A few weeks ago a local resident asked the Flagler County Commission to take a position against fracking, and against a long-term plan to possibly open Florida’s Atlantic coast to oil and gas drilling. The commission did just that, unanimously approving a resolution opposing both in mid-May.
The resident had asked the Palm Coast City Council to do likewise. But on Tuesday, the council opted not to, saying the county had spoken for Palm Coast already, and that opposing fracking would be irrelevant now that the state Legislature has dropped the matter for the year.
But it appears that the council at least partially misconstrued the intended resolutions, even though the council was presented with one of the county’s two resolution as a model. That resolution addressed potential state legislation on the matter, but also stakes out a position beyond that legislation: Flagler, the resolution concludes, “opposes hydraulic fracturing or any other hazardous form of well-simulation and urges Florida’s governor and Legislature to provide for a responsible scientific study of the long term environmental consequences of these processes and to allow the people of Flagler County and citizens throughout the state to hold a moratorium on ‘fracking.’”
The commission also approved a resolution supporting Sen. Bill Nelson’s opposition to seismic testing offshore of Florida. Drilling is banned along the Atlantic coast, but seismic testing is not. Nelson sees it as opening the door to eventual drilling. The Palm Coast City Council discussed fracking, but did not touch the Nelson initiative.
“Flagler County has already spoken for this area,” Mayor Jon Netts said. “Whether we like it or not, Flagler County, when they speak, speak for Palm Coast as well as Beverly Beach and Bunnell, Flagler Beach and Marineland and the unincorporated area. So I don’t know that this is an issue that is burning for us.” Netts has never used that reasoning in the past when he has either sought or followed county resolutions on issues he supported, such as the regulation of internet cafes, pill mills or restrictions on candy-flavored tobacco products.
Just as clearly, the council appeared uninterested in staking out a position that would have likely divided its vote: Council member Bill McGuire spoke in favor of fracking, fellow-councilman Steven Nobile referred to an Environmental Protection Agency study that found fracking had little effect on drinking water (that’s not quite an accurate reading of the EPA study, however), and even council member Jason DeLorenzo, who spoke more on fracking’s dangers to water supplies, said that “a resolution in opposition to bills that have already failed is a waste of time.” He wants to keep an eye on the matter next year.
Fracking is short for “hydraulic fracturing,” a process that extracts oil from shale deposits by injecting chemical-infused liquids—90 percent of it water—into bedrock at extremely high pressures, thus fracturing shale and releasing oil and gas. The method was pioneered in the United States in the 1940s, but because of its cost and complexity, it became marketably useful only when the price of oil rose beyond $60 and $70 a barrel. It has powered an oil boom in the United States, especially in North Dakota and Wyoming, and returned domestic oil production to near its 10 million-barrels-a-day peak of the early 1970s. That peak is expected to be surpassed soon.
Little enthusiasm for opposing distant concenrns on a council with its own pro-fracking voices.
But the method has also been tied to man-made, minor earthquakes and the contamination of water supplies, unleashing broad opposition from environmentalists.
The council heard a presentation on oil and gas drilling in the state, as well as the very small amount of fracking that has taken place in Florida, from Denise Bevan, a city administration coordinator. But much of the presentation focused on oil and gas drilling in general rather than on fracking.
“I was actually really surprised about this level of activity in Florida,” Bevan said. “Florida is not a novice in this field. It’s been happening quite a while here,” since 1943. But only one instance appears to have been a fracking drill, in 2003. A lot of the drilling is prospective—wildcat holes that hope to find something below. Some 97 percent of the wildcat wells come up dry.
Florida’s mainland has never been an oil producer of note: 611 million barrels of crude production since 1943 (or the equivalent of about 60 days’ total domestic oil production at today’s rate), and 689 billion cubic feet of natural gas drilled from Dade, Collier, Hendry, Lee, Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties. Florida these days produces about 160,000 to 180,000 barrels of oil per month. In March, the nation produced 9.53 million barrels of oil per day, a rate not seen in the country since May 1972.
“Drilling is nothing new to our state, and so there are definitely the requirements of how you do this,” Bevan said. Regulations are focused on environmental protection, especially for water and environmentally sensitive lands. “We’ve unfortunately encountered some catastrophes in the past, Deepwater Horizon, 2010, and that sticks with people pretty hard. That’s some of what we have and try to avoid.”
Bevan more accurately referred to the EPA study, released just last week, which analyzed the chemical methods of the process and its consequences. “These mechanisms include water withdrawals in times of, or in areas with, low water availability,” the study concluded, “spills of hydraulic fracturing fluids and produced water; fracturing directly into underground drinking water resources; below ground migration of liquids and gases; and inadequate treatment and discharge of wastewater.”
The study found that drinking water has been contaminated in 11 states because of fracking, but to a limited extent: “We did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States. Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.” The EPA qualified that finding, saying the data is incomplete because of insufficient long-term studies, and because the presence of other contaminants unrelated to fracking could also have affected the findings.
The EPA also notes: “Based on the available data, the EPA identified important vulnerabilities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle that can potentially impact drinking water resources.”
The council discussion did not have the benefit of the EPA’s details, resorting instead to position statements. “If you work in the petroleum industry, these are high-paying jobs, they are pretty much steady employment,” McGuire said. “So I’d have to weigh the economic benefit to the city of Palm Coast against the potential hazards from a health standpoint, because some of the liquids that fracking uses, that they put in under great pressure, are carcinogenic, and you’ve got the DEP in there inspecting on a regular basis. I think maybe the BOCC jumped the gun a little bit on this, because I don’t want to make a decision based on emotionalism. I like turtles as much as the next person. But hey, I also like high-paying jobs.”
McGuire also noted that fracking isn’t the only heavy consumer of water in the energy sector. “Nuclear energy is traditionally very heavy in the use of water,” he said. It was an understatement: while fracking, according to the EPA, used 44 billion gallons of water a year in 2011 and 2012, Turkey Point alone—the Florida Power and Light nuclear plant—acknowledges a need for an average of 75 million gallons of water per day, or 27 billion gallons of water a year. The utility uses Miami-Dade wastewater, but it is also seeking to pump 14 million gallons of water a day from the Florida aquifer. (The plan has run into local opposition.)
“I’m a big fan of the Keystone project pipeline and fracking,” McGuire said, “because we could make the United States energy independent, we wouldn’t have to worry about what the Iranians are doing or anything else, and that’s important to me.”