Florida’s Governor and Cabinet approved a proposal by Tampa Electric Company (TECO) to convert a unit of its Big Bend Power Station in Hillsborough County from coal to natural gas.
The group voted 3-1 on Thursday to give TECO the go-ahead on the $853 million plan, despite concerns raised by environmentalists.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis voted to support the plan. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried was the lone dissenting vote.
The vote came two months after an administrative law judge issued a recommended order that said DeSantis and the Cabinet should approve the plan, over the objections of the Sierra Club.
The environmental organization has maintained that TECO is delaying a move to clean energy by adapting the plant to natural gas, which, while burning cleaner than coal, still traps heat in the atmosphere. Natural gas also leaks from pipelines as methane.
Officials with TECO have said that the project could reduce global-warming greenhouse gas emissions by at least 18.5 million tons by 2047.
In addition to the Sierra Club, five citizens came before the Governor and Cabinet during the public meeting to oppose the project, with several praising DeSantis for some of his earlier moves on the environment.
“Governor DeSantis ran as an environmental candidate, and this vote will tell us all how committed he is to Florida’s environment and future,” said Nina Tatlock, a resident of Apollo Beach, the site of the Big Bend power plant. “We deserve a utility that will lead the way forward on clean energy and not drag us backwards with more pollution and climate change.”
But some of those same activists had a different take about the governor’s environmental bona fides after he voted in support of the proposal.
“We’re disappointed with the governor’s vote. We were hoping that he would have had the courage to stand up to the utility industry. But unfortunately, Gov. DeSantis has shown that Floridians come second to his donation givers, so that’s problematic for us,” said Gonzalo Valdez, the Beyond Coal organizer for the Florida Sierra Club.
“He claimed to be the environmentalist governor, but his vote today shows that he cares very little for the environment, and Florida’s future. He probably cares more about his reelection campaign.”
DeSantis said it wasn’t a hard decision for him to support the proposal.
“The facts I had was: if we did status quo, here’s the emissions. If you approve this, you have lower emissions. I mean, that’s just a fact, and the idea of opposing this was somehow going to lead them to do all solar? There were no facts to support that. So to me, if you’re reducing emissions, that’s great.”
But the opponents argued that TECO should emulate Florida Power & Light, which has announced its intentions to build what it says will be the world’s largest solar-powered battery system.
They also note that according to TECO’s own 10-year plan, use of coal will drop to only two percent of its entire portfolio when the upgraded plant opens in 2023. But the percentage of coal increases in the following years and the percentage of solar power decreases.
Attorney General Moody, a native of Hillsborough County, says the project would “significantly reduce the harmful effects to the environment” and noted how all other agencies and local boards approved the project along the way to getting before the Cabinet on Thursday.
She also noted that the project was backed by the Tampa Bay Times editorial page, which labeled critics of the proposal as “whiners.”
On the dais, Fried announced that she would be opposing the project, without any further comment.
The Florida Phoenix caught up her after she left the meeting prematurely to ask why she had voted no.
“I reviewed the full record and the report and that got me to my conclusion,” Fried said while marching away from reporters (she later issued out a statement with more extensive remarks about why she opposed the proposal).
An attorney for the Sierra Club said after the vote that the organization will consider filing an appeal.