Florida Senate waters down fracking bill but advances it

Published Jan. 14, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — As the prospect of oil drilling inches closer to the Everglades, a Senate committee passed a measure to prohibit local governments from banning the controversial practice of drilling for natural gas, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, but only after strengthening the protections against possible contamination and requiring lawmakers to sign off on any regulations.

The Florida Senate Environmental Protection and Conservation Committee surprised environmentalists by agreeing to a series of amendments that strengthen oversight of the practice — by requiring inspection of groundwater before and after the drilling begins — but the bill still allows companies to seek a permit to shoot thousands of gallons of water and acid into rock formations to release oil and gas trapped in the bedrock, known as acidization.

The proposal, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, would require the Department of Environmental Regulation to establish rules governing the process but it would also halt the ability of local governments to write local ordinances. Broward County has scheduled a hearing to become one of about 60 local governments that ban the practice as a wealthy developer has applied for a permit to drill for oil on the edge of the Everglades.

John Kanter, of Kanter Real Estate, has requested a drilling permit to conduct exploratory drilling for oil and gas along a major drainage canal about a half-dozen miles west of U.S. 27 and Miramar. Under current law, the state may grant the permit and impose no requirement that the chemicals be disclosed or ground water be tested.

Under the bill, a version of which is also moving in the state House, state regulators would conduct a $1 million, one-year study to determine what impact the chemicals used in the fracking process would have on the state drinking water supply and then write new rules regulating the practice, beginning 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. Concerned about the impact to the state's water system, the Senate included a provision that will require testing of ground water before and after the drilling occurs and require that any rules developed by state officials get a vote of approval from the Legislature.

"It would give our constituents who have a lot of nervousness about this a little more comfort in knowing the folks they are electing are going to take one more look before we start fracking in the State of Florida," said Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, who proposed the amendment.

Opponents warn that because of the state's fragile limestone foundation, dangerous chemicals could seep into Florida's porous rock formations and contaminate the state's water supply too late for the state to do anything. Instead of regulation, they seek a ban.

But Richter argues that until a study is complete a ban is irresponsible.

"We need to responsibly do everything we can to be less dependent on others," he said. "For 70 years we've been drilling for oil in the State of Florida and in fact over 600 million barrels of oil have been produced from 1,000 wells without any adverse impact."

Todd Sack, a Tallahassee physician who has served on the environmental health committees of the Florida Medical Association and American Medical Association said both organizations have adopted policies opposing natural gas fracking. He said the bill allows drillers to hide any disclosure of chemicals used in the process by calling them a trade secret.

"This bill will interfere significantly with the ability of physicians to care for their patients," he said. "Doctors caring for patients must know what chemicals are in our water."

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida warned that the bill does not regulate all types of well-stimulation and said it fears that millions of gallons of drinking water will be used for the activity.

Supporting the bill was Associated Industries of Florida because of the "jobs it will create for the state of Florida," said lobbyist Brewster Bevis.

Richter acknowledged, "it's an emotional issue," but vowed it would provide "absolute" disclosure of every chemical that goes into the ground.

"The status quo is much worse," he said, nothing there would be no disclosure, regulation or requirement of bonds for the applicants. "This bill move the ball, maybe not as far as some would like."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas.