Special Reports

Crist to call special session to ban drilling

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist’s announcement Tuesday that he would call a special legislative session this month to ask voters to ban oil drilling off Florida’s coast and revive renewable energy legislation immediately sparked an angry clash between the independent Crist and his former Republican colleagues.

Crist said that because of the Gulf oil disaster, “it’s appropriate for the people of Florida’’ to have a chance to vote on a constitutional amendment to ban oil drilling in Florida waters — between the beach and 10.6 miles offshore. He also wants to use the session to revive incentives for renewable-energy legislation.

“I want to talk about wind, nuclear, solar, natural gas and other alternative means to provide energy to our people,” Crist said. He added that he was not sure whether he or legislative leaders would formally call the session.

But the governor’s suggestion of bringing lawmakers back to Tallahassee the week of May 24 without a consensus on the energy issues sparked harsh rebukes from House and Senate leaders.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, blasted Crist’s call for a special session as “a political ploy to promote the future of politicians.” In a statement, Cretul said state leaders and resources should focus on “solving the real problem at hand, not fighting political campaigns at taxpayers’ expense.”

Incoming Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who had been the Legislature’s strongest advocate for opening Florida waters to oil drilling, agreed that a special session was unnecessary because of a federal ban that now prohibits oil drilling 125 miles off state beaches.

“State and federal law already prohibits oil drilling off of Florida’s shores, and lifting the ban will be off the table while I am speaker, so a special session to address it is unwarranted,” Cannon said in a statement.

Clean-energy advocates say the Gulf oil spill has increased the need for the state to promote alternatives to fossil fuels and challenge the critics who claim it will cost more than traditional fuels.

“It is critical we take an honest look at the power of energy generation in Florida,” said Susan Glickman of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “In many cases, clean, renewable energy is comparable in cost to traditional fossil fuels but, if you added the costs of the oil spill, respiratory diseases caused by pollution, the cost of greenhouse gas emissions and the sea level rise, the real costs are countless.”

Whether Crist can build consensus on any of these issues amid the new political dynamics in Florida’s capital is unknown. Since he first angered lawmakers by vetoing a teacher merit-pay bill supported by most GOP lawmakers, and then severed ties with the Republican Party and announced he would seek election to the U.S. Senate without party affiliation, the relationship between the governor and Republican legislative leaders has turned bitter.

Crist can issue a proclamation calling the Legislature into special session but, once convened, lawmakers do not have to pass anything.

The politics of offshore drilling were on full display at Tuesday’s Florida Cabinet meeting. The two Cabinet members who hope to succeed Crist in the governor’s mansion echoed Crist’s call for a special session.

Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, thanked him “for wanting to let the voters of Florida have their say.”

McCollum, a Republican, noted he has been “opposed to it (drilling) all along’’ but said the proposed amendment needed to be “very carefully worded’’ so it did not restrict ‘‘new scientific options that may come along.”

Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Bronson, a term-limited Republican, was the lone voice opposing a referendum to ban drilling off Florida’s coast, citing 40 years of accident-free drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

“I think we ought to know all of the facts before we overreact,” Bronson said. “I see this as one incident.”