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Fracking Bill Clings To Life After Pushback In Senate Appropriations

One of the most controversial bills in the 2016 legislative session was put on life support Thursday in Senate Appropriations.  Hanging in the balance could be the future of the oil and gas industry in Florida, and, critics insist, Florida’s environment.

When Republican Senator Garrett Richter of Naples presented his industry-backed fracking bill to a Senate subcommittee a few weeks ago, he took on a roomful of environmental critics almost single handedly.

That angered Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee.

“You know I’m so disappointed that the proponents of this bill won’t stand up here behind Senator Richter and explain to us why this is good public policy.”

When he appeared before Lee’s committee on Thursday, Richter made sure he brought the cavalry, including Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Jon Steverson.

Richter told the committee his critics were confused by emotion. He was backed by science.

“Today, many well intended, but quite frankly, misinformed people are going to testify against this bill.”

But the cavalry may have been too late. The bill was voted down after more than two hours of debate, but supporters used a procedural maneuver to put it on hold.

Supporters stress the bill would ban fracking for a year while a scientific study is conducted. But Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa wondered why a study would be necessary when fracking has been linked to everything from flaming tap water to minor earth quakes.

“When they dropped the atomic bomb, did we wait until they dropped it on Florida to determine whether it would be harmful?”

Richter began working on his bill three years ago when a Texas company was caught using a fracking-like technique in Collier County in his district.

Fracking is generally involves using high pressure streams of water and chemicals to blast oil and gas from rocks as deep as two miles underground.

But that’s not the only way to frack, said Jennifer Hecker, a lobbyist with the Nature Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Her group originally supported the bill, until she realized it didn’t cover another technique called matrix acidation that was used in Collier County.

“Things don’t actually have to fracture the rock to pose the incredible risks to our groundwater supplies.”

It didn’t help Richter’s cause that Steverson stumbled on the most crucial question of the day. When he was asked directly whether he had the power under existing law to stop fracking now, Steverson couldn’t give a yes-or-no answer.

“By the law of the state, by the law of this body, I cannot view the applicant based on their technology.”

Nor could Steverson’s deputies explain how the bill protects trade secrets for the oil industry, but still allows the public to know all the chemicals used in the fracking process.

Republican Senator Jack Latvala of Clearwater, often known for his acid tongue, was less than impressed by Richter’s experts.

“And I don’t think I’ve seen a better tap dance than what the department did today on the subject of trade secrets and the disclosure of these chemicals. And until I get comfortable on this issue, I’m a no on this bill.”

Republican Anitere Flores echoed most critics who wonder if the bill has to have so many safeguards, why consider fracking at all?

“That just leaves us with too many unanswered questions. Such as, what does fracking mean for our environment, what does fracking mean for our children? I think the major question is, are all these risks worth what we would be getting in return?”

It’s not clear when or if Lee will schedule another vote.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.