Too much fear mongering over fracking

Renewed hunts for oil in sensitive Florida ecosystems, like this one in the Everglades, have raised concerns about regulation.
Renewed hunts for oil in sensitive Florida ecosystems, like this one in the Everglades, have raised concerns about regulation. AP

Hydraulic fracturing has gotten a lot of press in Florida lately. What has been lost in the coverage is that the practice is already allowed in Florida, and proposed legislative actions would make the regulations more stringent. But that’s not an exciting enough story to tell, so there’s been a lot of fear mongering.

Most wouldn’t realize that in order to conduct hydraulic fracturing in Florida once an oil drilling permit has been issued a company must notify the state — that’s it. But you wouldn’t know this fact from the recent reporting and opining in Florida’s media sources.

Some actual phrasing from Florida newspaper articles and editorials in recent months: “bill that would allow fracking advances,” “passed a regulatory framework to authorize hydraulic fracturing” and “pushing to expand fracking.”

These sentiments mirror environmentalists’ talking points rather than the truth, which is a disservice to the public.

Let’s start with some basics. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection regulates any oil and gas activities in the state. Companies that want to drill for oil and gas must first obtain a permit from that agency.

Once a drilling permit is obtained, a company must only notify the department if it wants to conduct a “workover,” which is a term that means oil-well maintenance, including hydraulic fracturing.

From Florida Administrative Code 62C-29.006: “Each operator shall notify the Department’s agent prior to commencing a workover operation or, during an emergency, as soon thereafter as possible.”

To be clear, hydraulic fracturing is already “allowed” and “authorized” and the current bills would not “expand” this practice in Florida. What is in place now simply requires notification before hydraulic fracturing occurs. What could be in place if the bills pass is a separate permitting process, as well as a long-term study, additional monitoring and other tools available to department officials before they consider permitting such activity.

From a regulatory perspective, the bills would require a separate permit be issued for these types of procedures. Department scientists would be required to consider groundwater contamination as a factor when assessing permit applications, and daily penalties for violations would be increased from $10,000 to $25,000. The bills would also require all permitting to be conducted out of one state agency rather than hundreds of local municipality departments that may not have the necessary expertise to properly assess the impacts of these procedures on the environment.

The only two areas in Florida where oil and natural gas are extracted are outside Pensacola and near Fort Myers and Naples, and companies have been producing oil there for decades. This isn’t new to those areas; it is only new to those who previously weren’t aware that this industry has been working in Florida for a long time.

Plenty of scare tactics have been deployed statewide designed to make people fear hydraulic fracturing.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Administration last year concluded a years-long study stating, “The number of identified cases (of impacts on drinking water), however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

Like all industry operations, there is no zero-risk operation to provide our clothing, light, heat, food, vehicles and necessities.

If you like to see low gasoline prices and you’ve been enjoying lower heating and cooling costs, then you should know that hydraulic fracturing is a factor. Hydraulic fracturing during the last decade has made the United States an energy superpower, providing energy independence as dependence of foreign oil from known enemies has decreased.

In Florida, we need to protect our natural resources because we would agree that our environment is important to our way of life. But we also need to recognize what this debate is — and isn’t — about. If these bills don’t pass, it’s another year when any company that is drilling for oil can use hydraulic fracturing simply by notifying. Do we want that or do we want sensible regulation?

Nicolas Gutierrez of Coral Gables is volunteer chair of the grassroots group the Florida Energy Forum and former chair of the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board.