FL Senate Considering Bill to Ban Local Bans on Fracking

The Florida Senate is sitting on a bill already passed by Florida’s House of Representatives that would effectively usurp the authority of counties, cities and towns, preventing them from regulating fracking within their jurisdictions. Now in committee, Senate SB 318, would send the Regulation of Oil and Gas Resources bill to Governor Rick Scott for his signature. If Scott signs the measure, as he is expected to do, it will open the door to oil and gas exploration deep within the Florida Everglades, jeopardizing the fresh water supplies throughout much of the Southeastern U.S.

The 100,000 square mile artesian Floridan Aquifer underlies Florida, and parts of southern Alabama, southeastern Georgia, and southern South Carolina. In Florida alone, the larger of the aquifers that lay beneath the surface of the Sunshine state supplies the cities of Daytona Beach, Deltona, Flagler Beach, Gainesville, Tampa, Jacksonville, Ocala, Orlando, St. Petersburg, and Tallahassee, several municipalities in South Florida, and numerous rural communities.

The Biscayne Aquifer is a 4,000 square mile natural underground reservoir that supplies the counties of southeastern – Florida – including Broward, Miami-Dade County, Monroe County, and Palm Beach County – with potable drinking water. Called a surficial aquifer by geologists, because it is close to the surface, the water-absorbing limestone of the Biscayne Aquifer is tied into the surface waterways – the network of lakes, rivers, and man-made canals that keep Florida from becoming a permanent swamp – and provides all of the water for South Florida farmers, ranchers, and residents.

The problem facing communities confronted with the prospect of fracking in their own backyards is that Florida’s oil and gas reserves – the reserves that oil and gas companies want to exploit – are under the aquifers, which means that the drillers will have to drill through the layers of rock that form the water reservoirs in order to reach the oil and gas. Since the fracking process involves pumping high density slurries thousands of feet into the earth and using high pressure to literally fracture the oil and gas bearing rock, releasing the petroleum compounds and forcing them up to the surface, the process poses a threat to the aquifers themselves, as well as the people who depend on them.

Republican State Rep. Dr. Cary Pigman, whose district includes Glades, Highlands, Okeechobee, and part of St. Lucie, claims the measure includes safeguards but acknowledges that absolute safety is not possible. Pigman told the Palm Beach Post that oil and natural-gas production is an untidy process. Others have pointed out that oil and gas exploration has been going on in other parts of Florida for decades but opponents of the legislation think there is a qualitative difference between those operations and a fracking operation in or near the Everglades.

Fracking is dangerous because there are well-documented negative health consequences for the people living around fracking operations resulting from the dangerous chemicals used in the process, and from the possibility that an accident could actually fracture either or both the Biscayne and Floridan aquifers. If the limestone rock that creates the Biscayne Aquifer were to be fractured, all of South Florida could be rendered uninhabitable, and that’s not an exaggeration. Because the Biscayne Aquifer is a surficial aquifer that is both close to the surface and on the seacoast, any significant drop in the water levels in the aquifer could result in the infusion of seawater into the groundwater that Floridians drink, rendering it unusable without prohibitively expensive desalinization treatments.

Fracking consumes millions of gallons of water on a daily basis, but there is nowhere in South Florida to get that water from…except from the Biscayne or the Floridan aquifers. There’s also nowhere to put the millions of gallons of wastewater produced by fracking…except back into the same aquifers.

South Florida is largely a reclaimed swamp. The Everglades are what was left after the creation of the drainage system of artificial lakes and canals which enabled developers to create buildable sections of land on which to construct their cities and towns. Not having any mountains to speak of – the highest natural point in South Florida is actually a garbage dump – nor any spring runoff from winter snows, Florida subsists on rainwater to replenish the Biscayne aquifer, and rainfall has been falling short against the rate of expansion in Florida.

In 2000, Florida received a statewide average of around 54 inches of rainwater when the state’s population was around 15 million. In 2015, the state’s population swelled to 20 million, but annual rainfall has remained constant at around 55 inches per year. A single human being uses 80 to 100 gallons of water per day or 146,000 gallons per year, which equates to a total increased demand of 730 billion gallons to sustain those five million new residents…but the state’s average rainfall is still around 54 inches per year.

