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Fracking in Florida
by Dean Simms-Elias
photograph by Allen Hoffacker
Companies are currently
Drilling permits in orange areas
Collier County officials were
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|FRACKING HAS RECENTLY BECOME a highly disputed issue for communities and government officials throughout the country and now many families and state officials in Collier County and Southwest Florida are outraged at the news of an unauthorized drill site near Naples. A first of its kind procedure in Florida Acid Fracking has inflamed the debate about fracking in Florida, where it has garnered support and fierce opposition as everyone considers the benefits and risks for the local economy and environment.
The practice of fracking (slang for hydraulic fracturing) is a fossil fuel extraction method that drills horizontal fissures in the ground and injects millions of gallons of water, sand and a cocktail of chemicals. Injected at a high-pressure, the chemical concoction fractures the shale formation, releasing oil and gas that is captured at the surface. The natural gas that is extracted from fracking produces less carbon when burned than conventional fossil fuels, making it an attractive new option for gas companies accommodating the growing environmental movement and countering bad publicity of crude oil disasters. Positioned as a cleaner domestic source of energy, natural gas generation has boomed with the aid of government and the media.
States and counties nationwide have taken varied positions on permitting fracking, with it popular in Pennsylvania, Texas and North Dakota, while recently being banned in New York. Some praise it for providing domestically produced energy and stimulating local economies and providing new jobs. Natural gas companies promote it as a financial opportunity, intriguing many post-recession landowners. Landowners often oppose regulatons and insist on their right to lease their private property. But many people in the local communities question the potential harm to the public health, eco-systems and groundwater aquifers. Many have spoken out against the indirect degradation of roads and diversion of community resources.
Fracking has many energy experts and environmental watchdog groups voicing their varied criticisms of the procedure. Groundwater extracted near fracking injection sites has been found to contain toxins and carcinogens at quantities up to five times the permissible amount. After the chemical mixture has been used, the wastewater is transported via road to a treatment facility. The practice of dumping wastewater into nearby reservoirs has been heavily criticized for the inadequacy of treatment facilities and the chemically infused waters long-term degradation of the soil. Another harm tied to hydraulic fracking is the danger of earthquakes, as residents of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, and Texas have learned.
The hazardous effects of fracking became more well known with the release of the Academy-Award nominated documentary film, Gas Land in 2011, which contained shocking images of houses near fracking sites experiencing kitchen faucets that leaked gas as they ran water. Residents of these areas displayed the flammability of their water when a flame from a match would suddenly flare up when held near their faucet.
Many government officials across the country have taken stances against fracking, insisting that natural gas companies do not prioritize procedures that ensure the health and safety of the public. Florida community members, environmental groups and municipalities have banded together to demand that natural gas companies disclose what chemicals they use in their operations. Companies are currently exempt from Floridas Open Government & Public Records laws requiring them to disclose the potentially harmful chemicals injected into the ground, claiming them to be trade secrets and thus shielding them from liability.
Other complaints from citizens and officials argue that natural gas companies use predatory tactics, promising wealth to vulnerable landowners in return for leasing rights to frack their property. However, it has been discovered that natural gas companies have often been selling the extracted gas from a subsidiary company to its parent company at a significantly lower cost than its market value. This maneuver allows the company to be legally obligated to pay residents only a percentage of the first sale price and does not reflect the market price that the product extracted from their land is finally sold for. Other companies have been found to be imposing marketing fees, taken off royalties, to pay a broker, even when sold to their parent company. These types of loopholes and elusive accounting tricks have further shaped the reputation of the fossil fuel industry as being irresponsible, disingenuous and exploitative, using public resources and degrading the health of the land.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida has been outspoken about the dangers that fracking poses to the ecological health of the region. They, along with other environmental groups, have recognized the imminent interest that would come to Southwest Florida and its potentially untapped resources, and that current fossil fuel regulations are too weak and have not been updated to address modern technologies.
A SECRET DRILL SITE
Residents of Southwest Florida became particularly concerned when Dan A. Hughes submitted a request to conduct exploratory drilling at a site close to the Golden Gates community. The imminent threat of fracking and its proximity to a residential neighborhood galvanized environmental advocates and enabled Preserve Paradise and other organizations to encourage protests and organize advocacy against the well. Residents identified the risks fracking posed to Southwest Floridas majestic landscapes, wildlife and drinking water, and attempted to prevent drilling before it took place. It wasnt until March 2014 that residents of Lee and Collier Counties became aware that Hughes had already started drilling in December 2013 and refused to comply with an order by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to stop operations. Befuddled that fracking was taking place in their backyard, neighbors and environmental groups began investigating the violations to the land and the publics rights.
