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Florida House approves bill to authorize, regulate fracking

TALLAHASSEE — After rejecting efforts to require the oil and gas industry to disclose carcinogens and monitor the effects of fracking on pregnant women and drinking water, the Florida House on Wednesday passed a bill to open the door to the high-pressure drilling technique.

The measure, HB 191, allows the state to regulate and authorize the pumping of large volumes of water, sand and chemicals into the ground using high pressure to recover oil and gas deposits. It passed by a 73-45 vote with seven Republicans joining Democrats to oppose the measure.

The bill bans the practice 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.

The study will then be used to inform regulations by Department of Environmental Protection and the proposed rules must come back for legislative approval.

"I recognize that this bill is in the center of the storm of controversy," said Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, who has sponsored the bill for the last four years.

He said that he has heard three arguments during that time: that this activity can't be done safely and it threatens human life, that it is not compatible with the state's environment and that technology does not exist to allow it to be done without poisoning the state's water.

But, he said, the state has seen similar controversies — such as whether to allow alternate current electricity into homes, which was banned in some states; whether to allow for automobiles on the state's roads; and whether to allow submerged lands to help launch astronauts to put man on the moon.

"The controversies have always been the same," he said. "Are we going to react with fear … or with courage?"

Legislators rejected more than 20 amendments offered by Democrats that would have imposed hurdles to the activity sought by the oil and gas industry.

The amendments, by Reps. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach; Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami; Amanda Murphy, D-New Port Richey; Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg; and Kristin Jacobs, D-Coconut Creek, would have allowed local governments to regulate the activity, impose testing of water quality and water wells, study the effects of the fracking chemicals on human health, and require local voter approval before fracking activities begin.

Proponents of the bill said they won the support of the Florida Association of Counties and the League of Cities with a provision that postpones the prohibition on fracking bans until a study on the impact of the state's geology is completed in 2017. But the bill is also vigorously opposed by environmental groups and 41 cities and 27 counties — including Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

One amendment by Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, to study the impact of the fracking chemicals on pregnant mothers, unborn babies and other human health, won the support of at least one Republican, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.

"If fracking hurts unborn babies and if it is proven that fracking hurts unborn babies then should we let fracking continue?" Gaetz said.

But Rodrigues said the amendment wasn't needed because the study will look at the impact on people's health.

Jenne cited a study from the University of Missouri near a fracking site in Colorado, which found endocrine disruptors in the water. Another study by Princeton, Columbia and MIT found that proximity to a fracking site in Pennsylvania increased the likelihood of low birth weight babies by more than half — from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent.

"These aren't some whacked out environmental groups," he said. The amendment failed 69-45.

Another amendment required the disclosure of any chemical, such as benzene, used in the fracking operation that is considered a carcinogen.

Rep. Shawn Harrison, R-Tampa, noted that fracking is already allowed in Florida and this would stop the practice until regulations are in place.

"This good bill recognizes the emergence of a new technology in energy independence," he said. "We owe it to our constituents to explore where this new technology can be done in Florida and whether it can be done in Florida."

Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, a physician, said he got involved in the issue because it's a "data-intense subject filled with emotion" and he has read many of the articles mentioned in the debate.

"My carefully considered conclusion is that there is not a conclusion," he said. "Wishing for a zero-risk process, with some absolute safety, is not possible."

Dudley warned that unlike oil wells, fracking wells are "sucked dry after three years," forcing the industry to seek more wells. "Florida will become more porous than Swiss cheese — which is how I would characterize these regulations," he said.

The vote marks the third year the House has approved the controversial bill. In the past, the Senate has not taken a floor vote, but this year, SB 318 by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is moving more swiftly in the Senate.

According to an analysis by the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau, the oil and gas industry contributed at least $443,000 to the political committees of top Republican lawmakers since the last election.

The top contributor, the Barron Collier Companies, which wants a permit to use hydraulic fracturing to drill for oil and gas in Naples, steered $178,000 to lawmakers since December 2014, including $115,000 since July. Other members of the petroleum industry have contributed $265,000 this election cycle. 

On Tuesday, the Broward County Commission voted to become the 27th county to vote to ban fracking activities within the county. Kanter Realty has applied to drill an exploratory oil well in the Everglades, just west of Miramar, and the application is under review by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.  

On Monday, the House Democrats invited a landowner and former fracking industry worker from Pennsylvania to talk about their state's experience with fracking. They said that 10,000 wells, located in every county in the state, have been cited for health and safety violations.

"This will destroy the state like you can't imagine," said Ray Kemble, a former fracking industry worker from Dimock, Pa., at a news conference.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @maryellenklas.

Florida House approves bill to authorize, regulate fracking 01/27/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 8:58pm]
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