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Florida Lawmakers Consider Proposed Fracking Ban

Mary Crandall/ Creative Commons

Florida lawmakers are tackling a proposed ban on hydraulic fracturing, and other fracking-like well stimulation treatments in the state.  The Republican-sponsored bills in the House and Senate have gained a number of co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle.  Supporters of the ban say the risks of surface water and ground water contamination from fracking make the technology too risky. They say the technique is incompatible with Florida’s geology.  Opponents worry about its impact on energy costs, Florida’s economy and point to the lack of a Florida-specific study on the potential impacts of fracking.  

Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando are sponsoring the ban bills.  SB 442 and HB 451 call for an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing, acid fracking and matrix acidizing.  Hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ refers to a method of breaking up underground rock formations by blasting them with high-pressure water, acid and other chemicals to extract oil and gas.  More than 80 Florida cities and counties have already adopted ordinances or resolutions in support of a ban. 

House Majority Leader Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Fort Myers, opposes the ban. Since 2013, Rodrigues has tried, unsuccessfully, to champion bills creating a regulatory framework for the fracking industry in the state.  His most recent proposal last year would have imposed a two-year moratorium on fracking and ordered a Florida-specific study to determine the potential impacts of fracking.  He considers a study to be a crucial element.

“In Florida we have property rights and the Bert Harris Act says government can’t take those rights without compensating the property owner,” said Rodrigues.

“If you have a study, and the study shows there’s a threat to a public resource such as water, then government is empowered to take away those property rights because they’re doing it for the greater good.  In the absence of science, in the absence of a study, the government cannot defend itself against a Bert Harris claim from those who have lost those property rights.”

Sen. Young disputes that claim.  “I know that Rep. Rodrigues knows this issue well, but he is not a lawyer.  I am,” said Sen. Young. 

She argues that her bill would not deny mineral rights to private property owners through traditional oil and gas mining techniques. Young contends that the risks to ground water and surface water contamination posed by fracking gives the state the regulatory authority to enact her bill and that a Florida specific study is not necessary.

”You only need to look at the impacts in other states like Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, New York, so many other states,” said Sen. Young.  “For example, in Oklahoma, prior to 2009, Oklahoma experienced about two earthquakes a year.  Since 2009 when fracking became more prevalent within their state, they have had more than 2,000 earthquakes of magnitude three or greater.  Last year alone there were more than 900 earthquakes.”

Rep. Rodrigues also criticizes the ban bill because of a provision in it that would ban well stimulation techniques for oil and gas wells that are routinely used to maintain water wells.

“If it’s too dangerous for oil and gas, then how is it not too dangerous for municipalities to use this on water wells?” said Rep.  Rodrigues.  “Nobody who is proposing the ban has addressed that question and until they do address that question, I think they’re going to have trouble moving that ban in either chamber.”

Environmental Policy Specialist Amber Crooks with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida calls this criticism a ‘myth.’  While acid is routinely used for cleaning a well, Crooks said there is a big difference between using this technique for well maintenance and using it with the intent of producing oil and gas.  She points to a California policy that makes that distinction by prohibiting the use of acid in wells that dissolves rock more than three feet from the wellbore.

“So to kind of illustrate that there is a big difference there, I am a six-foot tall woman,” said Crooks.  “If you are dissolving away and eating away the rock with enough volume that it is as tall as I am, you have moved away from just simply cleaning out the scale and debris in a well for routine cleaning.  You’ve now moved onto matric acidizing which we think is very risky in Florida’s porous limestone.” 

While the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and other environmental advocacy groups like the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club support the ban bill, opponents such as Florida Petroleum Council Executive Director David Mica say the green elements of the fracking industry are largely overlooked.

“I actually believe that the transformation of American energy, almost completely associated with hydraulic fracturing, has been an environmental bonanza for our country because our production in natural gas has allowed us to shift away from coal,” said Mica.  “As we have done that, we are now reducing carbon emissions in the United States from the energy sector to the lowest level in 25 years!”

The U.S. Energy Information Administration said that 25-year low for carbon emissions from electricity generation was reached in the first six months of 2016.  Along with the Florida Petroleum Council, the fracking ban bill is also opposed by groups like the Florida Chamber and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, largely over economic concerns.  Mica said banning fracking nationwide would lead to increased gas prices and higher utility bills for Floridians. 

“We know that increased supply has a downward pressure on prices across the globe and we think this is a negative effort in that direction,” said Mica.  “As you remove things from the supply side of the equation and demand continues or increases, that is absolutely a basic Economics 101 outcome and that is indisputable.” 

In a recent editorial in the Orlando Sentinel, Mica said the economic downside of banning fracking would also impact Florida’s tourism, pointing to slow tourism growth a few years ago when gas prices approached $4 a gallon and correlating that to record high levels of tourism in the state as gas prices trended downward again. 

However, the Conservancy’s Amber Crooks countered that the quantity and quality of Florida’s oil is not that significant.

“As an example, we produce one quarter of one percent of the oil production in the United States and that oil, because if its poor quality, it isn’t going to gasoline,” said Crooks.

“It’s going to things like asphalt.  It’s being sent overseas.  So our question is, ‘Is it worth the risk to our water quality, to our drinking water supply and for Everglades restoration, and our tourism economy and our real estate economy to try and get that one tenth of one percent of that oil out of the ground using these risky techniques?’  We don’t think so.”

Mica cites a 5-year EPA study out last year that found no large-scale, systemic impacts on drinking-water resources in the U.S. from fracking even as more than one million wells have been fracked across the country so far.

Crooks points to the only documented instance of fracking in Florida in late 2013, when the Texas-based Dan A. Hughes oil company violated its drilling permit and performed hydraulic fracturing and matrix acidizing on the Collier Hogan well near Immokalee.  She says the Conservancy continues to work with the Department of Environmental Protection on water quality monitoring because several possible pathways to contamination have been identified.

“Everything from a canal potentially being contaminated with oil waste from a dumpster on site to the old abandoned wells that were within a couple hundred feet of the Collier Hogan well that were not properly plugged and abandoned to today’s standards, to the illegal disposal of more 80 barrels of oily waste water back into the well itself,” said Crooks.  “These are all pathways of contamination that we saw just in that one well.”

Crooks also said 35 truckloads containing more than 200,000 gallons of toxic wastewater byproduct from the Collier Hogan well fracking incident was transported to Raider Environmental Services in Opa-Locka for disposal, but because the source of the water or its potential contaminants was not disclosed, the waste water wasn’t properly treated and an unknown quantity of the contaminated water ended up in the ocean.

The Florida Senate reversed years of opposition to a fracking ban when the Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation voted unanimously on March 7 in favor of Sen. Young’s ban bill.  The House companion measure also had its first reading last week in the Natural Resources and Public Lands subcommittee.  Two days after the Senate bill’s recent committee vote, Rep. Rodrigues said he thought there was still a possibility that the legislature could pass a fracking bill this year, but that any bill on fracking would need to include property rights protections in order to gain his support.

For more information:  At 12:00 p.m. on March 17, catch Decision Florida live on WGCU Public Media’s Facebook page where John Davis will talk with representatives from the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and the Florida Petroleum Council about the proposed fracking ban.  Watch, listen and submit your comments and questions!

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