Fracking Bill Defeated in Senate

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With all the issues facing islanders this month, one that residents can breathe a little easier about right now is fracking – a controversial method of extracting oil and natural gas from deep within the earth that has become a big concern to southwest Floridians as very little regulation on the practice currently exist. This prompted some local communities to ban it outright, something a couple of legislators tried to change.

As he has for the past three years, Representative Ray Rodrigues – a Republican from Fort Myers, filed a bill last fall in anticipation of this year’s legislative session that gives the state control of all things related to the oil and gas industry and pre-empts any ordinance filed by local municipalities going back to January of 2015, including bans enacted by the Town of Fort Myers Beach, the Village of Estero and the City of Bonita Springs. This year Rodrigues was joined by Senator Garrett Richter – a Republican from Naples – who filed a similar bill in the Senate.

Last week, Richter’s version, SB 318, was narrowly defeated in a 10-9 vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee. Though Senate rules allowed the bill to be reconsidered, on Tuesday Richter abandoned his support of it. With two weeks left in the legislative session, this will likely kill the issue for this year despite the fact that Rodrigues’ bill – HB 191 – already cleared the House in January.

“This is a controversial subject. The controversy will continue, and I daresay it will draw even more concerns,” Richter said. “I can pretty much assure you demand (for oil and gas) is not going to go away, but Senate Bill 318 is going away.”

Both bills have drawn widespread opposition from a diverse cross-section of citizens, environmental groups, cities and labor groups. On February 16, the Board of Lee County Commissioners sent a letter to Senate Chairman Tom Lee and the rest of the Senate Appropriations Committee in opposition to the bill.

The fracking legislation is not new. In 2013 and 2014, Rodrigues introduced bills that would require drillers to list the chemicals they are using with a national registry, but allowed for exemptions from public disclosure for trade secrets. He tried again earlier last year, with HB 1205 and 1209, both of which died on the House floor last May.

Fort Myers Beach Vice-Mayor Dan Andre got involved in the anti-fracking fight shortly after the first couple of bills appeared in 2013, and encouraged the Town to pass a fracking ban in August of last year. He has worked with Brian Lee, Director of Research and Policy of ReThink Energy Florida, who urged him to join other municipalities in passing fracking bans as part of a statewide effort.

Andre says his main concern is that the bills don’t go far enough to regulate fracking and leave out any mention of the process of ‘matrix acidizing’ – which uses diluted acid to dissolve limestone and carbonate formations in order to extract natural gas.

“They basically made it okay for someone to drill a hole into the ground and pour acid into it,” Andre said. “This does something a lot different to limestone – like we have in Florida – than it does to shale. As porous as Florida limestone can be, let’s not allow the possibility of potential carcinogens in the groundwater as this could literally dissolve the limestone.”

At least two dozen cities and counties have passed fracking bans, including Palm Beach County, Alachua County, Coconut Creek, Hallandale Beach, Hamilton County, Leon County, Madison County, Miami-Dade County, St. Augustine, St. Lucie County, Tallahassee and Union County.

Last August, Senators Darren Soto and Dwight Bullard introduced SB 166, a bill that would ban fracking in the state of Florida, period. That bill remains in committee.

Keri Hendry Weeg