Pinellas County bans fracking

The ordinance goes into effect next week. Violators could be fined $10,000 a day.
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CLEARWATER — Pinellas County on Tuesday became the first government in Tampa Bay and the 11th county in the state to ban hydraulic fracturing.

The County Commission unanimously passed the ban, which also sets fines for violators, three months after a state bill that would have regulated fracking and prevented municipalities from prohibiting it failed in the Legislature.

"This certainly makes a statement,'' Commissioner Dave Eggers said, "and it's really set up to protect our water sources."

There are no wells currently being fracked in Florida, but hydraulic fracturing — which pumps water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations to extract oil and gas — is allowed and does not require a separate permit from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection like the one required to drill oil and gas wells.

The ordinance will go into effect next week and says fracking presents significant risks to the public and environment and could compromise the quality of the county's groundwater supply, which is drawn from the Floridan aquifer. Violators could be charged up to $10,000 a day for each offense under the County Environmental Enforcement Act.

Jennifer Rubiello, state director of Environment Florida, praised the commission's move, calling fracking "a rolling environmental disaster" that has contaminated drinking water and transformed open lands across the country into industrial zones.

"We live in one of the most beautiful regions and states in the entire country. It is our job to do everything we can in order to protect it," Rubiello told the commission. "Fracking simply doesn't fit into that picture from contaminated water to marred landscapes."

Susan Glickman, Florida director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, cited a 2016 Harvard University study showing U.S. emissions of methane, one of the strongest greenhouse gases driving climate change, have increased by more than 30 percent over the past decade. During that same time period, the country's shale oil and gas production increased nine times over, according to the study.

An earlier Harvard study also found the fracking industry is withholding disclosure of all the chemicals they inject into the ground when drilling and injecting water, sand and chemicals at extreme pressures to fracture rock and release gas.

"These are the issues that we have to grapple with in our time. … We don't want to frack here. We don't want to frack anywhere in Florida," Glickman said.

With Tuesday's ban, Pinellas County joins 10 other counties, including Alachua, Brevard and Broward, and three cities, including Cape Coral, to ban the practice outright. Glickman, however, warned that future action by the Legislature could potentially override local ordinances, allowing companies to frack existing wells.

Although none of the roughly 10 speakers at the commission meeting were against the ban, David Mica, director of the Florida Petroleum Council, told the Times last week that local bans are "ill advised."

"I think it sends a bad message to Floridians and to consumers," Mica said. "They have much more pressing issues in our state associated with water contamination, with stormwater and wastewater and surface water, and in Pinellas County, access to potable water than anything associated with a technology that has been transforming American energy."

Mica said fracking has been practiced in more than 4 million wells across the U.S. for decades and has helped make the U.S. the world leader in energy production. He said fracking has helped flip the dynamic from importing 60 percent of the country's oil to producing more than 60 percent domestically, keeping crude prices down.

But on Tuesday, Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida co-chair Guy Hancock told the commission money is a reason oil companies support the practice while the environment suffers.

"The oil corporations are winners and the public is the loser," he said. "Pinellas County is one of the most vulnerable places in the globe to all the bad effects of global warming and climate change from sea level rise to increase in storms. We had a small taste of that this weekend. It's not going to get better."

Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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