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Florida House Approves Controversial 'Fracking' Bill

US Environmental Protection Agency

The House on Monday approved a measure that would require oil and gas companies to inform the state of chemicals being injected into the ground as part of a controversial drilling process known as "fracking."

The bill (HB 1205) also would prohibit permits from being issued until a study is completed on the potential impacts of fracking.

However, a number of Democrats contend the measure that now awaits Senate approval simply creates the appearance of government scrutiny at the expense of the state's groundwater at a time when lawmakers are looking to implement new water policies.

"We have a very unique state, with a unique hydropology, and we absolutely should not be doing anything with fracking," said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat who said the state should ban fracking. "Our aquifer is so sensitive and our lands are so sensitive that this is not the right answer for Florida to move forward with new industry or with energy independence. This puts everything at risk that we cherish"

Fracking involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to create fractures in rock formations, which allows the release of natural gas and oil. Florida has long had oil drilling in parts of Southwest Florida and the Panhandle. The techniques are formally known as chemical hydraulic and acid fracturing.

The Florida Petroleum Council-backed bill, approved 82-34, would set up a state permitting process for fracking, require companies to register the chemicals being used on a national website and prohibit local governments from imposing their own regulations.

Lawmakers in support of the bill contend the drilling process helps the nation establish energy independence.

Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, argued there is always risk in producing energy and that the bill gives needed authority to the state Department of Environmental Protection to regulate fracking proposals.

"I like the outdoors. I like hunting and fishing. But let me tell you another thing, I like electricity," Combee said. "I like lights and air conditioning and television. I like gasoline to put in my truck to come up here to visit with all my friends."

In opposing the proposal, Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, said the state needs to be more cautious about the impacts to its water supply.

"On Friday we heard a little about how it's all new technology and everyone is going to be perfectly safe," Jenne said. "The odd thing is, the last time I heard that very specific debate point being made on this floor was literally one week before Deepwater Horizon blew sky high."

The April 20, 2010, Deepwater Horizon oil spill flooded the Gulf of Mexico with 4.9 million barrels of oil and nearly 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants, but wreaked most of its havoc on the open Gulf itself and the coastal areas of Louisiana, and to some degree Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

The Senate version of the fracking bill (SB 1468), which is similar to the House proposal, is scheduled to make its first appearance on the Senate floor Tuesday.

House sponsor Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, has been pursuing the registry in recent years, with the House approving a similar proposal in 2013 only to have the bill never make an appearance on the Senate floor.

Not all Democrats opposed the bill.

Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, said she could support the bill because the study required on the potential impacts of fracking will create a moratorium on the drilling process that could last two years.

"The choice for me isn't to be able to vote against fracking," Edwards said, "but to at least put something in place that taps the brakes, to have a thoughtful study and have a rulemaking process in place that reflects the safe needs and the environmental concerns that I share with the members here in the back row."

The state study would look at the impact of the geology under the counties where fracking may occur, the impact on ground water and surface water, what would become of chemical-filled water, and whether reclaimed water, also known as recycled or irrigation quality water, could be used rather than water directly from the aquifers that produce drinking water.

The permitting process, to require a company to declare upfront the kind of drilling that will occur, was added at the request of the state Department of Environmental Protection, which currently has no authority to issue or prohibit permits related to fracking.

The request followed the discovery that unauthorized acid fracking had been conducted in Collier County in December 2013 and January 2014.

The bill would increase the daily fine to $25,000, up from the current $10,000 a day fine, for companies that begin fracking without permits.

Rodrigues wasn't able to get a second fracking-related measures advanced Monday.

The House postponed a vote on a separate measure (HB 1209) that would alter the process for gas and oil companies to shield the chemicals they use from the public.

Rodrigues said his public-records measure would have put more of an onus on oil and gas companies to maintain their trade secrets when someone files a public-records request.

"Currently if you want to challenge a trade secret, you have to hire an attorney, as an individual, you have to file a court case and pay for the fees to do that," Rodrigues said after the floor session Monday. "Under my bill, an individual would file a public records (request). DEP would then say this has been requested, tell the corporation you have 10 days --- and that was an amendment we put on at the request of the First Amendment Foundation --- to challenge this."

A two-thirds vote of the House is needed to pass new public-records exemptions, and with several Republican lawmakers absent it is unknown if the measure would have survived Monday.