Saturday, January 20, 2018
News Roundup

Bowen: Push for fracking ban is no joke

On the eve of April Fools' Day, a small-city mayor and environmental advocates asked the state Legislature to hear their concerns.

Insert your own punch line here.

It's not easy being a mayor or any locally elected officeholder these days. The contempt from Tallahassee is never-ending. There are bills to restrict community redevelopment agencies, curb future revenue for local governments via larger property tax exemptions, gut home rule authority and even to take away the local ability to regulate vacation rentals.

Remember when the Republican mantra was local control? Not anymore.

Against that backdrop of undermining local governments, Dade City Mayor Camille Hernandez joined Dr. Lynn Ringenberg, immediate past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and Brooke Errett of Food & Water Watch at City Hall in Dade City last week to talk about a local environmental worry.

Specifically, they want House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, to let the House address a proposed fracking ban before the end of the state legislative session.

More than 90 communities across the state support the ban.

Uh oh. If the locals like it, what will they think in Tallahassee?

One of the standard pro-fracking arguments is that the controversial process can be controlled by the state's environmental regulators.

"Bottom line is, fracking just can't be done safely. It can't be regulated," Ringenberg told about a dozen environmental activists and a handful of reporters last week.

Fracking, known formally as hydraulic fracturing, is an oil- and gas-drilling process that directs high-pressure water mixed with sand and chemicals underground to release gas trapped inside rocks. So far, Vermont, New York and Maryland have banned the practice. Locally, Dade City and Zephyrhills prohibit fracking within their municipal limits. Pasco County passed a resolution in 2015 calling for a statewide moratorium until more scientific study could be conducted.

Ringenberg will tell you no more studies are needed. She'll point to the peer-reviewed medical articles that say fracking is a serious public health threat because of chemical contamination to water supplies. It is an imperative point locally, Hernandez said, because Tampa Bay Water's underground wells in Pasco help provide drinking water to more than 2 million people in the region.

"Water does not respect jurisdictional boundaries," she said.

One of the key supporters of the fracking ban is state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, whose district includes portions of west Pasco. He is a co-sponsor of SB 442 from Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa. It cleared the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee a month ago and enjoys some bipartisan support. The House version, HB 451, was assigned to three committees and hasn't had a hearing, which is why the advocates aimed their plea for action at Corcoran.

They commended the speaker for his call for greater transparency and accountability, then urged him to hold the energy industry accountable for Florida's environment and economy.

Some label a fracking ban as a job killer for the oil and gas industries. Hernandez and others see the flip side. Try promoting eastern Pasco County's rolling hills and trails as a mecca for bicycling enthusiasts if fracking is introduced to the same area.

The mayor admitted she wasn't confident of success this year, "but I think this is important because it keeps the momentum going." If you don't succeed in 2017, she said, then you try again next year, an election year.

Of course, there might be a different definition of momentum in the Legislature. Three days before the press conference in Dade City, a House committee in Tallahassee approved a bill allowing utility companies to charge Floridians for the cost of underwriting oil and gas exploration, including fracking, in other states.

Unfortunately, it wasn't an April Fools' joke.

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