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Planet Money: How Florida's manatees got hooked on fossil fuels

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In the 1970s, manatees were on the brink of extinction. In Florida, some impressive work to save the large gray marine mammals was successful, but it wasn't easy. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of our Planet Money podcast brings us the tale of strange stream bedfellows.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: When aquatic biologist Pat Rose moved to Florida back in the mid-'70s, he started volunteering at the Florida Audubon Society.

PAT ROSE: And they basically said, what do you want to do? And I said, I want to help to protect manatees. And they essentially said, good. Go find the money to do it.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Manatees were extremely endangered. There were only about a thousand left. So he started applying for research grants and not getting them. But then he and his colleagues were approached with an offer from an unexpected source, a company called Florida Power & Light.

ROSE: They were the major utility in Florida.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: A utility company that burned a lot of coal. This is not who Pat expected to be chipping in for environmental research.

What did you understand their interest was in getting this kind of research done?

ROSE: Well, I think they felt threatened 'cause this was sort of the heydays of environmental awareness.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Companies suddenly had to respond to all these new environmental concerns, which is where J. Ross Wilcox comes in. He was Florida Power & Light's chief ecologist.

J ROSS WILCOX: What happened was that EPA was looking at a variety of power plants, and they were rattling their sabers. And I got thrown into the lions' pit.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: By the mid-'70s, Ross explains, the government was starting to enforce new environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act. And for power companies like Florida Power & Light, one of the most expensive new regulatory threats boiled down to a problem with hot water. Basically, many power plants emit hot water, which can lead to die-offs of fish and other species. Now, Ross's power company was faced with potentially having to pay to retrofit their operations and install these cooling towers so they wouldn't be spewing hot water.

WILCOX: And cooling towers are a multimillion-dollar proposition.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And it was around this time when Ross and his colleagues started thinking, there is also one animal that needs warm water to survive - the endangered Florida manatee, because while manatees may look blubbery, they'll actually start to die if they aren't consistently in water above 68 degrees. Historically, manatees had wintered at Inland Natural Springs, but by the mid-20th century, a lot of that habitat was being developed, and people started to notice manatees congregating near power plants like the ones run by Florida Power & Light.

But there still wasn't definitive science about where manatees lived, which is where Pat Rose over at the Audubon Society came in. He and his colleagues decided that it was worth accepting the utility company's offer to fund that research, as long as Florida Audubon would maintain full control of their findings. Over the next few years, Pat found evidence that manatees did depend on power plants for warmth. And Pat says those findings helped pass new laws protecting manatee habitat, protections which helped manatees begin to recover their numbers. J. Ross Wilcox at Florida Power & Light says those studies, including aerial photos, helped the company in its dealings with regulators.

WILCOX: When you looked up and all you saw was shoulder-to-shoulder manatees in the discharge canal, it didn't take much imagination to say that you turn that water off and those animals won't be there.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Of course, all this means that today manatees are still dependent on one of the main industries driving climate change, as Pat Rose reminded me.

How many manatees in Florida are dependent on the power industry?

ROSE: So about 60% - that's huge.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: The dilemma of finding an alternative, of restoring the manatees' natural habitat. But that is a really expensive prospect. And as manatee numbers have begun to decline again after a collapse in their food supply, Pat's goal now is to convince the power companies to help create a fund for manatee conservation.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOALS'S "2 TREES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.