ends up being defined, and how those billions of dollars are doled out.
The implementation of that part of the IRA is still being determined, and the process for that is before the IRS right now. The Department of Treasury is going to issue a rule determining really what counts as “green hydrogen."
“Florida Power and Light's parent company NextEra is very active right now in the battle to define ‘green hydrogen,’ ” said Schafer.
“Next era, along with many of their utility peers, have been very active in this process leading up to that final rule coming down in terms of lobbying, submitting comments. And we're even seeing them put out some advertising right now hoping to influence how green hydrogen is defined by the IRS. And it should be no surprise, but NextEra is lobbying for very loose restrictions, so they want basically credit for green hydrogen that is not actually green.”
Florida On The National Stage
As a result, Florida is important when it comes to how things are defined, and how billions of dollars’ worth of incentives ultimately get handed out, said Schafer.
In terms of methane gas, she said Florida is significant because of the large agriculture industry here.
“We have a lot of dairy farms. We have a lot of hog farms. And we have multiple utility companies that are invested in fossil fuel that are looking for the next way to continue to make profit and call it ‘renewable’ while still truly using that fossil fuel infrastructure that they have,” Schafer said.
“So, when we look at the potential for corporations to increase their profit, all of those companies are seeing Florida as ‘hey, this is important because we have potential there.’ There's a big agriculture community, and there's a big push for Florida to be moving towards ‘renewables’ from the aspect of some of the impacts that we're already experiencing from climate change here.”
Florida is always in the political spotlight, but more so now with DeSantis running for president, so Schafer said that puts the Sunshine State in bright focus, “for better or for worse.”
“I think we also see some political experiments being tried here," Schafer said, "in terms of what campaigns are catching fire, and what words are really buzzworthy and that voters are responding to.”
Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF 89.7.