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  1. Florida Politics

Despite objections of environmentalists, pro-fracking bill advances in Florida Legislature

TALLAHASSEE — A three-year effort to make it easier for oil and gas companies to bring controversial drilling technologies known as fracking to the state is making headway in the Florida House, despite opposition from environmentalists and local governments.

The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee on Wednesday voted 9-3 for the bill (HB 191) by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Sebring. A companion bill has not yet had a hearing in the Senate.

The proposal would establish new regulations over fracking, remove the ability of local governments to write local ordinances, and require state regulators to conduct a $1 million, one-year study to determine what impact the chemicals used in the process would have on the state drinking water supply before the rules are written in 2017.

The regulations would include how the contaminated water and chemicals will be disposed of and the study will consider the potential for water contamination once a well has been plugged. Unlike last year, the measure does not include a new public records exemption for the chemicals used in the process but continues to allow companies to shield the names of the chemicals under the trade secrets law.

At issue is a process, known as acidization, that involves shooting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and acid into rock formations to release oil and gas trapped in the bedrock. Rodrigues has tried and failed for three years to pass a similar bill.

Environmentalists warn that the process will allow dangerous chemicals to seep into Florida's porous rock formations and contaminate the state's water supply. Instead of regulation, they seek a ban.

"Passing this bill would effectively lay out a welcome mat for the fracking industry," said Democratic Rep. José Javier Rodríguez of Miami, who was among the three Democrats voting against the bill.

Supporters say that without the regulation companies will continue to have the right to drill for oil and gas on their property, and the bill creates a system to protect the public when they do.

Pigman, who is a doctor, said he is skeptical of studies that indicate fracking has a greater health risk than traditional oil and gas drilling.

"No one is disputing that there are volatile hydrocarbons around the fractured well site, but there's also volatile hydrocarbons at a gas station, there's also volatile hydrocarbons in your car," Pigman told the committee before the vote Wednesday. "You don't want to live right next to an oil well; you don't want to live right next to a car that's leaking gas."

But Lonnie Draper, a Tallahassee emergency physician and president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, warned that the cost of the bill on public health and the environment don't justify the risk.

"By design, fracturing of stone is causing the rock to leak fluids into the environment so they could be pumped out of the wells," he said. "You are promoting an industry that knows that its pipes leak, go right into the aquifer, cause fracturing of rock, which is intended to leak and will leak into our groundwater and at some point in time this state will be cleaning up that water."

The bill was proposed as the Dan A. Hughes company used the acidization process in December 2013 to drill in Collier County but, after releasing 700,000 gallons of water and acid into the ground, was ordered to halt the operation by state regulators.

The Department of Environmental Protection then fined the company and filed a lawsuit.

John Dickert, a retired mechanical engineer from Madison warned that the proposed bill does not include the safe disposal of the radioactive wastewater used in the process and fails to protect the water supply because it allows for groundwater testing only after the drilling has occurred.

"What would those groundwater samples be compared to?" he asked.

Rich Templin, head of the AFL-CIO, said that the 100-member advisory board of the organization voted unanimously to oppose efforts to bring fracking to Florida and to support a statewide ban.

"This is not a group of tree-hugging liberals," Templin said. "Almost 40 percent of our membership is Republican" and they represent dozens of industries from teachers and bus drivers to police and construction workers — "all partisan stripes, a cross-section of Florida."

He said that almost 20 counties and 40 cities have passed resolutions to ban fracking and their members reflect that.

Kim Ross, a former employee at the Department of Environmental Protection, said the bill fails to address the most common form of fracking for oil well stimulation, even though the same chemicals and risks are present.

She said that the study could take more than a year and the requirement that the peer review happen after that within the one-year time frame is "unrealistic."

Ross also questioned the claim by DEP that it can regulate the fracking industry "without additional burden to the state." She said that staffing at the regulatory agency has declined by 15 percent in the last few years as the workload has increased.

"That all adds up to poor fiscal management of a stressed agency in a stressed environment,'' she said.

Also opposed are the League of Cities and the Association of Counties, which say the bill will remove their ability to protect residents from the controversial activity.

Rodrigues said he is working on changing the so-called pre-emption provision to address their concerns. Under the compromise, local communities would not have the ability to ban fracking but could regulate noise, transportation routes and other issues that cities and counties now have.

"The state has experts at DEP, hydrologists and technologists, who have been trained to make these decisions based up on their expertise. Cities do not," he said, noting that the city of Bonita Springs passed an ordinance so broad he believes it now bans people from drilling for water.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @maryellenklas.