Earlier this week, Governor Rick Scott stood on the 22nd floor of the Capitol and hinted he would sign a highly controversial fracking bill. The measure strips local governments of their power to regulate the oil and gas drilling technique.
“Well I think anything like that we ought to focus on at the state level and let’s look at what we ought to do at the state level. I know there was some discussion last year that it appeared something was going to pass but it didn’t at the end of the session. So I look forward to working with the Legislature on that issue.”
Only the day before, community activists packed the Collier County Commission chamber to demand a fracking ban. Aware the bill is a slam dunk, commissioners took a more pragmatic approach. They ordered their lobbyist to negotiate changes to the bill.
It’s urgent, warned commission staffer Tim Durham. He warned the bill, as written, would allow drilling rigs in residential neighborhoods.
“It’s staff position that you should retain that home rule power and seek to change this particular portion of the bill.”
Fracking means pumping high pressure water and toxic chemicals two miles underground to pulverize rock formations. The industry says it’s perfectly safe. But some studies link it to water contamination and minor earth quakes.
But nobody disagrees the issue is highly charged. Last session, protesters jammed committee rooms and harangued lawmakers for hours. Democratic Senator Jeremy Ring of Margate felt the pressure.
“You would have had to have been living in a shell not to hear how vocal they were in their fear.”
Proposals to ban fracking never made it out of committee and Ring felt trapped. He says he was forced to vote for the fracking bill because it sets up a regulatory framework where none exists now.
Ring doesn’t want that to happen again. He’s filed a proposed constitutional amendment that would let voters decide if they want to allow fracking. He denies ducking a tough decision.
“I think this is such a significant third rail sort of an issue with strong feelings on both sides, that it’s something that I think the voters should decide.”
Republican Representative Ray Rodrigues of Fort Myers says opponents of his bill are blinded by fear. He wants to settle the issue with science.
His bill imposes moratorium while the state conducts a $1 million study. Rodrigues wants to know why the industry uses so much water.
“Would all of that be fresh potable water, and can we sustain that kind of usage of our fresh potable water in an industrial setting?”
The bill also requires companies to post a $5 million bond before drilling. It lets the state deny permits to drillers with bad histories.
Rodrigues says he’s working with local governments to give them more comfort. But he says it’s a mistake to let locals set their own rules. For example, he says a fracking ban in Bonita Springs outlaws an acid washing technique common in all wells, Rodrigues insists.
“What you have is a city in Bonita Springs that has passed an ordinance that was politically motivated and drawn so broadly, that they’ve now outlawed the drilling of water wells in their city.”
Rodrigues warns patchwork regulations won’t work.
“If you take that mistake, and you replicate it by 400, which are the number of local governments that exist in Florida, you can see the chaos that would result.”
Most of the Legislature agrees. The bill passed the House last session and was hours from Senate approval when the session broke down over health care spending. Rodrigues says he discussed the bill with Scott, but has received no guarantees.