Sucking millions of gallons of water per day from either of the two aquifers to provide water for fracking will create an unsupportable increase in water demands that will exacerbate the already critical problem of the finding enough water for people to drink.

In addition to depleting crucial water supplies to provide water for fracking, no one has yet found a way to dispose of the large volume of highly toxic wastewater produced by the fracking process. At present, the only way for the drillers to handle the wastewater is to store it in huge holding tanks, and run it through a very expensive treatment process, or simply dump it back where they got it from, into the aquifers from which the water came in the first place.

In addition to the likelihood of accidents, mechanical breakdowns and eventual terrorist attacks, here there is a strong likelihood that the wastewater would simply seep back into the ground, into the aquifer, and then the state’s water supplies while it was being held for treatment.

There are still more catastrophic disasters that could occur. Simply by fracking the petroleum bearing shale deep under the Floridan Aquifer, fracking could quite possibly result in the breakdown of the entire soil supporting structure on which South Florida is built, turning much of the state into one enormous sinkhole, because that’s how sink holes get made, by allowing the water tables in the underground aquifers to fall behind the margin of failure.

Advocates who are trying to push the bills through the Florida legislature, claim that that oil and gas produced by fracking in Florida will contribute to America’s energy independence. Under three of the four financial scenarios in a report published by the U.S, Energy Information Administration, the U.S. will achieve energy independence by 2030, without the Florida oil reserves. In two of those three scenarios, the U.S. reaches energy independence in 2017 -2018. (Since the Florida reserves are unproven, they are not reflected in these statistics.)

The line of demarcation that determines when the U.S. will achieve energy freedom is money – the cost per British BTU for the energy that is being produced. As long as oil and gas prices remain where they are now, or go up, the U.S, achieves energy independence. The only scenario under which the U.S. fails to achieve energy independence is if oil prices go lower, but the reason for this argues against the development of more fracking operations.

Fracking is expensive, much more expensive than other methods for extracting energy from the earth. The cost of the energy produced by fracking was $6 per British thermal unit in 2012, when the cost of producing energy without fracking was just $3.20 per BTU and since then, with oil prices tumbling, the disparity between the cost of fracking and other means of producing energy has gotten wider, which makes fracking a bad bet for Florida since energy prices would have to almost double to make fracking profitable.

It’s one thing when environmentalists argue against fracking. It is something else again when oil companies themselves argue against fracking. According to an article just published on the oil-industry website, Oilprice.comWhiting Petroleum Corp, a major player in the oil fracking business, has suspended all of its fracking operations in the North Dakota oil fields because they cannot extract the oil at a marketable price per barrel. Investors immediately rewarded the company with a 9 percent bump in the company share price. The company also announced a five percent increase in proven reserves.

So, here’s a question for the Florida Legislature: If established fracking operations are shutting down in an area where the cost of production is much lower than it would be Florida because of the less difficult geographical and environmental considerations, why would Florida want to allow fracking when the frackers probably wouldn’t be able to make a profit unless something catastrophic happens to drive oil prices through the roof? The answer, once again, is money, only, this time, the money will come in the form of federal subsidies and tax breaks for companies that are developing the oil shale fields.

In the meantime, while the Florida legislature pushes this agenda – Energy Freedom for Florida, it is worth noting that the legislation now pending before the Florida Senate usurps the roles of the counties, cities and towns with respect to the management of their local resources and environments, while the state studies the question to determine whether or not the fracking should be allowed and under which terms and conditions. After conducting the study, the department would develop proposed fracking rules, which would have to be ratified by the Legislature but the legislation doesn’t establish the criteria under which the margin of safety would be judged. That amounts to a blank check for the oil industry operators who are pushing the legislature to sign this agenda.

If this is starting to remind you of the Deepwater Horizon, and how no one was prepared to fix the most predictable of all possible disasters, well, then you are beginning to get the picture, only this will be 100 times worse, if it happens, or rather when it happens.

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