Fracking in Florida?
The rapidly growing practice of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” has incited significant debate. Some argue that this technology, which involves extracting hard-to-get natural gas and oil deposits by injecting water, sand, and chemicals into wells in order to fracture rock and recover these energy sources, provides substantial revenue and jobs, and helps make the country more energy independent. Others claim it causes a variety of environmental and human health problems ranging from air pollution and groundwater contamination to the overuse of water. Until now, hydraulic fracturing has not been widespread in Florida. Much of the hydraulic fracturing debate has been concentrated in states like Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado, and Texas. However, as oil and gas companies begin to show greater interest in the potential of this technology, it appears fracking in Florida is becoming more and more of a reality.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) recently approved a permit application for an exploratory well in Collier County. The permit issued to the Dan A. Hughes Company, a Texas oil and gas company, authorizes the drilling of a well in the Big Cypress Swamp watershed, less than a mile from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and underneath the main public supply wellfield for the City of Naples. Although the Hughes Co. claims that it has no plans to utilize fracking technology, some say nothing prohibits the company from changing its mind and fear that permitting wells in this location may set a precedent for exploration and drilling that will lead to fracking on and beneath sensitive environmental habitats throughout Florida.
Accordingly, two persons — a small South Florida wildlife organization and an adjoining landowner — have filed administrative challenges to FDEP’s proposed permit. Among other bases for the challenges, the petitioners claim that the Texas oil and gas company’s proposal fails to comply with industry standards and would violates Florida law, which prohibits oil and gas drilling activities within a mile of lands with such a designation. The Florida panther is one of the most endangered species in the United States as there are only about 160 Florida panthers remaining. In addition, the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee, established within FDEP to make nonbinding recommendations, recently voted to recommend denial of the permit. Although challenges to the permit currently prohibit the Hughes Co. from constructing the well, an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) has the final say and is expected to make a decision this spring. Regardless of the ALJ’s decision, FDEP’s intent to approve the permit, combined with other actions by oil and gas companies, signifies an increasing interest in such drilling in Florida and means that the debate over fracking in Florida is likely just beginning.