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Issue 635

04/11/2013 at 5:21pm

FrackingFracking in South Florida
An Uncertain Future

Fracking. To many here in southwest Florida, the word sounds like something out of a Star Trek episode. But the true meaning is much more controversial, as many in other parts of the country have discovered and what we here - living so far in blissful ignorance - are likely about to find out.

Fracking is technically called ‘hydraulic fracturing’ and involves extracting previously unavailable reserves of oil and natural gas (methane) by injecting the surrounding rock with a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure. The controversial process, which has been done successfully - and quite lucratively - in North Dakota, Pennsylvania, New York, Wyoming, Colorado, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Montana, Texas and elsewhere, was previously believed to be impossible in south Florida due to geological reasons.

But not anymore. A recent leasing of over 100,000 acres in Lee and Collier Counties by an oil investor prompted one local congressman to 'get ahead of the curve' by quickly introducing legislation to try and regulate it.

"I had always thought that fracking was not possible in south Florida because we didn't have the substrata to support it, until I saw an article last year in the Oil and Gas Journal saying it does,” said Representative Ray Rodrigues, a recently elected Republican from Estero who also represents the beach. "Then I saw where someone was leasing land in Lee and Collier and realized this could happen here.”

That article was written on March 2, 2012 by Brandt Temple - president and founder of Sunrise Exploration & Production of New Orleans. Temple previously worked the Gulf of Mexico in 1996-2003 before becoming Appalachian basin exploration vice-president for Whitmar Exploration, where he directed and developed 350,000 acres on 10 prospects in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. His current company, Sunrise, has put together eight-year leases for 135,000 acres in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties.

"Oil and gas producers are in the infant stages of a new liquids-rich play in the South Florida basin that could revive the oil industry in rural-agricultural parts of South Florida," Temple wrote in that March story.

The controversy with fracking lies partly with the process itself – which uses approximately 1.8 million gallons of water per job - but mostly with what that water is mixed with. Fracking for oil and gas embedded in shale rock basins across the country involves the injection of a 99.5-percent cocktail of water and fine grained sand into a well that drops under the groundwater table to between 6,000-10,000 feet. That water and sand includes a 0.5% mix of chemicals – most of which are listed as "proprietary information” and a "trade secret" under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. When the mixture reaches the end of the well, the high pressure causes the nearby shale rock to crack - thus releasing gas and oil back up into the well.

Critics say that some of the chemicals used in the mixture are nasty things like lead, radium, mercury, hydrochloric acid and formaldehyde, which leak into drinking water for nearby cities and towns. Reports of methane gas coming from water faucets and radiation in drinking wells have had environmentalists and public health groups across the country up in arms trying to regulate and/or ban the practice and force the companies to publicly disclose what is in the chemical mixture. Proponents of the practice say these reports are inaccurate and are being overblown by environmentalists to the detriment of states' economies. The problem is that disclosure requirements vary from state to state, with the majority of states where fracking is practiced having no requirements at all.

This is what prompted Rodrigues to introduce House Bill 743, legislation he claims contains the most stringent disclosure laws in the country should fracking become part of our state lexicon - something he believes is imminent though Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials and several potential investors have been skating the issue in recent newspaper articles.

"Fracking is a very real possibility for Southwest Florida,” he said. "There are no rules regarding permitting for this in this state. Fracking without any disclosure whatsoever is allowed under state law right now, and my bill would change that.”

The bill, which has a twin version in the Senate sponsored by Senator Jeff Clemens, a Democrat from Lake Worth, requires any companies fracking here to give full disclosure to the DEP of all the chemicals used in their process. The DEP would then determine what was covered by the federal act protecting trade secrets and what will be released to the public.

"The trade secret exemption is part of federal law - there's nothing that states can do to make companies give full disclosure - but at least with my bill the DEP decides what to disclose and not the companies themselves,” he said.

Fracking may be unheard of here, but oil drilling isn't. In South Florida, drilling has been going on in a tract of land called the "Upper Sunniland Trend” for decades. This tract is 150 miles long and 20 miles wide - stretching from Fort Myers to Miami and crosses into the Big Cypress Preserve at the western end of the Everglades.

In a "frack memo,” reported in the News-Press last fall, DEP Oil and Gas Administrator Ed Garrett wrote that fracking would be too deep to affect potable groundwater because Florida's aquifers are no more than 2,000 feet deep and all of Florida’s oil production comes from 12,000 to 17,000 feet deep.

"But they're drilling though the aquifers in order to get down there,” pointed out Keith Laakkonen, Environmental Science Coordinator for the Town of Fort Myers Beach. "Florida in a whole doesn't have good geology for drilling or fracking. I believe that the Sunniland Trend is the only area below I-10 where something like this is possible.”

Laakkonen told us that his biggest concerns aren't only with what's being put into the fracking water, but what would happen to the wastewater associated with the process and the possibility of methane gas leaks.

"Methane is the most powerful greenhouse gas there is,” he said. "It's 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and in the early days of this process there weren't a lot of safety mechanisms - resulting in quite a bit of methane being released into the atmosphere.”

But, like any new business resulting in high profits, the situation has improved quite a bit, Keith says, and there is another way to look at it.

"The United States is the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” he said. "It does go a long way towards making us energy independent, and, since it burns much cleaner, many people are calling it a 'bridge fuel' that would buy us time until we could come to rely completely on things like solar, wind and biofuels.”

The problem, Laakkonen says, is getting it from the ground to the processing plant.

"If they can really prove that it can be done safely – no leaks, no contamination of groundwater or surfacewater – it might not be a bad thing,” he said.

"But it's still a fossil fuel.”

Meanwhile, Rodrigues' bill, which initially had support from both environmental groups and the Florida Petroleum Council, has drawn fire in recent weeks for either not demanding full disclosure or a ban on the practice entirely.

"You cannot force full disclosure – it will be challenged in court and thrown out,” he told us, "Florida has some of the strongest Sunshine Laws in the country, we will know most of what's being put into the ground. That's much better than knowing nothing.”

Rodrigues added that he does plan to add an amendment to the bill that requires the disclosure of the concentration of chemicals. The bill will go to a vote in the House sometime next week.

Keri Hendry Weeg