Enviro groups that support fracking bills are threading the needle

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As lobbyist Stephanie Kunkel, representing the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Clean Water Action, approached the podium on Tuesday to speak on a Senate oil and gas fracking bill, there was a murmur through the committee room packed with fracking opponents.

“Sellout,” one man muttered before Kunkel started speaking.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Clean Water Action are the only environmental groups at the Capitol offering support for bills that would establish permitting regulations for oil and gas hydraulic fracturing. But groups actually are threading a policy needle in trying to win changes while not endorsing the bills as written.

In a busy legislative session dealing with environment, the fracking bills are drawing crowds of opponents from around the state with emotional pleas during committee hearings.

SB 1468 requires the state to develop rules for permitting “high-pressure well-stimulation,” which includes hydraulic fracturing — also called fracking. SB 1582 provides for a public records exemption for fracking “trade secrets.”

Opponents say hydraulic fracturing, which involves the use of chemicals, sand and water to force oil and gas from rocks, poses a threat to groundwater and drinking water supplies in the state.

Those opponents, including Sierra Club Florida, support bills (SB 166/HB 169) filed by Democrats that would ban fracking. Alachua, Hamilton, Leon, Madison, Miami-Dade, Union also support a ban, according to Food & Water Watch.

Sierra Club lobbyist David Cullen declined to comment on the position of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Clean Water Action. “I don’t see anything good coming from that (commenting),” Cullen said.

“I will say I have learned in my eight years representing Sierra Club that it is generally a bad idea to try to fix a bad bill,” he added.

Florida Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Secretary Paula Cobb told the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation on Tuesday that Florida now lacks specific permitting requirements for fracking. DEP is supporting the bills.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida isn’t endorsing the bills but supports moving them through the process to make them better, said Jennifer Hecker, the group’s director of natural resource policy.

She said some people incorrectly think the group is enabling fracking. She said her group thinks there should be a ban on new permits while the issue is studied, but the group isn’t supporting the Democrats’ bills because they won’t pass without leadership support.

After the Dan A. Hughes Co. in December 2013 was caught using a fracking process at an oil well in Collier County, the Conservancy and community decided that better regulation is needed, Hecker said.

“They (critics) may not be familiar with what we have learned the hard way — that fracking is currently being allowed in Florida without the state even being able to deny that activity and without any public disclosure of that information,” Hecker said.

“It’s a case of where we don’t know what we don’t know,” she added.

Among the changes the Conservancy of Southwest Florida wants is a study of oil and gas fracturing, which is included in the House bills (HB 1205/HB 1209) but not the Senate legislation. The group says new permits should be delayed until the study is conducted.

The group also wants a one-mile buffer between the oil and gas wells and any drinking water source, a broader definition of well stimulation to include acid-fracking and other techniques now excluded by the bill and a study of fracking to determine the environmental risk

As they are written now, the House and Senate bills would not even regulate the fracking that occurred at the Hughes Co. well in late 2013, Hecker said. That’s because they used less fracking fluid than is required for regulation.

And Hecker said the Conservancy of Southwest Florida will need bill changes to continue with its support, although the prospect of not having legislation also is a bad alternative.

“Nothing could be worse than walking out of session and being left with nothing but the status quo,” she said. “We are left in the worse possible situation right now.”

Bruce Ritchie (@bruceritchie) covers environment, energy and growth management in Tallahassee. 

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.