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Fracking bills pass House panel after testy exchanges

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House bills that involve oil and gas “fracking” passed their first committee stop with support from some environmental groups and opposition from others and tense questioning by state Rep. Ray Pilon.

HB 1205 would establish a permitting program for hydraulic fracturing and acid fracturing, which are processes used to extract oil and gas from rock. HB 1209 would provide a public records law exemption for companies that submit information on their fracking operations.

Last week, Tallahassee and Leon County joined five other counties in passing resolutions in opposition to fracking. Many speakers at the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee on Tuesday asked legislators to support a ban rather than the bills they were hearing.

But Pilon, R-Sarasota and member of the committee, asked several speakers whether they favored leaving the status quo in place and not conducting a study of fracking that is called for in HB 1205.

“We think the ideas in the study are important things to consider before fracking is permitted,” said David Cullen, representing Sierra Club Florida. “We think fracking shouldn’t be permitted, it should be banned.”

But a representative of Clean Water Action and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida said the groups support efforts to tighten regulatory requirements on fracking, even though they also would like setback requirements for new fracking operations from existing or closed oil and gas wells.

“We are asking for you to pass HB 1205 out of committee,” said Stephanie Kunkel, representing the two groups. “Let this good product and this legislation that is urgently needed to protect public health and safety and our water resources advance.”

A representative of Associated Industries of Florida also told the subcommittee that the legislation was a good first step in providing certainty for the oil and gas industry.

But other speakers said they supported bills SB 166 and HB 169, which would ban fracking. The bills, filed by Democrats, have not been heard in House or Senate committees.

Pilon later apologized to committee members after an exchange with Bart Bibler of Tallahassee, who said he opposed HB 1205 and HB 1209 because they would authorize and regulate fracking in Florida.

“Are you aware that fracking is authorized now without these regulations?” Pilon asked.

As Bibler began to answer that he supports other legislation, Pilon interjected, “Yes or no?”

“I’m aware right now it is allowable to frack in Florida,” Bibler said. “And I would ask that you consider a ban on fracking in Florida.”

“I don’t want to be combative at all,” Pilon said. “I tell you we understand that. We have a bill in front of us that does not deal with a ban on fracking. We cannot amend this bill to ban fracking.”

State Rep. Tom Goodson, a Titusville Republican who is subcommittee chairman, interjected, “I would like to remind the committee that this is a very sensitive and very heated topic.”

“Let’s all try to be as calm and nice as we can in our playpens,” Goodson said.

After Pilon apologized if he had seemed combative or offended anyone, Goodson said, “We’re fine — let’s just all try to play nice.”

HB 1205 passed 10-2 and HB 1209 passed 8-4. Both bills have one more committee stop.

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

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