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Fracking bills stall despite concern over oil spills

A new report based on data from the Department of Environmental Protection shows that between 2015 and 2018, conventional oil drilling led to 35 spills, averaging nine a year.
[Brennan Linsley | AP]
Published Apr. 17

A set of bills that would ban some forms of fracking in Florida have likely stalled out in the Legislature, leaving environmentalists discouraged and petroleum industry representatives hopeful.

People from the petroleum industry have said they are responsible for what they do and want to continue drilling and discovering new opportunities for oil in Florida as they have for the last 70 years.

But drilling can cause accidents, leaks and spills due to a variety of reasons, including leaky well casings, traffic accidents and pipeline bursts, according to national advocacy group Food & Water Watch. Environmentalists who have testified at bill hearings say fracking in Florida’s porous geology escalates the risk of contaminated soil and drinking water.

And a new report based on data from the Department of Environmental Protection shows that between 2015 and 2018, conventional oil drilling led to 35 spills, averaging nine a year. While fracking isn’t part of Florida drilling operations now, environmentalists fear its future use will contribute to a similar pattern of incidents.

Food & Water Watch found that from June 2015 to October 2018, at least 330 gallons of oil and 27,746 gallons of waste water contaminated waterways, farmland and school grounds across the state.

Oakley Shelton-Thomas, a researcher with Food & Water Watch, said their estimate of the number of spills is conservative because it only counted surface spills, not underground well-casing leaks.

He pointed out that the largest volume spill recorded in the report was in Collier County in 2015, where 10,000 gallons of waste water and oil spilled from a ruptured oil tank. In 2018, more than 2,000 gallons of a combination of crude oil and waste water was released into the Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County.

“This obviously doesn’t show that Florida operators are going to be able to do unconventional drilling safely if they can’t do conventional drilling safely,” he said. “From our perspective, we have four years of these spills happening and continuing to happen. It’s unclear to me from looking at the data what would cause the spills to stop.”

Brian Lee, a lobbyist for a coalition of environmental groups called Floridians Against Fracking, said fracking shouldn’t be allowed at all because of the recorded spills and issues that result from drilling operations.

“For years we have heard from the industry that there haven’t ever been any problems with conventional drilling in Florida and that’s why they should be allowed to frack here,” he said. “How can this industry be trusted to use fracking and matrix acidizing when they’re averaging nine spills a year statewide with corroded equipment used for conventional operations?

In DEP reports gathered by the group, the agency instructed the drilling operations in the spill reports to “continue to be diligent with preventative maintenance” or to dispose of impacted soil and “evaluate preventative measures.”

“Our priority is always to ensure that Florida’s vital resources remain protected and that the state’s environmental laws and regulations are followed,” said DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller.

She said department rules require, as part of the permitting process, that drilling applicants submit a spill prevention and cleanup plan to identify potential spill sources, describe measures that will be taken to avoid spills, include a plan for spill response and identify the equipment and resources needed to respond once a spill occurs.

According to DEP, immediately after a spill containing either oil or brine (the saltwater by-product generated during drilling), the well operator is supposed to put that cleanup plan into action. The liquids are then supposed to be recovered by absorbent pads or a vacuum truck, which is then documented. In some cases, the soil impacted is discarded. The response actions are overseen by DEP.

David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said all spills are unacceptable, but the amount of oil actually spilled is minute compared to the total gas extracted.

The oil spilled in the last three years is 0.0000012 percent of the total oil produced in Florida (about 25 billion gallons), he said.

“A lot of focus is on the damaging part of this or the tragedy part of things associated with my industry,” said Mica, who has been lobbying against the fracking ban bill. “But when you go to the space program, you don’t focus on the Challenger disaster or the mishaps. If they’re allowed to go on, we’d be allowed to produce what we do now.”

According to a staff analysis of the Senate bill, oil and natural gas production in Florida peaked at 47 million barrels in 1978. In 2017, just 2 million barrels were produced and as of 2018, only 57 active wells were left. Rather than hydraulic fracturing, well operators in the state have generally preferred alternatives to fracking to recover oil and gas resources.

In 1990, the state enacted a ban on offshore drilling. Earlier this year, Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled sweeping measures to protect the state’s aquifers and clean up the state’s water supply. He then went further and announced fracking bans as a priority. If a fracking ban passes this legislative session, DEP will have to revise existing rules to implement the ban.

Lawmakers say they’d rather pass an imperfect fracking ban than nothing at all, and amendments posed to include matrix acidizing have been thwarted. Matrix acidizing, which is not part of the ban, is an oil extraction method performed by pumping acidic fluids into a well at a low pressure. Operators use acid to dissolve minerals and avoid damaging the rock layer around the well, but those toxic chemicals can get into the aquifer.

While the fracking ban bills have made their way through committees in both chambers with relative ease, both bills have been stalled at their last committee stop, awaiting one last hearing in committees that have either stopped meeting or have a full agenda for their final assembly.

Tuesday, April 23 is the last day for bills to be heard in committee.

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