Fracking the Everglades? Many Floridians Recoil as House Approves Bill

For the third year in a row, a bill to allow the controversial practice passes the state house, while many communities vote to ban it.
Fracking protests have spread across the country

Opposition to fracking has moved many communities to pass local bans, but some states still want in. Credit: Getty Images

South Florida, home to one of the country's most fragile water systems, could be the nation's next fracking frontier.

The Florida House of Representatives voted 73-45 on Jan. 27 to approve a bill that opens the door to fracking by 2017 after the state studies the environmental and public health risks. Next, the bill requires state regulators to draft rules governing the practice, which could begin in 2018 or 2019.

This is the third time in three years the Florida House has passed a version of this bill. But according to its sponsor, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, a Republican from southwestern Florida, the legislation has more momentum this year. The Senate has never made much progress on its equivalent bill—until this year. Currently, the Senate's companion bill is under review by the Committee on Appropriations.

Technically, "fracking is already legal in Florida," said Rodrigues. No companies are currently fracking, and this bill would ensure the proper rules are put in place before they get that chance, he said. Rodrigues is from Lee County, one of the counties in south Florida with fracking potential.

But many Floridians don't want stricter regulations—they want the practice banned altogether. About 20 counties and nearly 40 cities in the state have already passed resolutions either banning fracking locally or supporting a statewide ban, largely out of concern about the threat fracking poses to their water resources and the environment.

The two areas with the most likely frackable resources are in the northwestern corner, or the Florida Panhandle, and parts of south Florida. "Why would we risk ruining our Everglades, the most fragile ecosystem in the country, the jewel of our country?" said Lynn Ringenberg, president of the advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility. The area that could be affected is not the Everglades National Park, but a larger region that Floridians still refer to as the Everglades.

Rep. Amanda Murphy, a Democrat from Pasco County, in a heavily Republican part of the state, told InsideClimate News she took notice when her county voted three months ago to support a state ban on fracking. She said one of the most controversial elements of the House bill is that it would void any local fracking ban. This comes on the heels of successful legislation in Texas and Oklahoma to outlaw local bans and other regulation of fracking.

"Here's a group of your peers saying it's a bad idea; they are too fearful to want to move forward," Murphy said. The lawmakers "are not listening to anyone."

The most recent local ban was approved the same day as the House vote last week. A bipartisan mix of officials from Broward County in south Florida banned the controversial practice, which involves blasting sand, water and chemicals down a well to fracture bedrock and extract hard-to-access oil and gas resources.

Kanter Real Estate LLC, a local private company, has already submitted an application to drill for oil and gas in Broward County. Beam Furr, a Broward commissioner, describes the drill site as being "right in the middle of our water supply." It is unclear if this drilling site would involve fracking or conventional oil drilling techniques.

Regulators, residents and environmentalists told InsideClimate News that one of their biggest concerns involves its potential impact on Florida's water system. That's because South Florida's bedrock consists of porous limestone. Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the environmental group South Florida Wildlands Association, described it as "pretty crumbly stuff." Because limestone is very different from the hard rock deposits underlying Texas and North Dakota oilfields, Floridians are concerned this rock won't hold up under hydraulic fracturing; this concern is magnified by the fact that the fracking would take place below the region's natural reservoirs.

"To drill through drinking water...this is kind of insanity," said Schwartz.

Under the recently passed House bill, state regulators are directed to study the threat fracking poses to water.

But Hannah Wiseman, an environmental law professor at Florida State University College of Law, points out that it's unclear whether the study will include looking at how waste disposal, at the surface and underground, could also impact water quality, among other issues.  

"It's possible the Department of Environmental Protection"—the regulators likely to take on the study—"could expand the study beyond the mandate of this proposed bill," said Wiseman. "A comprehensive risk review is extremely expensive."

Rep. Murphy had proposed two amendments specifically relating to water issues: one to test the local water quality before drilling and save that information for five years; another to repeatedly test a site's water quality after drilling commences. Both of those amendments, along with many others, were voted down.

Fracking takes place in about two dozen states. In December 2014, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned the drilling process after a state study determined there is insufficient data available to conclude it would be safe. The studies assessed the human health, environmental and climate change risks. Last May, Maryland approved a moratorium on fracking until October 2017.

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