Sunday, November 29, 2015

Counties oppose bills to pre-empt fracking bans

Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto

by Jeff Burlew:

County commissioners across Florida are opposing a push by lawmakers that would short-circuit their ability to regulate or ban fracking in their communities.

About 20 counties, from Leon to Miami-Dade, and nearly 40 cities, including Tallahassee, have passed resolutions or ordinances banning fracking, an unconventional drilling technique that’s generated controversy over environmental and health concerns. As of late October, the bans were in place in cities and counties representing roughly 8 million people or about 43 percent of the state’s population.

But legislation (HB 191 and SB 318) designed to set up a regulatory framework for fracking would pre-empt the measures. The bills, sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, would give the state authority to regulate oil and gas exploration, development, production, processing, storage and transportation. Only local zoning ordinances adopted before 2015 would remain enforceable under the legislation.

Earlier this month, the Florida Association of Counties’ general membership voted unanimously to oppose the pre-emption measures along with provisions in the bills that would exempt chemicals used in the process from public disclosure if they’re considered trade secrets. FAC also voted to support a moratorium until “independent and comprehensive” studies on fracking are completed and peer-reviewed.

Wakulla County Commissioner Howard Kessler was among commissioners to vote in favor of FAC’s stance during its 2015 legislative conference in Amelia Island. Kessler called the pre-emption issue a “no-brainer.”

“Whether you like fracking or don’t like fracking, to have the county’s powers usurped by the state is just the complete antithesis of local government,” he said.

Like other fracking opponents, Kessler said he’s concerned about the impact hydraulic fracturing could have on the environment, public health and major industries like tourism and agriculture. The drilling technique involves the injection of mass amounts of water along with chemicals under great pressure to fracture underground rock formations and release oil and gas.

“This is all about the preservation of water resources of Florida and not risking the major economic engines of the state on a possibility of maybe having fracking work in Florida,” he said. “To risk our tourism, to risk our agriculture … because they’re so dependent on clean water — it doesn’t make any sense.”

David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said Florida law is fairly clear that oil and gas should be regulated by the state. And he said differences between the industry and cities and counties over the pre-emption issue are “resolvable.” But he acknowledged some fracking opponents won’t budge on that or other issues “because they do not want oil and gas activity in the state of Florida.”

“I understand that point of view,” he said. “It’s an extremist point of view because Florida has a long history and a positive history of exploring for and producing oil and gas. We’ve done it since the ‘40s and we need to do it in the future. And we need to do it in ways that are protective of Florida’s environment.”

Fracking opponents: 'Very bad legislation'

The state has two areas that have produced oil and gas for decades through conventional drilling: the Sunniland Trend in South Florida and the Jay Field in the western Panhandle. Production peaked in the late 1970s, generally declining since then.

But oil and gas companies are showing renewed interest in the state — a Texas company with a history of fracking is seeking state permits to search for oil and gas on private land in Calhoun and Gulf counties, north of the fragile Apalachicola Bay.

Fracking is already legal in Florida, though it’s believed to have occurred only once, in Collier County. The legislation would regulate the practice, establish fines for violations and pay for a study of any hazards or risks it might pose.

Last year, Rodrigues and Richter sponsored similar bills in the House and Senate. But they died when the regular session imploded over health-care differences between the chambers. The re-filed House bill passed its first committee stop earlier this month.

Business groups like Associated Industries of Florida support the legislation. After the bills were re-filed earlier this year, AIF issued a statement saying the oil and gas industry boosts the economy by bringing jobs and revenue to local communities.

“But given advances in technology, legislative change is warranted so this responsible industry may continue to grow and contribute to Florida’s bottom line," AIF said.

Amy Datz, a member of the Environmental Caucus of Florida, has been trying to persuade counties — Calhoun, most recently — to pass fracking bans.

“If a county does not want their water and air quality devastated by fracking, it will not have that right under this very bad legislation,” she said in an email.

Former Leon County Commissioner Cliff Thaell sent letters to every county commissioner in the state ahead of the FAC vote urging them to oppose the legislation. He said he’s “very concerned” the bills will open the door to fracking in the Big Bend and elsewhere in the state.

“I hope the state legislators recognize that their counterparts in local government who have now unanimously adopted this position will pay attention,” he said. “They represent the same people that legislators represent.”
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