More information was slowly gathered in the following months and it was discovered that in December 2013 the DEP requested that Hughes suspend operations until they could further review a chemical being used that was not authorized in the drill permit. The chemical not specified in the drill permit was an acidic chemical never before used in Florida for onshore hydraulic fracturing although it is employed in offshore oil well excavation to dissolve the limestone bedrock. Hughes ignored the request to stop and continued operations, disregarding the potential risk to public and environmental health. When the DEP became aware that Hughes had continued their operations they issued the drill site a cease and desist order. This new acid fracking procedure caused an enormous public reaction, decrying the unauthorized chemical injected, the close proximity of the drill site to residential neighborhoods and lack of communication to any local authorities or residents.
Hughes drilled at a site that is part of the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW), a vital area for aquifer regeneration. The CREW is maintained by the Water Trust, a non-profit organization that ensures the ecological integrity of the area. Hughes was leased 35,000 acres of mineral rights in this area despite the numerous overlapping landowners and stakeholders owning conflicting surface rights. The drill site was also on the border of the fragile Everglades, an iconic Florida landscape that provides wildlife sanctuaries and recreational sites that attract thousands of tourists and nature lovers. In addition to being in the CREW and Everglades, the drill site was also near several state preserves and parks that are designated habitats protecting endangered birds, panthers and other species.
The National Audubon Society, another major landowner in the area, was not aware that the mineral rights to a portion of the CREW land was leased for drill operations. Conservation Collier, the countys conservation agency, also owns surface land rights to areas adjacent to the drill site and was not involved in the permitting discussion. The largest landowning party involved is the South Florida Water Management District, who controls water resources from Orlando to the Florida Keys, and is tasked with preserving the Everglades and the Corkscrew Watershed. None of these parties were aware of acid fracking taking place near vital and vulnerable ecological territory and residential neighborhoods.
Collier County officials were outraged when they learned of the drill site months later through the media and from a press release by the Dan A. Hughes company. Collier County administrators expected to be informed about unauthorized excavation activities in their county and their requests for meetings with state environmental officials were never granted.
Southwest Florida residents and anti-fracking advocates had no knowledge of drilling operations taking place in the region, let alone ones using unauthorized chemicals near residential housing, until April 2014. Hughes capped the site in April of 2014 due to increasing scrutiny by the public and mounting pressure by local authorities.
The lack of transparency and accountability has lead many citizens of Collier County to be outraged about the state of fracking in Florida. Environmental advocacy organizations and local officials are also criticizing the Florida DEPs management of the incident and lack of communication with Collier County. Collier County officials were never notified of the cease and desist order and were not involved with the settlement agreed upon between Dan A. Hughes and the Florida DEP. As a result of using unauthorized chemicals and not engaging the local community about their actions, Hughes was slapped with a violation, fined $25,000 and forced to hire a groundwater-monitoring consultant. Collier County administrators believe that the settlement is meager and will not dissuade future extraction companies from ignoring environmental regulations, so Collier County officials are taking legal action, declaring that the DEPs settlement was insufficient for the level of endangerment and potential water supply contamination that the drilling operations may have caused. County officials and residents are also critical of the conflict of interest and insincere testing due to the drilling company hiring their own groundwater-monitoring consultant. As of June 2014, the Collier County Commissioner is pushing forward with legal action to rectify the inadequate settlement the state had arranged.
Acid fracking has never before been used in Florida and developing hydraulic fracturing technology has made it difficult for state agencies to study the effects of these new industry practices. Florida legislators havent maintained relevant laws relating to these modern natural gas technologies. Without laws that address these issues corporations arent required to take proper steps to analyze the environmental consequences of their activities and arent required to inform or engage officials and the community about their actions. The lapse in oversight and growth of the natural gas industry has left regulatory agencies without direction to study or adequately enforce precautionary measures on these potentially hazardous activities.
Being exempt from disclosing the chemicals used to inject in the ground for fracking and being virtually protected from any vulnerability to public health violations has caused some natural gas companies to develop an above the law mentality. The lack of adequate laws and regulations has resulted in these companies disregarding the wishes of regulatory agencies and precluding the publics knowledge and ability to act. Fossil fuel companies have a track record of irresponsibility and not self-regulating when it comes to prioritizing public and environmental health. The disregard for the safety and health of Americas land and people has empowered efforts to enforce stricter guidelines for extraction companies to operate within. Precaution has not been proven to be of highest importance to extraction companies, which is a strong argument to thoroughly analyze the impacts before permitting corporations to freely operate.
As a result of these irresponsible and potentially hazardous activities happening without public knowledge, Florida State Senators Darren Soto and Dwight Bullard (who represents eastern Collier County) have proposed a bill to ban hydraulic fracturing statewide. The state legislature has seen similar initiatives to increase fracking regulations that would improve safety for workers, communities and groundwater supplies. The grassroots advocacy by Florida residents and environmental groups has strengthened these efforts for greater supervision over these new and potentially devastating drill sites. The combined voice of Floridian advocates is reaching the Florida legislature and the ears of state officials. This is a debate that will continue to be a major environmental and public safety issue as the natural gas industry grows and the evidence of fracking hazards emerge.