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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Fracking bad for Florida

Florida lawmakers are pushing to expand fracking, an aggressive form of oil drilling that could threaten the drinking water supply, damage private property and threaten Florida’s tourist economy.
Florida lawmakers are pushing to expand fracking, an aggressive form of oil drilling that could threaten the drinking water supply, damage private property and threaten Florida’s tourist economy.
Published Feb. 5, 2016

Florida lawmakers wanted to send a positive message last month by passing a huge water bill during the first week of the legislative session, committing tens of millions of dollars to clean up the natural springs and generate new supplies of drinking water for the state's most crowded areas. But now they are headed in the opposite direction by pushing to expand fracking, an aggressive form of oil drilling that could threaten the drinking water supply, damage private property and hurt Florida's tourist economy.

Fracking involves the use of acid or high-pressure chemical solutions to loosen oil and gas deposits trapped underground. Legislation passed by the House, HB 191, creates a process in Florida to permit this type of drilling. Even worse, it blocks local governments from banning fracking and the public from learning in a timely manner of any environmental disaster in the making. In a unanimous vote last week, the Hillsborough County Commission called for lawmakers to drop the bill; it is also opposed by environmental groups and dozens of local governments.

The House sellout to heavy polluters was on full display as it rejected a series of amendments that would have required water testing, imposed tough penalties for damaging spills and given communities a say in whether the activity should be allowed. A companion measure, SB 318, is awaiting action in the Senate Appropriations Committee and committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, should ensure it never sees the light of day.

Fracking is wrong for Florida because the state's limestone terrain puts underground water sources at risk of contamination from high-pressure pumping. A study last year by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that up to 18,000 gallons of chemicals — including hydrochloric acid and methanol — are typically injected in each fracking operation. When combined with water, the main ingredient in the process, more than 1 million gallons of fluids are typically injected per well. That heavy use would unduly tax Florida's groundwater resources and create an environmental headache as operators look to dispose of the wastewater while avoiding catastrophic spills or breaches into the drinking water supply.

This also is the wrong policy at the wrong time. With global oil production surging, oil prices dropping, and nations struggling to store their excess capacity in the face of softening demand, why would Florida take on this environmental risk? Where is the financial argument for the Sunshine State to invest in fossil fuels when clean-energy technology is creating new jobs and a more sustainable future?

As the sixth anniversary of the BP oil disaster nears, it's worth remembering how close Florida came in the months before that spill to expanding drilling in the state. Drilling advocates said advanced safety techniques allowed Florida to both capitalize on drilling and protect its natural resources. But even an industry giant like BP could not foresee the Deepwater Horizon disaster. It took months for the company to even contain the damage. And the economic and ecological losses are far from being fully understood.

Both pieces of legislation require the state to study the impacts of fracking and to develop rules on its operation before any permits are issued. The rules must also be ratified by the Legislature. But those hardly are high hurdles in a state where oil and gas interests contributed at least $443,000 to the political committees of top Republicans in the current election cycle. It's up to Lee and the rest of the Senate to kill a bill that's bad for the state and out of step with the economy.