Climate

Florida Lawmakers Pass Bill That Arrests Local Efforts To Ban Fracking

CREDIT: Flickr/AstronomyGal

Lehigh Acres Well in Florida.

On Monday, the Florida House of Representatives passed a bill that calls for regulation over the fracking industry for the first time. But the bill doesn’t go far enough in protecting the state’s environment from fracking, environmental groups say, and it also severely limits local and regional control over the controversial practice.

HB 1205, which has a Senate version scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, would allow fracking to continue in the state after a study into the controversial process is completed and the the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) finishes its final rule-making. The bill does not regulate or require public disclosure of chemicals used in fracking wells that are low pressure or use less than 100,000 gallons of fluid, or in fracking-like extraction techniques such as acidization, which dissolves rather than fractures rock.

The section of the bill that lays out the “ban on fracking bans” language states that “to avoid unnecessary duplication, a county, municipality, or other political subdivision of the state may not adopt or establish programs to accomplish the purposes of this section.”

The bill, which passed 82-34 mostly along party lines, is the latest in a string of state-level legislation that purport to regulate the oil and gas industry but actually make it harder for cities and municipalities to take independent action on fracking. Lawmakers in Oklahoma and Texas recently passed legislation effectively banning local control over the oil and gas industry. Authorities and industry leaders in these states are worried that more municipalities might follow the lead of towns like Denton, Texas in instituting a ban on fracking within city limits.

“There’s definitely an attempt to quash local governments from supporting banning,” Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (CSF), told ThinkProgress. According to Hecker, the bills are an effort to ameliorate public concern over fracking while offering little more than “false assurances.”

Hecker said that there are aspects of fracking that local governments should be able to take an active role in regulating and that the state doesn’t review or assess, such as light pollution, noise pollution, land use, water use, and private property rights.

“The state always complains about the federal government intervening in these types of matters,” she said. “Here they are proposing to do the same thing to local government.”

Hecker said that CSF supported passing fracking legislation this session, but was always concerned that the state would end up with a weak bill. Now the group’s concern is that this unsatisfactory legislation will pass, and that its passage will make it much harder to pass any environmentally-minded fracking legislation in the future. CSF is not opposed to all oil and gas drilling in the state, but is concerned that the impacts of fracking on the region’s unique geology have not been vetted to the necessary extent. Hecker said that many local communities are deciding that the risks associated with fracking may not be worth the benefits in a state so reliant on tourism and outdoors activities.

A handful of local Florida governments have passed resolutions supporting fracking bans, but they’ve all been in counties lacking in oil and gas reserves. Hecker said counties with heavy reserves, such as Collier and Lee counties, have discussed supporting bans but are waiting to see what the state will do first.

Rep. Ray Rodrigues, the Republican sponsor of the bill, said the legislation “sets up a stronger regulatory framework than is currently in place and ensures our environment is well-protected.” He also said that the state could deny permits based on violations or issue them with certain conditions. Currently the DEP has no authority to issue or prohibit fracking permits. The bill also increases the daily fine for fracking without a permit from $10,000 to $25,000.

The bill also puts a moratorium on fracking with more than 100,000 gallons of fluid until a state-sponsored study on the impact fracking operations have on ground and surface water is completed by June 30, 2016. The legislation also requires well operators and owners to disclose chemicals used during the process to the DEP and FracFocus, a national registry. However, environmental groups have concerns about the timeliness of the disclosures as well as about another bill that would allow companies to skirt the rules by claiming trade secrets. On Monday, House members delayed voting on a companion bill, HB 1209, that would allow for exemptions in disclosing the chemicals used in fracking. They are expected to take up the bill again Tuesday.

“This bill does an end-run around that basic concept of democracy, which is enshrined in the constitution,” David Cullen, lobbyist for Sierra Club Florida, said about the disclosure bill. “The whole point of having open-government statutes is so the people of the state can know what their government is doing and so that they can act as a check on that government when it does the wrong thing.”