President ignores fracking risks in the Everglades

WARNING: President Obama visited the Everglades on Earth Day to call attention to climate change.
WARNING: President Obama visited the Everglades on Earth Day to call attention to climate change. TNS

To coincide with Earth Day, President Obama recently made a trip to the Everglades to highlight the threat climate change poses to our nation, particularly our coastlines and low-lying marshlands. He’s right, of course. Virtually every credible scientific study conducted on global climate in recent years has concluded both that our world is getting warmer, and that human activity — specifically the burning of fossil fuels — is contributing significantly to the phenomenon.

But despite the clarity of his climate-change warning here last week, the president’s choice to highlight South Florida could not have been more ironic or more disconnected from reality. While urging action to stem climate change and protect the Everglades, Obama is actively promoting the extreme, climate-damaging practice of oil fracking within the very region of preserved federal marshland where he spoke.

Despite widespread public opposition, the Obama administration allows fracking on many of our federal public lands, including Big Cypress National Preserve, which consists of 729,000 acres of “protected” swampland adjacent to Everglades National Park, the president’s speaking venue. Last month, despite receiving 650,000 public comments from people in favor of a ban on fracking on public lands, President Obama’s Bureau of Land Management finalized weak guidelines for fracking on these federal lands that will only encourage the practice.

A recent report from Food & Water Watch detailed the immense impact fracking for oil and gas contributes to global climate change. The fracking process releases huge volumes of methane gas, which is known to trap 87 times more heat than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over a 20-year time frame. Simply put, fracking equals climate change. Does Obama’s left hand know what the right is doing?

Meanwhile, state legislators in Tallahassee, now presented with a ripe opportunity to make up for federal inaction on fracking by tightening state restrictions on the extreme drilling process, seem to be abdicating their duty to Florida.

In coming days, the Legislature is expected to vote on a bill that would expedite new fracking in Florida, including inside Big Cypress. But more alarmingly, the bill, S 1486, would also prohibit local communities from enacting local bans, regulations or zoning ordinances that would prohibit or better control fracking in places where residents see fit to do so.

Another bad bill currently before the Legislature, S 1582, would flout Florida’s strong Sunshine Laws by allowing the oil and gas companies to keep secret the hundreds of toxic chemicals they blast into our groundwater and ecosystems during the fracking process. Benzene, toluene and hydrogen sulfide are just a few of the toxic substances used in fracking.

Given the spirit of the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, as well as the decades of work put into the plan and the billions of dollars invested in it, fracking for oil in the Everglades ecosystem is absurd and unacceptable. Accidents, spills, and air and water pollution become inevitable as the number of fracking wells is allowed to increase in the region. A large spill in Big Cypress would create a nightmare scenario for all of South Florida and the countless residents, businesses and tourists that require clean water and air in the region.

As for climate change, a three-foot rise in sea level — entirely possible in just a few decades if things don’t change — would inundate much of South Florida and destroy the Everglades ecosystem. President Obama knows this, but he doesn’t seem to understand or care that his support for fracking will help ensure that devastation.

We need state legislators, especially those representing Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, to protect South Florida from fracking if our federal leaders won’t. They should start by rejecting the bad legislation now being considered in Tallahassee.

Jorge Aguilar is the Southeast Region director at Food & Water Watch, an advocacy organization.