TALLAHASSEE -- No one knows if Florida is going to be the next frontier for the new generation of oil and gas drilling known as fracking, but state legislators say — just in case — it’s time to write rules to require disclosure of the controversial technology.
The Florida House on Wednesday is expected to pass a bill that will require companies to disclose what chemicals they use when they explore for oil and gas using the controversial extraction process.
Fracking uses hydraulic fracturing technology to inject water, sand and chemicals underground to create fractures in rock formations. Oil and gas is released through the fissures and is captured by wells, built at the sites. Environmentalists warn that the chemical makeup of the fluid that is pumped into the ground could contaminate groundwater and release harmful pollutants, such as methane, into the air.
"The Fracturing Chemical Usage Disclosure Act," sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodriques, R-Estero, would require the state Division of Resource Management to set up an online chemical registry for owners and operators of wells, service companies, and suppliers that use hydraulic fracturing.
The bill also requires the information to be posted on the web site, FracFocus.org, an online clearinghouse run by the Groundwater Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.
Rodriques said the bill, HB 743, is neither pro-fracking or anti-fracking. “It’s a transparency bill,” he said. A similar measure is moving in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.
Hydrologists have identified only two potential areas in Florida — Southwest Florida’s Lower Sunniland field and the Jay field in the Panhandle — where the state’s geology could support fracking, said Rodriques. But if Florida is the next industry hot spot, “no one has applied for a permit” and the Department of Environmental Protection “does not have any active inquiries,’’ he said.
Rodriques said he believes that speculation continues among investors who believe Florida’s ancient oil fields may have fracking potential, particularly in Southwest Florida, where a handful of oil wells have operated for decades largely unknown to the public. In Houston on Wednesday, for example, the second annual conference on “Emerging Shale Plays USA,” will feature a presentation on whether or not Florida has the right mix of rock properties to support hydraulic fracturing at the Lower Sunniland site in Hendry, Collier and Lee counties.
“Do we want to be reactive — and wait until hydraulic fracturing is already occurring — or do we want to be proactive and get these disclosure laws on the books before hydraulic fracturing begins?’’ said Rodriques, who represents northwest Florida. “I decided to be proactive and that’s why I filed the bill.”
Environmentalists initially opposed the measure, arguing it was a ploy to open the state to a process they claim could be disruptive to Florida’s fragile aquifers and high water table. But amendments adopted by the House have appeased them, said Mary Jane Yon, lobbyist for Audubon of Florida.
The change requires that companies disclose not only chemicals used in the fracturing process but disclose the chemical concentration by mass and the chemicals used for each well. Chemicals make up about .5 percent of the fracking compounds, with 95 percent of it water and 4.5 percent sand, Rodriques said.
Yon said another related bill, HB 745, is more troubling because it would exempt from public records any "trade secrets" companies can claim about proprietary chemicals.
“We are fully behind the spirit of sharing information with the public, but we worry if you are allowed to call everything a trade secret we have nothing left to share,’’ Yon said.
Oil and gas industry representatives support the disclosure requirements.
“Companies are recognizing they have to work with the public in order to reassure them that what they’re doing is not dangerous,’’ Rodriques said.
According to the Environmental Defense Fund, 11 states require at least partial disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process and the federal government has recently drafted rules governing disclosure on federal land. The industry has also made peace with environmentalists by agreeing to voluntary new standards for fracking in the Northeast, one of the most active regions for fracking activity.
In Florida, questions persist about whether the energy industry would even consider using the controversial extraction technique in the state. Though major companies are eager to push offshore exploration, the state’s known deposits haven’t historically produced enough oil or gas to make it a big draw for land-based exploration, let alone the water-gulping and expensive option of hydraulic fracturing.
"Basically, oil companies have a lengthy list of choices outside of Florida,’’ said Christopher Brown, a civil engineering professor at the University of North Florida, who gave a presentation on the pros and cons of fracking in January for a water resources conference in Fort Myers.
About 70 percent of the oil and gas produced in the state comes from the Jay field area in the northwestern Panhandle, said Brown, and that’s the only place in the state known to have the dense underground sandstone and shale formations where fracking has been mostly commonly used to free up trapped oil and natural gases.
In Southwest Florida, oil drilling has been going on since 1943, when the first well was sunk into a formation called the Sunniland Trend, which sits some 11,000 feet below the porous limestone aquifer that feeds the Everglades and supplies much of South Florida its drinking water.
Today, a handful of wells operate in the Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County, producing a small but steady volume of thick oil of about 1,200 to 2,800 barrels a day. Oil giant Exxon has owned one well in the Raccoon Point area, which has produced some 20 million barrels since 1978.
Brown said he considered the possibility of fracking in Southwest Florida "unlikely" but cautioned "I wouldn’t consider it impossible.’’
Rising oil prices, for instance, could make it more economically feasible for companies to pursue small or uncertain deposits with more intensive techniques.
Over the last decade, Collier Resources Co, which owns much of the oil and mineral rights in the Big Cypress, has periodically floated proposals to expand seismic testing in the area and potential drilling.
David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said rising energy prices had generated some new industry interest in Florida but mostly from smaller independent companies seeking to explore in the northwestern section of the state.