TAMPA — A left-leaning political advocacy group is accusing state Rep. Dana Young of benefiting from the oil drilling and fracking industry while voting for legislation that would encourage drilling and fracking in Florida.
The organization, Florida Strong, says Young, a Republican from Tampa, has become wealthy while in the Legislature from the proceeds of her husband's investment firm, which has had stakes in companies that profit from the oil industry.
"Young's net worth has skyrocketed during her time in the Legislature on the backs of Tampa residents who deserve better," Florida Strong executive director Charly Norton said in an email.
But Young, now running for the state Senate, says the accusations are false. She says they're based on misinterpretations of the drilling-related bills she has voted for, and distortions of the nature and timing of her husband's investments.
"I have always been opposed to fracking in Florida. I am opposed to it now, and I always will be," she said.
The question has become a hot issue in the competitive District 18 state Senate race, where Young faces Democrat Bob Buesing and no-party candidates Joe Redner and Sheldon Upthegrove.
Democrats have accused Young of voting to open the door to fracking in Florida. The Republican Party has responded with mailers saying Young "voted for a statewide fracking ban to protect our water."
Young acknowledges that a dramatic increase in her net worth, from $452,236 when she took office in 2010 to $4.7 million as of May, came largely from the proceeds of her husband's investment fund, Mangrove Equity Partners, which buys and helps manage manufacturing, service and distribution companies.
Some of those companies, including one that sold supplies used in oil well fracking, are in the petroleum industry.
Florida Strong named five such companies, among about a dozen Mangrove has invested in, and five bills concerning drilling that Young supported dating to 2012.
But Young said most of those companies had only indirect links to the industry, and most were sold before she voted in favor of the most controversial legislation — fracking regulation bills in the 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions.
Young says the 2016 bill was the best way to halt fracking in Florida, but neither bill included an outright ban. Both called for a study by the state Department of Environmental Protection; the 2016 bill would have imposed a moratorium on fracking at least until the study was concluded.
Both passed the House, but were killed in the Senate.
The argument turns partly on technical aspects of fracking, in which water, often mixed with toxic chemicals, is injected at high pressure into oil or gas wells to fracture rock formations, releasing the fuel they hold.
Young says she has always believed that's too dangerous for a state that relies on groundwater drawn from a porous aquifer.
But, she argues, imposing a ban without a study first to show scientific evidence of the danger "would open Florida taxpayers to a slew of property rights lawsuits stemming from an unconstitutional taking of their underground mineral rights."
Under the 2016 bill, House Bill 191, the moratorium would have remained in effect until the Legislature acted to lift it following the study, making it in effect an indefinite ban, she said.
But environmentalists say the moratorium could have been meaningless.
The Sierra Club's Frank Jackalone said the moratorium wouldn't have applied to the kind of fracking likely to be used in Florida, which uses acid to attack limestone rock. He said the bill referred only to high-pressure fracking used in denser rock.
Other objections to HB 191:
• The bill would have prevented local governments from enacting any regulations on fracking, including local bans.
• It would have required fracking companies to disclose to the state all chemicals they used, but if the formulas were considered trade secrets, they wouldn't have been available to the public.
But Young said the bill required the DEP to study all kinds of fracking and report on the dangers, which meant the Legislature could close any loophole.
She said pre-empting local government regulation was prudent because while some counties would ban fracking, others might allow it because of the revenue it would produce.
Young said no company that Mangrove Equity invested in actually did drilling or fracking.
Mangrove sold R&H Supply, which sold fracking equipment and supplies, in October 2014. In 2012, Mangrove sold Gayesco, a maker of temperature measurement devices used in refineries.
Mangrove subsequently sold Integrated Global Services, which makes industrial metal coatings, and Westland Technologies, which makes high-tech seals and other flexible parts.
Mangrove still has an investment in Tioga Air Heaters, whose products are used in a number of industries, including construction, oil and gas and others.
Besides R&H, Young said, "to argue that because some of (these companies') products are used by industries in the oil and gas drilling business make them somehow connected to oil drilling is simply false."