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Fracking bills pass Senate committee with DEP support

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Bills dealing with oil and gas hydraulic fracturing in Florida passed their first Senate committee stop on Tuesday after a state environmental official said they would provide needed regulation for the industry.

SB 1468 by state Sen. Garrett Richter, a Republican from Bradenton, 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.”

Paula Cobb, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s deputy secretary for regulatory programs, said the bill does not allow fracking as opponents claim. She told the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation that fracking is already allowed under permitting for oil and gas drilling.

“What this bill does is clearly prohibit that activity without a required DEP-issued permit,” Cobb said. “Right now that is not a requirement in statute.”

But the argument failed to sway dozens of bill opponents who said senators should pass SB 166 to ban fracking and kill the Richter bills.

“We don’t need fracking,” Jim Tatum of Tallahassee said. “We need to invest in sustainable energy instead. There is only one solution — we need an outright ban.”

Brewster Bevis of Associated Industries of Florida told senators the bill would provide certainty and a regulatory framework for the oil and gas industry.

“AIF believes the onshore oil and natural gas industry has the ability to be a robust sector of Florida’s economy that can infuse jobs and capital into this state,” he said.

State Sen. Darren Soto, a Democrat from Kissimmee who is sponsor of the SB 166 fracking ban legislation, offered amendments on Tuesday to ban fracking for five years and increased fines for violations. But the committee refused to allow the late-filed amendments to be introduced.

“I believe this bill (SB 1468) paves the way for fracking in the state of Florida,” Soto told the Senate Committee on Environmental Preservation and Conservation to scattered applause from an audience filled with fracking opponents.

“I don’t think the answer here is to regulate,” he said. “It’s to eliminate any chance of this happening.”

But state Sen. Thad Altman, a Republican from Melbourne, drew derisive comments from the audience when he said he would support the bill.

“I do not believe our governor or the Department of Environmental Protection would in any way shape or form support a bill that would have negative effects on our water,” Altman said.

“Everybody gets to speak, to agree or disagree,” state Sen. Charlie Dean, committee chairman, interjected to silence the audience.

Dean on Monday offered amendments — and then withdrew them — that would place a ban on fracking permits until a study of the practice can be completed in 2016. On Tuesday, Dean said he withdrew the amendments because he had not been able to discuss them with Richter, who was out of town.

Richter’s bills have two more committee stops, as do the House companion bills, HB 1205 and HB 1209.

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

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