Could Florida become the next frontier for hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”)? Environmentalists, who are already concerned about the state’s fragile water supply, fear that it could, and this week they’re trying to get out ahead of the situation before the 2015 Legislative session begins in Tallahassee.
Last week, two independent efforts to draft legislation to regulate fracking in Florida were unveiled in Orlando. One, drafted by state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, would ban the practice outright, declaring that “a person may not engage in hydraulic fracturing in this state.” The other, drafted by students at the Barry University School of Law and the League of Women Voters of Orange County, is a comprehensive proposal that would limit where, when and how fracking could take place in the state. Though it would not call for an outright ban on fracking, the measure includes a provision that would allow municipalities to prohibit it within their jurisdictions.
“We took a look at what other states have done, and we took components from those states and put them together,” says Chuck O’Neal, chair of the natural resources committee of the League of Women Voters of Orange County. Right now, he says, Florida does not have any rules or safeguards in place to regulate fracking, a controversial practice that uses chemicals injected deep into the earth to fracture shale and other rock formations to release natural gas or oil. O’Neal says that Florida has long had regulations in place to oversee traditional drilling for gas and oil – but they’re so old that they don’t address fracking, which wasn’t common until the ’90s. Though oil drilling comes with its own share of problems (see the Gulf oil spill of 2010, for instance), fracking comes with a whole slew of new concerns because it not only extracts things from the earth, it also sends chemicals into it. Among the hazards: air emissions, increase in release of greenhouse gases, high water consumption, increase in likelihood of minor earthquakes and, perhaps most concerning to Floridians, potential for chemicals used in fracking to seep into the water supply.
“When you have a flow of oil coming up from the ground and there’s a crack in the pipe, all you’re going to have happen is have water get into that pipe, and that’s not such a big deal,” he says. “But when you reverse the procedure and you put chemicals in there under very high pressure and send them down into the ground to break open deposits to extract oil and gas, and you have a crack in the pipe, it can send those chemicals shooting into the water supply. And we have no regulations on that practice.”
Residents of southwest Florida discovered that the hard way in late 2013, when it was discovered that the Dan A. Hughes Co. was drilling for oil in Collier County using a new process to get at deposits deep beneath the earth. The Texas company had applied for a “workover” permit to use chemicals to dissolve through rock so it could get at oil that lay beneath. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection asked the company to hold off while it reviewed the process, but the company went ahead and began the work anyway. The state had to issue a cease and desist order to get the Hughes Co. to stop, and it did (it was also slapped with a $25,000 fine for doing the work without waiting for approval). Things are quiet for now, O’Neal says, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stay that way. There are other permits for fracking in Florida coming down the pipeline, he says, because Florida has “ample amounts” of oil and gas buried deep beneath its soil.
“Hughes pulled out of the state willingly, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be back, or that there aren’t other wildcatters waiting to get in,” O’Neal says. So students at Barry Law and League members drafted language for a bill that would spell out what companies would have to do to get fracking permits (visit orlandoweekly.com to view PDFs of the proposed legislation). O’Neal is now trying to find a sponsor for the bill, which he says he’d like to see introduced during the 2015 session.
Sen. Darren Soto’s bill doesn’t attempt to regulate fracking at all – he says his bill would straight-up prohibit it anywhere in the state. He is working with Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, to get the bill introduced in December or January.
“What concerns me is that we get the vast majority of our drinking water from the Floridan aquifer, and fracking puts that water in jeopardy,” Soto says. The aquifer is already so threatened it’s not worth risking, he says. Soto’s proposal is not affiliated with the efforts of the law school and League of Women Voters, but O’Neal says the two draft bills are not at odds with one another, despite their different approaches. In fact, O’Neal says, it wouldn’t be a bad idea if both of them were to pass.
“Even if you put a moratorium in place, a moratorium can be lifted at any time,” O’Neal says. “And then you need to have those underlying regulations if that were to happen. We can’t just have anybody with a drilling rig coming in and doing this – wildcatters coming in, doing sloppy work … and then having them shoot these chemicals out into the aquifer for someone to get in their drinking water, or into our water supply. It’s just nightmarish.”