A bill that would create a new regulatory structure in Florida for oil and gas drilling, including the controversial practice known as "fracking," easily passed a House panel Tuesday despite roughly 50 environmentalists on hand to oppose the measure.
The House Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee approved the bill (HB 191), filed by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, and Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, on a straight party-line vote of 9-4.
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground to create fractures in rock formations, allowing natural gas and oil to be released.
The bill would set up a state permitting process for fracking and require oil and gas companies to register the chemicals they use on a national website. It would also require the companies to inform the state Department of Environmental Protection of chemicals they inject into the ground --- after the fact, not before. And it would set aside $1 million for a study on the impact of fracking.
"I believe that it improves our environment here in Florida," Rodrigues said.
Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is sponsoring a similar bill (SB 318) in the Senate.
The proposal is backed by the Florida Petroleum Council, Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which contend that fracking would be a boost to jobs and energy independence.
"It's transformed America," Dave Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council told the House panel. "It's made us an energy-producing nation. It's showing up in the prices your constituents pay at the pump."
"Will this create jobs in Florida? Of course it will," said Brewster Bevis of Associated Industries of Florida.
But opponents said the bill is deceptive and that fracking would dirty the state's groundwater and damage the health of people who live near drilling operations.
"At its core, it's legislation designed to facilitate fracking in Florida," AFL-CIO spokesman Rich Templin said.
Tallahassee immunologist Ron Saff said people living near fracking wells are getting sick.
"Sure, I think fracking will create more jobs … for grave-diggers, morticians and funeral directors," Saf said.
But Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness, disagreed about risks associated with fracking.
"It's been proven already that fracking is a safe process," he said. "Now, are some of the chemicals dangerous? Absolutely. But so are so many of the things we use on a daily basis."
The bill would also ban local governments from imposing fracking regulations, and critics warned against that as well, saying the provision would deprive local governments of self-determination.
"I really thought that was a cornerstone of conservative principle --- the idea of smaller government and local control," Templin said. "This legislation takes that away."
But Rodrigues said he is working with the Florida Association of Counties and the Florida League of Cities to address their concerns with the bill. Florida has long had oil drilling in parts of Southwest Florida and the Panhandle.
Opponents of the bill expressed little confidence that the state Department of Environmental Protection would hold violators accountable.
But after public comment ended, Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, scolded the environmentalists for basing their stand on "emotion and opinion" rather than trying to make constructive changes to the bill.
"You can't always stand against things," Smith agreed. "Progress is going to happen."