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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Sen. Richter agrees to modify fracking bill but defends need for it in Florida



The sponsor of a controversial bill to give state regulators the framework to authorize fracking for oil and gas reserves in Florida mounted an aggressive defense of the controversial bill Thursday, urging a potentially hostile Senate Appropriations Committee to support SB 318 to regulate the practice.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said that he believes it is "unrealistic" to ban fracking in Florida, despite mounting public opposition to the practice, because he believes the House and Gov. Rick Scott instead believe Florida should effectively regulate it.

"There is no moratorium on fracking in the State of Florida now,'' Richter said, acknowledging the public's opposition. "I wish I was on a bill that was 40-0 and out the door -- scoop of vanilla ice cream only."

Instead, the bill imposes a temporary moratorium on fracking permits until a number of conditions are met -- including a study of Florida's hydrology to determine what potential impact the operations will have on the state’s geology and fragile water supply that is peer reviewed and scientifically completed "in order to understand the impact of fracking in Florida." The study will then be used to inform regulations by the Department of Environmental Protection by March 2018, and the proposed rules must come back for legislative approval. 

Richter said the fierce opposition by community groups, environmentalists, and some local officials "have become extremely emotional" and, while he thanked them "for staying engaged, but when debate becomes emotional, it magnifies the controversy,'' he said.

That included the appearance of the fifth grade class of the Cornerstone Learning Academy, who each arrived with a speech to urge the committee to oppose fracking but had one student, Jenna Caskey, speak on their behalf. 

Richter told them that without his bill, fracking would still be allowed. 

The bill bans the high pressure well stimulation until state environmental regulators complete a study in 2017 to determine what potential impact the operations will have on the state’s geology and fragile water supply but also prohibits local governments from imposing their own bans or regulations. 

Richter said he sponsored the bill because in 2010 the Dan. A. Hughes Company began a fracking operation near his hometown of Collier County in 2013, and it "drew tremendous concern" from the community. He said he now believes "this bill may be the most important bill I have to do for the citizens I represent" because without it there is no regulatory framework.

He said that when Dan. A. Hughes Company asked for the fracking permit, the Department of Environmental Regulation's "hands were tied" when Hughes started its fracking operations because they didn't have the power to revoke the fracking permit unless it can determine it is harmful to citizens so the agency ordered the compnay to determine what impact it had on the aquifers.  

DEP now can only assess minimal fines of $1,000 a day, and could impose only $1 million in bonding requirements. Richter said that today DEP cannot force disclosure of any chemicals that a company is offering and could not research the "bad actors" in the industry.

He said he and Rep. Ray Rodriques, R-Estero, the House sponsor of a similar bill for the last four years, "had a passion for creating a responsible regulatory activity" and "we wanted to untie the hands of the regulators." 

Richter said he also met with the governor the Mansion, along with his chief of staff and other staff members. "Gov. Scott was very emphatic that the fines were not effective and they felt the bonding was ineffective and the ability to do due diligence was ineffective," Richter recalled. 

"The bill we have in front of you is a very collaborative effort between local governments, environmental groups,'' he said, noting that many modifications have been made to accommodate the concerns of environmental groups and local governments.

"Many well-intended, mis-informed people are going to testify for this bill,'' Richter said. "I have great respect for these people. It's my hope. It's my desire you will listen to why this bill is good for the State of Florida."

An amendment offered by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, changes the definition of fracking well stimulation covered by the bill from high-pressure well stimulation to include all forms of well-stimulation or "well intervention whose purpose or effect is to fracture such formation to increase production of an oil or gas well" to tap hydro-carbons. It excludes procedures used for cleaning the well bore.

Simmons said the new definition covers the concerns provided by the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in an effort "to legitimately deal with the concerns of the people of the State of Florida,'' he said.

"This bill establishes a specific permit that provides DEP open access to all well sites,'' Richter said. It also increases fine to $25,000 a day per incident, requires a $5 million bond, expands the due diligence to consider prior behavior by the company seeking a permit, and requires that chemicals be disclosed to the department at the time the permit is requested.

Richter added that the department is required to submit those chemicals to Frack Focus, the international website, which is governed by federal trade secret laws.

"There is no moratorium on fracking in the State of Florida now,'' Richter said. "I wish I was on a bill that was 40-0 and out the door -- scoop of vanilla ice cream only."

Richter argued that counties are already pre-empted from regulating fracking or other oil and gas exploration, and offered a document from county attorney of Lee County, who concluded that existing law prevents them from regulating the activity. There are 410 local municipalities and counties and "the state cannot have 410 standards out there. That is why we have a Department of Environmental Protection,'' he said. "They are the regulators."

He said, the pre-emption language has been amended and the Florida Association of Counties, the Florida League of Cities to insert land use and zoning authorities back to the counties. He said the groups now support the amendment but conceded "not all counties agree."

"I'm working as hard as I can to come up with compromise to establish the protections we need,'' he said, noting that the bill passed in the House "by a significant margin."

He said that Dan A. Hughes company "didn't broke the law" even though they settled with the department to end a lengthy lawsuit.

"That's why we need SB 318. It would have prevented Dan. A. Hughes,'' he said. "Yes, if you're against fracking you should support this bill."

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said his greatest concern was the public fear of the practice.

"Fear is misplaced because this bill gives them comfort,'' Richter responded. "We have a need for energy.''

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, asked why waste $1 million on a study when we already know the answer, and the crowd applauded. Richter said Montford made his point about "misinformation."

"A study removes the emotion and permits science to drive the issue,'' he said. "I want science driving the issue."

The committee continued its debate of the bill. 

[Last modified: Thursday, February 25, 2016 12:55pm]


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