Florida Fracking Battle, Triggered by Oil Firm Revelation, Intensifies Across State

Wednesday, February 24, 2016
Fracking operation (photo: Getty Images)

By Lizette Alvarez, New York Times


MIAMI — With geology akin to a wet sponge and fragile underground aquifers that supply almost all its drinking water, Florida has never been considered part of the agitated battle over fracking as a technology for extracting oil and gas.


But that began to change two years ago when a Texas-based oil and gas company was found to have been using hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, and matrix acidizing, a fracking-like method that dissolves rocks with acid instead of fracturing them with pressurized liquid. Neither residents nor local governments knew about it because well stimulation, the catchall term for both techniques, does not require a separate permit and is not regulated.


The result has been an unlikely battle over fracking in Florida that is picking up steam across the state. The discovery outraged local government officials and environmentalists, who said they were worried about the effects of toxic chemicals and acids on Florida’s soil and water. Nearly 80 counties and cities have passed ordinances to ban or oppose the methods, in part because of their dissatisfaction with the state Legislature’s proposals.


Now, a bill to try to regulate fracking is dividing the Legislature. Environmentalists and some local officials have sharply criticized the measure, saying that it would fail to regulate matrix acidizing, the technology most likely to be used in Florida, and that it would stop local governments from banning fracking. The bill also would revoke any local bans passed after Jan. 1, 2015, which includes the vast majority of them. The House has already passed the bill, and the Senate is now considering it.


“There is a certain amount of despair and disbelief,” over the legislation, said Penny Taylor, a commissioner in Collier County, which is home to Naples on the Gulf Coast. “At this point, the concern is spreading statewide, and it does appear that counties where there may not even be oil are very concerned about fracking.”


Local officials said they were angry about being overruled by state lawmakers in Tallahassee, an increasingly common move by the Republican-dominated Legislature when it is displeased with local decisions.


“I think the last couple of years we have had some of the biggest assaults on home rule that we’ve ever seen,” said Marni Sawicki, the mayor of Cape Coral.


Such strong local opposition has triggered bipartisan misgivings in the state Senate, where a few prominent Republicans have broken ranks and publicly criticized fracking.


“Fracking isn’t the way,” state Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami, a conservative Republican who sits on the Appropriations Committee, posted on Twitter. The committee is the bill’s final hurdle to the Senate floor.


Even the powerful chairman of that committee has had qualms about the bill. He recently delayed a hearing on the legislation, saying he wanted to learn more about the fracking technologies directly from officials at the state’s environmental protection agency. The hearing is expected to take place this week.


“We want credible, scientific responses to questions, not special interest responses,” state Sen. Tom Lee, the chairman, said.


In the House, lawmakers in support of the bill said local governments and environmentalists were misconstruing facts and exaggerating the potential consequences of the measure, which would regulate fracking for the first time. They said the bans are illegal because counties and cities have little authority to regulate oil and gas drilling, other than as zoning and land-use issues.


Still, to allay their concerns, the authors of the measure said they tweaked it to, among other things, require oil companies to notify local governments when they intend to use fracking. Most of the state’s oil and gas drilling, which is modest compared with major oil-producing states, takes place in Florida’s panhandle and in the southwest, on the edge of the western Everglades.


“The environmentalists claim that we are taking control from local government on this matter,” said state Rep. Ray Rodrigues, the Fort Myers Republican who introduced the House bill. “You can’t take something away if you don’t have it in the first place.”


Rodrigues said the bill takes other precautions as well. It calls for a moratorium on “high pressure stimulation” — hydraulic or acid fracking, but not matrix acidizing, which does not create cracks but helps enhance the process — until state environmental regulators complete a peer-reviewed study. The study would look at how the extraction methods could affect Florida’s geology and its underground water supply. Regulators would then complete the rules and forward them to lawmakers for their approval.


Dave R. Mica, the executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said acidization was not included in the bill because it is an offshoot of a common, well-accepted technique used to clean wells and should not be subjected to more regulation.


“It is regulated, and we have used it for decades and decades,” Mica said.


Rodrigues agreed that a study was needed before moving forward because the state’s porous geology raises concerns that toxic chemicals could more easily penetrate groundwater.


Studies from other states with different geology simply do not apply to Florida, experts said. Environmentalists are also concerned that the acids and chemicals used in matrix acidizing could further dissolve delicate limestone formations that protect the aquifers.


“I think it would be foolish to ban a practice without any scientific evidence,” Rodrigues said. “For those who oppose the practice, they should support the study. And if the study proves their belief, then it’s acceptable to ban this practice.”


But environmentalists and local officials said the legislation was seriously undermined by the fact that matrix acidizing was left out of the study and the regulations, leaving it to continue unabated. They want lawmakers to include acidizing in the bill but carve out an exception for the form used to clean wells.


“We feel that we couldn’t have a bill that would address a technique we likely won’t use in our state and not address a technique we likely will use,” said Jennifer Hecker, a policy director for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, an environmental group.


Anthony R. Ingraffea, an authority on fracking at Cornell University, said that because the bill does not include rules for all forms of well stimulation, it would do little to help Floridians. He said the legislation appeared to be a “smoke screen” to eliminate local control of fracking.


Mica, of the petroleum council, said environmentalists were trying to put up barriers to any well-stimulation technologies and would prefer to let local governments ban them. “Environmentalists should just say, ‘We don’t want oil and gas,’ ” he said.


To Learn More:

New York Supreme Court Rules that Towns May Ban Fracking Despite State Law (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Says Frackers Can’t Overrule Local Laws (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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