Opponents of fracking held their 2nd annual Fracking Summit at the Cohen Center at Florida Gulf Coast University on Wednesday, November 2. A dozen speakers focused on the environmental impacts and political ramifications of the controversial process. Fracking injects liquid at high pressure into subterranean rock to force open existing fissures to extract oil and gas.
Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, engineering emeritus professor at Cornell University, began the proceedings as the keynote speaker. “There are 4,100 fracking wells in Florida,” he began. “And hundreds more that we do not know about and may never know of until they start to leak. As of January, only 67 produce oil and gas, totaling just $15 million a month. Any 10 wells in Pennsylvania produce more than all those combined. Your citizens pay a terrible environmental price for this insignificant amount.”
He pointed out that at its current production, Florida only accounts for enough to make the United States oil-independent for 17 days, with natural gas for just 23 days. With such limited returns, why are the oil and gas companies wasting their time in The Sunshine State? “Because of the Everglades,” explains Dr. Ingraffea. “Their ultimate goal is to get thousands of wells in there to drill for an estimated $20 billion in product. If that happens, a few folks will get rich, everyone else will suffer a negative impact, and we will kill the Everglades!”
Gusher wells that the general public associates with striking it rich are long gone, Dr. Ingraffea relates. “We already depleted all the easy oil on earth; no one sticks a pipe in the ground and hits black gold anymore. Now it is difficult to reach oil and gas, so it has become a big technology: large drill rigs, large pads, larger flaring, more pipelines, greater pressure and higher emissions, along with cluster wells. In the Dallas-Fort Worth region, there are 18,000 wells in a 2-1/2 square-mile area, and you cannot buy a home that is further away than a quarter-mile from one.”
It is not just the oil wells and pads that cause impact to the environment, he said, “but everything else you need to pull it from the Everglades, like pipelines, processing plants and truck traffic. Until those are in place, you vent gas and oil periodically by burning it from towers with flares often up to 200 feet high, at such a pressure that you can see it burn and hear it hiss from miles away. The entire infrastructure ruins your community and after they pull out all the product and leave, the only things remaining are high unemployment and a ruined environment.”
Dr. Ingraffea concluded by saying that “Germany is just behind China as the world’s largest producer of solar power, yet the worst incidence of sun coverage in Florida is better than the best in Germany. It ranks Number 2 in the world, however, while Florida is just 13th out of our 50 states. Every time the U.S. is ready to commit to solar and other alternatives, something grinds it to a halt and now it is fracking. It is the dirtiest of all fossil fuels, contributes greatly to climate change and is the most expensive form of energy ever developed by humans, all at the expense of renewables.”
Organize, Organize, Organize!
Scott Smith, Chief Technology Investigator for Water Defense, said, “Whoever controls your energy controls your destiny. When you create solar power, it stays right in your own home or community; you do not have to truck it in or need miles of pipeline to move it. The key is to organize, organize, organize! This leads to interesting partnerships, such as two of our key constituents – mothers and plumbers – who both have a keen interest in clean water.”
He has investigated 64 natural disasters all over the United States to date, including the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and relates the primary lesson he learned so far is “our political system is far more contaminated than our water! Exxon alone makes billions in contributions, and that buys a lot of environmental exemptions. When you allow the responsible party for pollution to also do the testing, water will always come back ‘clean.’ You cannot place the fox in charge of the henhouse.”
Information and knowledge is power, Scott related. “Education and action, often from one person to another over lunch or a beer, will eventually lead to clean energy. And vote! The number of Americans who do not vote still shocks me. If your local, state and national leaders are not clean energy proponents, get active and vote them out.”
Alisa Coe and Tania Galloni, attorneys for Earthjustice, explained the impetus for the Clean Water Act was the famous photograph of the extraordinarily-polluted Cleveland River catching fire in 1969, something that happened every few years since the 1950s. An audience member asked what will be the Cleveland Fire Moment in Southwest Florida to finally rally our general populace. Alisa thought it would occur this past summer, with the devastating algae blooms and Lake Okeechobee releases, but it did not spur the public anger like she thought it might.
Wrong & Legal Right
In reviewing state and federal legislation, it seems almost every one contains exemptions for gas and oil. “At the end of the day,” Alisa reasons, “all we have is a hodge-podge of regulations with the teeth cut out of them. Governments issue a lot of permits based on very little knowledge. This is true of fracking – we do not know what we do not know because so much of what they do including chemical usage they classify under ‘trade secrets.’ The fracking industry knows how to get itself exempt from state and federal law. Sadly, for every wrong there is not always a legal right.”
Ralf Brookes, a certified attorney in city, county and local government law, explained that Dryden, New York, became the first city to impose an ordinance outlawing fracking. “Their community leaders quickly discovered you could not regulate the oil industry so they passed legislation in 2011 that told them they could not be in Dryden, and the courts backed them in 2012. Eventually fracking legislation in New York reached 171 municipalities, leading the State to prohibit it. This movement spread to Florida, where in 2014 four local governments instituted ordinances against fracking; in 2016 this is now up to 38 counties and 48 cities.”
He finds it unsurprising that these victories occur primarily at the local level, because “those governments are closest to the people. You most likely will never meet the President or even your Senators, but many average citizens personally know their city council and county commissioners – they are often your neighbors. Plus at the local level it is much easier to rally your constituents, like those ‘mother-plumbers!’ This is the major advantage of Home Rule.”
Dr. Karen Dwyer of the Stone Crab Alliance, who led the successful battle to close the Collier-Hogan fracking operation, passionately echoes the importance of preserving Home Rule. “Only local governments are so receptive to its citizens, where you can really make a difference,” she emphasizes. “This is the forum that helps us from turning Alligator Alley into Cancer Alley!”
Carry The Torch Forward
Jennifer Hecker, Director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, concluded the summit. “Advocacy is the key,” she stresses. “Be informed so you can speak to your local leaders in your own words to educate them to make informed decisions. This personal interaction is far more effective than emails or form letters. Use sound science from credible sources and remember that the devil is in the details. Be polite and address leaders properly – if you approach them offensively, you can have the world’s greatest message but you’ve already lost them.”
Most people do not understand the power of their own influence, reminds Jennifer. “Write Letters to the Editor or Op-Ed pieces for your local newspaper. Invite your county commissioner for coffee or join your council person on a walk and bend their ear about initiating and supporting local ordinances that prohibit fracking by pointing out what a threat it is to your area’s geology, hydrology and community. Support environmentally-friendly candidates or even consider running for office yourself!”
She explains that Southwest Floridians hold a major advantage over the fracking industry, but one that is rapidly running out – time! “Fracking is still a new and novel development in our part of the world and is not entrenched here yet, and that makes it easier to outlaw, but those days are dwindling. If we are complacent and do not get the Florida House and Senate to act in their next session or two, we will lose that. I firmly believe we have the opportunity right now to convince the Florida state government to implement a ‘suspend & study’ policy over fracking that will ultimately lead to a successful statewide ban.”
Hecker ends by saying: “Take advantage of this, as we worked hard over the past three years to get where we are, so do not stop now until we push it over the top. Get something positive done and carry that torch forward!”