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Florida Senator Pulls Plug On Fracking Bill

Caitlin Granfield
Anti-fracking demonstrators protested in early February on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami.

The Senate sponsor of a controversial bill about the regulation of "fracking" in Florida withdrew it from consideration Tuesday, saying he didn't have the votes to get through a key committee.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee that the opposition of environmentalists played a key role in thwarting the measure (SB 318).

"Emotions tend to magnify the controversy," he said.

The bill would have set up a state permitting process for fracking, a method of drilling that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to create fractures in rock formations, allowing natural gas and oil to be released.

The measure was fiercely opposed by environmental groups, who say the chemicals used in fracking could contaminate Florida's aquifer, and thus its water supply.

Richter's proposal was backed by the Florida Petroleum Council, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which said the state needed a regulatory framework for fracking.

Without the bill, Richter warned, fracking in Florida is regulated only by market forces and the current $30-per-barrel oil price, which is certain to rise.

"(The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) is flooding the market, and they're doing so intentionally," he said. "When OPEC stops flooding the market, supply will drop, demand will still be there, and prices will go up. ... And that's when we'll see fracking again in this state."

The House voted 73-45 last month to approve its version of the fracking legislation (HB 191), sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park.

Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 10-9 against Richter's measure, but a procedural move gave Richter more time to build support --- to no avail.

"The opposition got drummed up against it," Richter told reporters. "Colleagues that voted for my bill last week received a magnitude of mean emails, I'm told, calling them names for voting for me and 'ignoring the environment of the state.' "

Among other things, the bill would have required companies to inform the state Department of Environmental Protection of chemicals they inject into the ground, although with some restrictions that opponents said would have kept the public in the dark.

Also, the bill called for setting aside $1 million for a study on the impact of fracking, with a temporary moratorium until the completion of the study in June 2017. Critics say that would be a small amount of time and money with which to conduct such an important study.

In addition to environmentalists, the bill also was opposed by a number of local governments that have approved fracking bans. Under the bill, only the state could have imposed such a ban.

On Tuesday, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, agreed with Richter that "the ability of local governments to address the issue of fracking is at best exceedingly weak, a patchwork at best and a total nullity at the worst."

Although Richter is facing term limits, Simmons said, "We're not going to give up on this. I'm not going to give up on this."

Richter also called out by name the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, one of the environmental groups that opposed his bill. He called the group "disingenuous" for working on a compromise and then speaking against the bill last week.

But Jennifer Hecker of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said she spoke against the bill because it would not have regulated matrix acidization, a technique to mine oil and gas by dissolving rock with chemicals rather than fracturing it.

"(The bill) would have only looked at the fracturing techniques, and as we know now, those are less likely to be used in our state," Hecker said. "The more common technique would have not been studied, would have not been suspended, and that's why, ultimately, this was a bill that was going to do more harm than good."

Hecker also said her group "had made every effort to work in good faith and to get the right information --- science, not emotion." She said the group hired hydrologists and legal experts to inform its position on the bill. "It was clear that there wasn't an interest, or the political will, by those that were pushing this legislation to make the changes that were needed," she said.

The issue is certain to return, and the hard feelings are likely to linger.

"We had some extreme environmental groups that were ginning up controversy" in the House, Rodrigues said. "Many of these groups were people that we brought to the table --- and put their suggestions into the bill --- which begs the question of why work with these groups if they're not going to be supportive of what they bring forward to you in the future."

If and when the proposal returns, Rodriques said, he will not collaborate with those environmentalists "that dealt in bad faith" on this year's measure.