Florida Senate panel advances oil and gas fracking bill

Despite warnings that they were creating a “road map” for companies to circumvent the state’s public records law, a divided Senate committee advanced a bill Thursday that could allow oil and gas companies to shield the chemicals used in the fracking process.

The measure, SB 1582, builds on legislation pending before the House and Senate that imposes new rules and penalties on oil and gas activities known as fracking, while banning local governments from prohibiting the controversial activity.

Both bills are heavily criticized by environmental groups, who warn that the proposed regulations are so narrowly written that they do not apply to chemical fracking, or acidization, which uses chemicals to dissolve rock rather than fracture it, a process they believe is most likely to be used in Florida because of its shallow rock bed.

“These bills are nothing more than ‘Trojan Horse’ legislation that will pacify the public, while forbidding local residents to decide whether or not they want fracking in their community,” said Kim Ross of ReThink Energy Florida, an environmental advocacy group.

The Senate Appropriations Committee voted 11-7 for a public records exemption bill that allows oil and gas companies to appeal to a judge to avoid disclosing the chemicals used in the high-pressure fracking process, as required in two bills pending before the House and Senate, SB 1468 and HB 1205.

Under the proposal, the company could mark each page of its documents as a “trade secret” and the company would then have 30 days to go to court to get approval to shield the documents from the public. There is no limit as to how long the court can take to provide a response.

The measure protects the public because it “flips the burden on the owners of the information, rather than members of the public,” said Paula Cobb, assistant secretary for the Department of Environmental Protection.

But environmentalists and opponents warned that existing public records law already protects the public, and this instead provides a special shield for the industry not allowed for other industries.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee voted against the bill because the department and the Senate sponsor, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, “did not make their case.”

“Can you justify for me why they should have special treatment in light of the fact we may be building a road map for any other company ... to do an end-run” around the public records law? Lee asked Cobb.

She responded that “the special process is intended to benefit the public, not the companies.”

Also not persuaded were Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

“Why would we change the public records acquisition and disclosure requirements for this industry ... when we haven’t done it for other industries?” Gaetz asked.

Mary Lynn Cullen of the Advocacy Institute for Children urged legislators to reject the bill and study the effects of the chemicals used because “parents have a need to know what chemical cocktails” are used in fracking, while studies are underway.

David Cullen of the Sierra Club Florida said that the value of the public records disclosure was to allow the public “to act as a check” on the government.

“The facts here are to protect fracking companies from being bothered by concerned citizens, who are concerned that their families will be affected by the activities,” he said.

Supporting the bill was the Florida Petroleum Council.

In addition to the public records bill, the House and Senate both are awaiting votes on two bills, SB 1468 and HB 1205, that prohibit local governments from passing local ordinances regarding fracking.

In December 2013, the Dan A. Hughes company used acidization to drill in Collier County but, after releasing 700,000 gallons of water and acid into the ground, the company was ordered to stop by the state, Cobb told the Senate Appropriations Committee Thursday. The company used a process called acidization, involving dissolving limestone by shooting hundreds of thousands of gallons of water and acid into rock formations to release oil and gas trapped in the bedrock.

DEP later ordered a halt to the operation, levied a fine and filed a lawsuit against the company.

Under the proposed legislation, companies that use “high pressure well stimulation” must obtain a permit or face penalties of up to $25,000 per day for oil and gas companies. There are currently 161 active conventional oil and gas wells in Florida, concentrated in the southwest near the Everglades, and the western panhandle.

“Without this bill, there is no ban on this activity,” Cobb said.

She did not explain that the acidization process is exempt from the permit requirements, as is any fracturing process that uses less than 100,000 gallons of water. Current law allows companies to start drilling without a permit and wouldn’t have to disclose any of the chemicals used in the process, she said.

“Without that bill, without the substantive bill, the status quo is the Wild Wild West,” Richter said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and @MaryEllenKlas