Senate committee kills fracking bill, but measure could return

Cabot Oil and Gas employees work on a natural gas valve at a hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, Penn., in 2012. [Getty Images]
Cabot Oil and Gas employees work on a natural gas valve at a hydraulic fracturing site in South Montrose, Penn., in 2012. [Getty Images]
Published February 26 2016
Updated February 26 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Amid growing public opposition to the controversial practice of fracking for oil and gas, a divided Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday rejected a bill to regulate and authorize the technique in Florida beginning in 2017.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 10-9 to reject SB 318 by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, which would impose 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.

Because of a parliamentary maneuver, however, the bill could come back before the committee next Tuesday if Richter can work out a compromise. Sen. Lisbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who was among those who voted against the bill, moved to reconsider her vote, providing Richter a chance to revive it. He told the Times/Herald he will "work out further compromise on a bill" and ask to have it brought up again.

Under the bill, the Department of Environmental Protection would use the study as a foundation to propose rules to regulate the hydraulic fracturing and similar technologies used to extract oil and gas. The rules must come back to the Legislature for ratification. The bill also prohibits local governments from imposing their own bans or regulations, and it shields from public disclosure the specific list of chemicals used in the process.

Environmentalists cite the state's fragile water table, the latent impact the bill could have on public health, and urged lawmakers to ban fracking, not set up a study that allows for regulation. A bill by Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, that would have banned fracking never got a hearing in the Senate.

"There are a lot of people in the audience who are way ahead of the Legislature on what we should be doing with respect to fracking," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who voted for the bill. "Let's get the science in place, let's get the department to adopt rules… and they must come back to the Legislature."

Richter has already agreed to modify the bill to address concerns by environmentalists by expanding the types of fracking technologies that could be regulated by the state. But senators from both parties suggested they would prefer to see a ban on fracking or at least a change in the bill that required 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 in Niagara Falls in which a toxic waste site contaminated drinking water and land.

"When we start messing with the aquifer and not noticing what's going on, then things start happening to people," she said.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, said she opposed the bill because there remained "too many unanswered questions."

"Are all these risks worth what we would be getting in return?" she asked. "The answer for me is no."

The Department of Environmental Protection must submit the proposed rules 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.

Siding with Richter was Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who argued that without a regulatory framework for fracking, state regulators can't ban fracking on their own.

"Doing nothing is not a solution," Simmons said, noting later that he is also inclined to believe that the risks of the practice don't outweigh the benefits.

At Lee's request, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson appeared before the committee to answer questions. Steverson testified that the department presently does not have the authority to prevent fracking technology from being used to explore for oil and gas, but the study could provide the foundation to establish rules that either open the door to fracking, or close it.

"It could absolutely say no — no fracking," he said, adding that the bill does not assume how the rules should be written.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, asked Steverson and department lawyers 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. They did not provide a clear answer.

"I don't think I've seen a better tap dance than what the DEP did today on the subject of trade secrets and the disclosure these chemicals," Latvala said. "And, until I get comfortable on this issue, I'm a no on this bill."

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."

The public opposition included the appearance of the fifth grade class of the Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, who stood single file before the committee, each student prepared with a speech to urge the committee to oppose fracking. One student, Jenna Caskey, spoke on their behalf. 

"Fracking should be banned in Florida because water is vital for our tourism industry, our drinking water and of course the Everglades," Caskey said. "Fracking should be banned because it could poison Florida's aquifer, making Florida's water dangerous to drink."

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

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 chided legislators for not recognizing the depth of public opposition. "A group of fifth graders was just told you won't be able to stop fracking unless this bill passes," Templin said. "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.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected] Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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