Senate committee votes to reject fracking bill, but uses rule to keep it alive
A divided Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday voted 10-9 to reject a controversial bill to give state regulators the framework to authorize fracking for oil and gas reserves in Florida but, because of a parliamentary maneuver kept the issue alive, but limping.
The bill, SB 318, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, imposes a temporary moratorium on fracking permits until a study of Florida's hydrology is completed to determine what potential impact the operations will have on the state’s geology and fragile water supply.
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. The House passed a similar bill, HB 191, by a 73-45 vote with seven Republicans joining Democrats to oppose the measure.
Richter agreed to modify the bill to expand the fracking technologies that would be regulated, an effort to address concerns by environmentalists, but several senators suggested they would prefer to see a ban on fracking or called for changes that require the disclosure of chemicals used in the process.
"The people of the State of Florida don't want fracking,'' said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, comparing the potential damage in Florida to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and the Love Canal tragedy, in which a toxic waste site contaminated the ground and water in Niagara Falls."When we start messing with the aquifer and not noticing what's going on, then things start happening to people."
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she opposed the bill because there remained "too many unanswered questions as to what does fracking mean for our environment.
"Are all these risks worth what we would be getting in return?,'' she asked. "The answer for me is no."
Sen. Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, sided with Richter who argued that without the bill to create a regulatory framework for fracking the state is in a more vulnerable position than without out it.
"Doing nothing is not a solution,'' he said.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, asked officials from Department of Environmental Protection how they could agree to a provision in the bill that allows companies to use the state's trade secret exemption from disclosing to the public the chemicals it is using in the fracking process.
"I've questioned a lot witnesses...most importantly I've raised teenagers,'' he said. "I don't think a better tap dance than what the DEP did today on the subject of trade secrets and the disclosure these chemicals and until I get comfortable on this issue, I'm a no on this bill."
The committee adopted an amendment offered by Simmons, which changes the definition of fracking to include all forms of well-stimulation to tap hydrocarbons. It excludes procedures used for cleaning the fracking well bore.
"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."
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," he added that "when debate becomes emotional, it magnifies the controversy."
That included the appearance of the fifth grade class of the Cornerstone Learning Community, whose students 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 the study determines what potential impact the operations will have on the state’s geology and fragile water supply and it also prohibits local governments from imposing their own bans or regulations.
Richter said he sponsored the bill because in 2013 the Dan. A. Hughes Company began a fracking operation near his hometown of Collier County, 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 company 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 the agency may 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."
"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."
David Mica, director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said his organization supports the bill "because my industry needs to use the most modern technology that is available to us to provide products to Americans."
Rich Templin of the AFL-CIO said the state's 1 million union members voted to oppose bringing fracking technologies to Florida, and noted that 40 percent of the membership are registered Republicans.
"People's opposition to this is being under-noticed,'' Templin said. "A group of fifth graders was just told you won't be able to stop fracking unless this bill passes. Why then is oil and gas industry here in support of it?"
Voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, Don Gaetz, R-Crestview, Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, Richter, Simmons and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.
Voting against the bill were Sens. Flores, Dorothy Hukill, R-Ormond Beach, Joyner, Latvala, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, and Lisbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.
Benacquisto moved to reconsider her no vote, allowing the bill to return to the committee at a later time.