Fracking at the Front Door?

While a bill to allow fracking in Florida died in this year’s legislative session, the issue is likely to return in 2017


By Vickie Machado

This spring, Florida’s environmental community breathed a collective sigh of relief when lawmakers gave up on a bill that would have allowed fracking in Florida – and pre-empted local ordinances that prohibit the underground oil and gas extraction – under intense public opposition. In April, Alachua County joined other counties including Broward and St. Lucie in unanimously passing ordinances against this form of oil drilling.

But like other environmental issues that have become perennial for Florida, fracking is expected to come back in 2017 and maybe beyond.

What exactly is fracking?

Fracking refers to hydraulic fracturing, a process that uses millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemical concoctions and then injects it underground at extreme pressure. Pushed down a vertical pipe around the corner to a horizontal pipe, the process creates fissures and cracks underground to release oil and gas trapped deep under the earth’s surface. Hydraulic fracturing is one of several forms of intense drilling for oil and gas aimed to increase production. Other forms, including acid fracking, use acid to dissolve the rock rather than fracturing. The methods have proven controversial, especially in Florida where opponents cite the fragile limestone aquifer that supplies drinking water to a majority of Floridians. Both the water demands of fracking and its impact on water quality are paramount.

The Bill

This year’s bill, introduced by Florida Senator Garrett Richter, a Republican who represents Lee and Collier counties, would have directed state regulators to write rules to govern the process. In addition to preventing local governments from passing their own ordinances, the bill would have prevented public disclosure of chemicals used in fracking. The point is an important one, given that fracking in other parts of the United States has impacted freshwater resources, including contamination of drinking water wells, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmentalists and public-health advocates wanted not only to fight Richter’s bill, but propose a statewide ban on fracking. Citizens from Key West to Pensacola organized in a coalition called Floridians Against Fracking. Now made up of 45 groups dedicated to a ban, they may have their work cut out for them. Groups on all sides of the issue say fracking bills are likely to come up again in the 2017 session of the Florida Legislature.

A Variety of Voices in Tallahassee

Kim Ross, president of the nonprofit ReThink Energy Florida and a steering committee member of Floridians Against Fracking, worked tirelessly this legislative session coordinating phone calls, meeting with lawmakers and attending committee sessions. According to Ross, Floridians Against Fracking will spend the next year focused on public education. The group devoted the end of March to a College Fracking Tour, in which they visited Tallahassee, Orlando and Miami, educating college students on the possible effects of fracking in Florida and hosting community dialogues with students and local citizens.

Both sides say the economy is helping drive Florida’s fracking debate. The “economy is regulating fracking in the state of Florida because the price of oil is so low that it’s not economically feasible to frack in Florida,” said Ross. “That’s another reason why we think the oil and gas industry was so willing to postpone fracking while a proposed study was ongoing.”

Those in favor of fracking in Florida are also working tirelessly – in their case, to ensure a place for big energy in the state.

“We worked very hard on the bill for a very long time,” said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, a division of the trade association American Petroleum Institute, which hosts over 600 members from the nation’s major oil and gas companies. Mica makes the case that fracking has a better environmental footprint than other forms of oil and gas extraction. “Going forward, I think it’s really critical in order to protect our environment and provide American energy.”

When asked about the 2017 legislative session, he said his members are “looking at options available” but still waiting to publically announce their action plans.

Meanwhile some lawmakers are gearing up to work toward a ban. This past session, in an effort to prevent any form of fracking, Rep. Evan Jenne, a Broward County Democrat introduced HB 19, the Well Stimulation Treatment bill. This measure would have prohibited “well stimulation treatments for the explorations of production of oil or natural gas.” The process increases well production through hydraulic fracturing, acid fracking and other methods.

Jenne said he plans to reintroduce his bill in 2017. Given that oil and gas is a trillion-dollar industry, “I’m not going to be naïvely optimistic,” said Jenne. However, he is confident that education about fracking is growing. The public is quickly learning fracking “would benefit such a small group of people,” he said.

Despite the industry’s argument that fracking would aid Florida’s economy and energy future, according to Jenne, “there’s no way to make the numbers work,” because too many Florida industries could suffer under fracking such as agriculture and tourism. “There’s a lot of studies out there and all point in one direction: fracking is not a solution.”

Florida Sen. David Simmons, R-Winter Park, who served on this year’s appropriations committee, said he is considering legislation similar to Richter’s SB 318 for the 2017 session. He said whatever he proposes would be paired with additional scientific inquiry. He and green groups alike agree the state needs a balanced study of the issue. “I believe just looking at it, the environmental state of Florida is so sensitive that it would be very difficult to justify fracking in this state,” he said.

Indeed Florida is lacking a thorough study of fracking, especially from the academic and scientific communities.

Many environmental groups have stepped up their research, including the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, which has poured time and money into studying the possible effects of fracking in Collier County. But the science is lacking for the state as a whole. Even if fracking is found to be an economic viable solution, with the increase in renewable energy technologies, it leads many to question whether it’s worth it. And even if the economics prove sound and the science safe— a big if in a country that has experienced earthquakes in Oklahoma, contaminated water in Pennsylvania, and transportation issues across the US—does Florida want to continue the cycle of fossil fuel production rather than investing in options such as wind and solar?

Efforts are energized on both sides of the debate – and neither appears to be running out of steam. While the industry plans its next move, Floridians Against Fracking plans to increase their public outreach. “We have a large number of people on our side and more every day,” said Ross. “I think a ban in 2017 is feasible.”

Editor’s Note: This story was written by a graduate student at the University of Florida studying religion and nature, who is enrolled in an environmental journalism course. WUFT News is aware of the author’s previous environmental work and has vetted and reviewed this work to conform to WUFT’s editorial standards.

Photo of oil and gas fields at Jonah field, Wyoming, via flickr creative commons and Bruce Gordon at EcoFlight


About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.