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Part 3: Renewed Push For Oil Sparks Concern In Florida; Laws Unclear Even As Company Pulls Out

Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Florida officials are grappling with how to regulate fracking after a Texas-based oil company used a similar procedure in a Southwest Florida exploratory well. Now the company says it’s pulling out of the area, but its activities have brought the issue of fracking to the forefront. 

There’s a mistaken impression fracking is illegal in Florida. And until recently, no one was talking much about it. But earlier this year, prior to the start of the legislative session, one of the few conversations about fracking in Florida occurred. Representative Ray Rodrigues (R-Fort Myers) tried, and ultimately failed, to pass a bill regarding public disclosure of fracking chemicals.

“I think it’s imperative we put the regulatory framework in place now before hydraulic fracturing begins in this state, so that the rules are clear to everyone," he said at the time.

Rodrigues warned his fellow lawmakers about the state’s out-of-date regulations on fracking—and noted there are no rules when it comes to companies disclosing chemicals that could contaminate groundwater.  Rodrigues’ bill would have required companies tell the state what chemicals they’re using. Tallahassee Physician Ray Bellamy sharply opposed the measure. He didn’t like the proposals trade-secrets language—and is distrustful of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

"If you think DEP is going to protect us—you know, we call DEP ‘Don’t Expect Protection’.  They consider themselves a permitting agency to enable industry to obtain permits. That’s the way they function.

What few in that room knew last January, is that two weeks before the meeting—fracking, or at least something that looks a lot like it—had already occurred at an exploratory oil well site in Collier County, operated by the Texas-based Dan A. Hughes Company.

Fracking has been legal in Florida since at least 1981. According to state regulations, all a company has to do is give DEP notice before it moves forward with various procedures, which Dan A. Hughes company spokesman David Blackmon says, it did. DEP asked the company to delay its process citing concerns about the use of a procedure it hadn’t seen performed in the state before.

“My understanding is the DEP said hey look can you hold off until the 30th and we’ll have a conference call the morning of the 30th and the company e agreed to do that," Blackmon says. "Then the department canceled the conference call and the company at that point assumed there were no more questions coming and commenced with the job.” 

Florida State University environmental law expert Hannah Wiseman has been following the ongoing saga, and agrees from a legal standpoint, the company did nothing wrong. She says DEP has authority to impose various environmental requirements on operators, however, “the only requirements specific to hydraulic fracturing in Florida statutes appears to be this notifications--it says the operator shall notify the department prior to commencing the work-over operations."

On December 31st, DEP sent the company a cease-and-desist letter, culminating in a settlement agreement. Four months later, DEP disclosed the incident to the public--setting off battles with the Collier County Commission, environmentalists, the Dan A. Hughes Company and Collier Resources—which owns the land Dan A. Hughes drilled on. The actions of the Company have alarmed environmentalists, like attorney David Guest who in an interview with the News Service of Florida, Guest says the Dan A. Hughes Company has set a new precedent in Florida.

"Dan Hughes has established that fracking is effective in Florida, it's effective in the Everglades, and you are guaranteed that this is going to increase, and increase rapidly," Guest says.

Now, DEP wants on the Dan A. Hughes company to disclosure more information about how it disposed of the wastewater used to drill its well. Professor Wiseman says DEP is making up new rules as it goes along.

“I think the consent order entered into between DEP and Dan A Hughes—I think all of those environmental conditions contained in the consent order—that may wake up the legislature and say, ‘this is a real issue’.” 

All of the back-and-forth has led to unease in the region—which has been home to oil wells for about a century. And the mounting pressure has led the Dan A. Hughes Company to pull out of the area. Company spokesman David Blackmon says the group won’t be moving ahead with another potential well located near a Naples neighborhood.

“It’s unfortunate the way it all happened. Frankly, it’s created a controversy about something that shouldn’t have been controversial.” 

Meanwhile Wiseman says a law regarding the disclosure of chemicals and disposal of wastewater, say, one similar to the bill the legislature refused to act upon earlier in the year—is needed. And the lessons from Collier County may prove the catalyst for lawmakers to get serious about fracking in Florida.