CREDIT: flickr/Matthew Paulson
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is both a fractious term and a fractious process. Stakeholders across the country ranging from environmentalists to landowners have voiced repeated concerns of the impact of fracking on local health, water supplies and even earthquake frequency. At the same time, what exactly is involved in the fracking process is often shrouded in mystery as companies are resistant to releasing the exact chemical composition of the mix they inject into the ground along with water and sand to open fissures in the rock and draw out oil or natural gas.
In Florida, the Everglades are on the front lines of this debate as companies become anxious to get at any fossil fuels surrounding this ecological wonder. In an effort to keep the process going, one oil and gas company has even gone as far as denying that what they’re doing actually amounts to fracking.
In December and January, Dan A. Hughes Co. of Beeville, Texas undertook, for the first time in the state, an “enhanced extraction procedure” during exploratory drilling, which according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is consistent with the EPA’s description of hydraulic fracturing. Furthermore, the company did so without a permit and in defiance of a cease-and-desist order to stop the practice.
“The company denies that the new practice amounts to fracking because it uses an acidic solution instead of the usual fracking chemicals and a ‘modest volume’ of water and sand,” reported the Orlando Sentinel.
What Hughes Co. is doing is an old process that involves pumping an acid solution down a well to dissolve rock formations and allow more oil to flow up the well. The technique called “acid well stimulation” or “acid fracking” uses large volumes of hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid to dissolve rock, not fracture it — hence the argument that it’s not really fracking. The process of acid fracking near the Everglades was still of equal concern to the state’s DEP, but Hughes Co. continued to move forward even though it was told not to.
For this transgression the Florida DEP fined the company $25,000 for “unauthorized actions,” apparently the maximum civil penalty under Florida law, and also ordered that a preapproved expert monitor groundwater contamination in the area. On May 2, the state banned Hughes Co. from beginning to drill five other wells for which permits had been secured until further review is complete, to which the company agreed.
Of the situation, Hughes Co. spokesman David Blackmon told the Orlando Sentinel the the company is “confident the results are going to show that the groundwater hasn’t been negatively impacted” and that “its operations do not pose a threat to contamination,” saying that “the way these wells are constructed, there are multiple layers — five layers of concrete and heavy steel — that prevent any of the fluids going through the well bore from contacting the groundwater formation.”
The number of spills reported at oil and gas production sites rose nearly 18 percent last year, with at least 7,662 spills, blowouts, leaks and other blunders.
The wells in question are on part of a 115,000-acre lease Hughes Co. has from Collier Resources, the largest private mineral company in South Florida. The area includes large portions of the Big Cypress National Preserve and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Coincidentally, Hughes Co. President Dan A. Hughes chairs the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission. He is also a member of the All American Wildcatters, an organization that celebrates exploration wells drilled in untested areas.
The drilling applications granted to Collier were some of the first in the state, and no official fracking has yet taken place in Florida. However, as the quest for fossil fuels expands, recent legislation proposed by the Florida state lawmakers foreshadow the industry’s likely emergence. One bill would have allowed drillers to label their chemical mixtures as “trade secrets,” exempting them from disclosure to the general public under Florida’s Open Government and Public Records laws. It failed to pass this year’s recent legislative session.
While proponents of the bill labeled it a disclosure bill, an analysis by DeSmogBlog found that the bill is essentially a mirror image of the right-wing, corporate-funded American Legislative Executive Council’s “Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act”. While only a few states actually have laws enforcing hydraulic fracturing chemical disclosure, the Florida bill would have allowed companies to keep proprietary information as permitted for fracking under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, an issue commonly referred to as part of the “Halliburton Loophole.”
“The proposition that these are trade secrets is ridiculous. It’s like pancake mix,” David Guest, the managing attorney at Earthjustice, told the Tampa Tribune. “If you’re going to inject something into the ground, you have to say what it is. This is a groundwater contaminant secrecy bill.”
The sensitivity and prominence of the issue has attracted local and state politicians to get involved at more than just the legislative level. In a recent letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, said that “we cannot tolerate expanded industrial drilling activities that pose a threat to the drinking and surface water so close to the Florida Everglades. The recent discovery of a fracking-like incident there raises serious concerns about whether outside wildcatters would soil one of the world’s great environmental treasures.”
State Senator Darren Soto (D-Orlando) has made a similar request at the state level to Florida’s DEP, writing in a letter:
With tourism and agriculture as our main industries, there is simply too much at stake to permit extensive oil drilling in our state. We learned all too well from the BP Gulf Oil Spill that the effects of an oil spill far outweigh any particular minuscule economic benefit from drilling in comparison … the Upper and Lower Floridan Aquifers span our state and provide the vast majority of our water supply. Any contamination of these water bodies could put our entire state supply in jeopardy.
The EPA doesn’t control exploratory wells, but it does issue permits for underground storage associated with fracking and drilling. The agency is reviewing comments regarding whether to permit Hughes Co. to open a waste well, and is consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of a consideration of Sen. Nelson’s comments according to the Los Angeles Times.
All this activity is happening even in the face of uncertainty regarding substantial oil and gas reserves existing in Florida. While the state has a history of oil production, it has seen that plummet over the last several decades. And there are no major proven shale plays. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Florida has few proven crude oil reserves and very small natural gas reserves onshore.