1. Opinion

Column: Energy extraction in Florida needs to have limits

Less than two years ago, it was said fracking would never be used in Florida. Oil extraction in the state was on-shore through conventional methods, limited to oil reservoirs of the western Panhandle and a small area of Southwest Florida. My, how times have changed.

Even with oil prices down, new methods for refining and extracting oil are creating a surge in oil and gas activity in our state, including proposals for more than 100,000 acres of new oil exploration and wells on public conservation lands, near homes, or in important environmentally sensitive areas such as the Everglades.

Florida's unique geologic and hydrologic conditions mean fracking-type oil extraction can have significantly different impacts here than elsewhere. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection acknowledged this, saying in public statements that the fracking technique used at a well in Collier had never been used in the state before and shouldn't be without further review, due to concerns about groundwater resources.

Yet without any credible and objective science to assess impacts of these fracking-type techniques in Florida, they are presently allowed and the state lacks explicit legal authority to restrict or stop their use. What's worse is that almost all of these activities are done in complete secrecy, with the driller notifying the state only after they have a conventional drilling permit in hand and then claiming that even the notification is a "trade secret" — preventing local governments and the public's ability to know about it.

This unacceptable status quo is something the Conservancy of Southwest Florida tirelessly tried to work with the Legislature last session to rectify. But oil and gas interests teamed up with large mineral rights owners to push a weak oil regulatory bill. That bill would have only regulated a subset of the oil well stimulation treatments that use the injection of toxic chemicals to fracture rock — completely leaving out techniques which dissolve rock with acids.

This weak bill will likely be refiled this year, aiming also to take away local government's authority to stop inappropriate drilling in their own communities — like Bonita Springs recently did when it passed an ordinance to prohibit the use of fracking-type oil extraction within city limits. The state does not review the light, noise, traffic, or land use incompatibility issues that local governments do. Local governments have the responsibility to protect and balance the private property rights of all in the community, a responsibility that is even more important now with new drilling proposals close to residential areas, schools, or local public water supply sources.

The state legislative session is rapidly approaching and the Conservancy will again advocate for legislation that would create meaningful regulatory reform, including the immediate suspension of all forms of fracking-like extraction techniques; and vigorously opposing any efforts that seek to do anything less. We also will defend the rights of local governments that wish to restrict or prohibit drilling proposals that are incompatible and pose any possible risk to public health and water supplies.

This is not a matter of to drill or not drill, it's about whether drilling should be allowed everywhere by any method. Obviously that should not be the case. Even the slightest chance that we could permanently contaminate public water supplies with hazardous chemicals or severely deplete our freshwater supplies from irresponsible drilling is too great a risk.

Our state needs sustainable energy production that is compatible with maintaining its exceptional natural environment, quality of life, and tourism-based economy. There are huge opportunities for cleaner, safer energy production here in the Sunshine State. Citizens are currently hard at work gathering the necessary signatures for the proposed 2016 Florida Solar Choice amendment, to give Floridians a chance to voice whether they want greater access to solar statewide. With continuing oil and gas proposals surfacing that would permanently shape our landscape, the decisions we make today will decide whether we have a more sustainable energy supply in the future.

Jennifer Hecker is the director of natural resource policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.