What the frack? Fracking Bill passes The House

State and local leaders are up in arms over HB 191 and SB 318, which would allow and regulate fracking in the State of Florida.

Last year, the Madison County Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt resolutions to ban fracking locally. Across the state, 20 counties and 40 cities did the same, including Jefferson County, the City of Monticello and neighboring members of the Big Bend. Last month, the general membership of the Florida Association of Counties voted unanimously to oppose the bills. That should be the nail in the coffin for Florida Fracking, right?

Wrong.

On Jan. 27, despite the clearly expressed wishes of the constituency, the Florida House of Representatives voted to pass House Bill 191. The vote was 73-45 in favor of the bill, right down party lines, where the majority Republicans voted to pass the bill. For his part, Representative Halsey Beshears, who represents both Madison and Jefferson counties, voted against the bill that those he represented opposed. He was one of only seven Republican representatives to do so. “We are very pleased with Representative Beshears vote and Senator Montford's position against fracking. They are listening to their constituents,” said John Hedrick, Chair of the Democratic Environmental Caucus of Florida as well as a local citizen.

All hope to demolish the bill rests in the Senate now. But what is at stake?

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is an exploratory method of getting more bang for your buck when drilling for natural gas. Conventional pumps go straight down and pump gas out of the earth, where a deep shale rock layer sheds the natural gas into naturally occurring reservoirs. Fracking blasts pressurized water and chemicals into the rock layer below the gas reservoirs to draw more of the gas out of the shale rock.

It’s the difference between raking the yard and shaking the tree, only the consequences are vaster. First of all, the procedure of fracking requires a great deal of water; experts and existing wells across the United States agree that approximately 3.9 million gallons of water are required per well. This could put a strain on the water supply in a state that specializes in water intensive industries, agriculture and tourism rounding out the top two.

This 3.9 million gallons of water is mixed with sand and chemicals to produce the best fracturing effect on the rock. No one knows exactly what is in the mixture and it varies company-to-company: chemical solutions are as closely guarded a secret as Coca-Cola’s famous recipe. Much of that water is recovered— up to 70 percent— but the 30 percent that remains is contaminated and not enough research has been done to quantify the effect on the drinking water.

Wastewater is not the only undesirable byproduct involved in the process. Shale rock is rich in natural gas, but also in mercury, radon, lead and arsenic. Fracking releases these harmful gases and particles from the rock in the same way as the process releases the desirable natural gas. If they are not collected with perfect accuracy, which they are not, then these gases and particles can end up in the aquifer.

Existing research does indicate that seismologic activity is a direct environmental impact of the fracking industry. Two earthquakes in Lancashire, U.K. brought a temporary halt to their fracking wells and subsequent studies revealed that it was “highly probable” that the wells were responsible. A government-appointed panel predicted that there would be more tremors, but none large enough to cause damage to structures. Damage to the environment and ecosystem was not quantified in their study.

Representative Gwen Graham was so concerned by the developments that she wrote to the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. “Our region knows all too well the harm an environmental disaster can cause,” Graham wrote. “The BP oil spill inflicted tremendous harm on our economy and the Apalachicola Bay’s ecology has been under attack for years. I’m fighting in Congress to protect North Florida’s springs and oceans and worry [that] fracking presents yet another threat to our North Florida way of life.”

Direct environmental impacts are disconcerting, however indirect impacts are even more of a concern. Natural gas is a “transition fuel,” which is a fuel that weans us off of coal and oil, but is also non-renewable. True energy solutions are renewable. Fracking advertisers are marketing natural gas as the solution to energy fears, when it is only a step in the right direction. This can distract the voting public from actual energy solutions.

It is uncertain if the Senate will defeat this bill; a similar bill has already passed two of its three subcommittees. If it passes, municipal and county resolutions and ordinances against fracking will be nullified; that was a provision of the new bills. Local governments will be powerless against companies who wish to apply for a permit and begin fracking in their backyards.

A glimmer of hope remains, however, as the bill has been stalled in its last subcommittee. Senator Tom Lee, R of Brandon, Fl., is the Chairperson of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee. He said on Feb. 4 that he would not allow the subcommittee to vote on the bill until the Department of Environmental Protection comes in for some “honest answers.”

Hedrick is encouraged by this turn of events. “We believe the Florida Senate, with Senator Lee already delaying the vote on fracking, is ultimately going to defeat the fracking measure due to the continued increase in public outcry from people of all parties across the state on this issue.”

Photo Submitted A conventional well (right) draws natural gas out of a reservoir, which occurs naturally underground above a layer of shale rock. A fracking well (left) runs along the shale layer, where water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the rock to forcibly release natural gas.   
Photo Submitted
A conventional well (right) draws natural gas out of a reservoir, which occurs naturally underground above a layer of shale rock. A fracking well (left) runs along the shale layer, where water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the rock to forcibly release natural gas.
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