Fracking
5:11 pm
Wed January 30, 2013

Why Fracking May Not Be Coming To Southwest Florida

Scientists and students gather at the Royal Palm Yacht Club in Fort Myers to talk about water resources, as well as the possibility of fracking in Southwest Florida.
Credit Ashley Lopez / WGCU

Reports have surfaced in the past few months that Southwest Florida might be a candidate in the future for ‘hydraulic fracturing,’ or fracking. However, scientific experts are not so sure this will become a reality anytime soon.

For months, The News Press has been reporting that there is interest among oil companies to bring this controversial practice to the area, specifically the Upper Sunniland Trend in Collier County.

Fracking is a way to mine for natural gas by pumping a highly pressurized mix of water, chemicals and sand into rock formations underneath the earth. The pressure breaks apart rock (mostly shale) formation to release the natural gas trapped there.

Last week, a group of geologists, water experts, engineers and academics gathered at a country club in Fort Myers to talk about fracking in Southwest Florida, among other topics.

Pros and Cons of Fracking

While there isn’t fracking anywhere near Florida right now, the possibility that there might be in the future was enough to catch the expert’s attention.

Christopher Brown, a civil engineering professor at the University of North Florida, gave a lecture spelling out the pros and cons of fracking.

He says fracking is getting a lot of attention because it’s creating a vibrant new industry in the U.S.

“It’s a lot of high paying jobs for people that have mostly a high school diploma, which is a good thing,” Brown says. “There are other benefits from having low cost natural gas in the U.S.  Things like additional manufacturing, reduced greenhouse gas emissions because we can use natural gas instead of coal in our power plants in many cases. That reduces our generation of greenhouse gasses.”

He says this—among other benefits— makes it very likely that there will be more sites around the country, but there are also some pretty serious problems with fracking. For one: fracking sites increase the level of seismic activity around them.

NPR’s StateImpact website in Texas has reported that east and North Texas have experienced an unprecedented number of earthquakes in the past few years. Another NPR StateImpact site in Pennsylvania says residents there have noticed Methane gas in their groundwater ever since fracking began around them.

Brown says despite all these controversies, though, the allure of energy independence and job creation has outweighed concerns among national and state officials.

He says that’s why most states—even Florida—are going to be looked at by oil companies as potential fracking sites.

What It Takes To Frack In Florida

However, Florida’s geology makes it a special case. Penn State University hydrologist David Yoxtheimer is also an expert on the fracking operations currently taking place in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania.

Yoxtheimer says geologists have to consider a lot of factors when seeking out a fracking site.

“You know what really needs to be done is to assess some of the geologic parameters,” Yoxtheimer explains.

In Southwest Florida, Yoxtheimer says geologists will likely look at whether there is indeed natural gas trapped underneath the ground and whether it will be possible to drill down and capture it.

“You also then need to look at the particular geologic setting of that area to make sure that there aren’t any  what we would call ‘geo-hazards,’ or otherwise to put it in different terms, geologic features that could allow for the migration of hydro carbons or fracturing fluids to go up, and that would be things like faults, basically,” he says.

So, Florida sits over a bed of limestone. Some experts say the limestone holding the natural gas deep below the surface is actually soft enough to extract without fracking.

Yoxtheimer says the gas is also deep enough not to worry experts about methane or other chemicals leaking into the state’s relatively shallow aquifers.

Florida Is An Unlikely Host To Fracking

Despite all that, University of North Florida Professor Christopher Brown says he doesn’t think it’s likely Southwest Florida will play host to fracking operations.

This is mostly because other rock formations, or shale plays, are better for fracking.

“I think it’s possible, but when you look at the other plays in the U.S. and North America where those resources will be more attractive than Florida,” Brown says. “I believe the panhandle of Florida if any of this were to happen. I think Southwest Florida will be a lot less likely. Not impossible, but a lot less likely."

The News Press reported this week that oil companies are still showing interest in Southwest Florida. However, there is already growing opposition by environmental groups to any plans.

Florida currently does not have a law banning fracking in the state. Officials have said in the past that there is no law because the state does not need one.