Hydraulic fracturing is a hotly debated issue. With fracking, as it’s commonly known, around in some form since the 1940s, the Environmental Protection Agency has given very careful consideration to the technology. With so much potential economic benefit and so much environmental risk in play, the EPA is working with states and stakeholders to help ensure oil and natural gas extraction does not come at the expense of the public health or the environment. Even so, Florida has no comprehensive plan to deal with fracking, while at the same time laws and local ordinances are being considered at every level of government within the state.
Proponents want to extract the maximum economic benefit from fracking while mitigating environmental risks. Opponents simply say ’no way!’
A fracking fray has come to Florida.
Nearly 40 cities and 20 counties have passed some regulation banning fracking. Meanwhile two bills in the state Senate and two bills in the state House are being bounced around like hot potatoes. Some state legislation is specifically designed to prohibit fracking ordinances at the local level.
“The state does not want local power to infringe on people’s economic rights,” said Maitland Vice Mayor John Lowndes. “Plenty of people are willing to accept the message that local regulation is wrong, but it’s probably most efficient at the local level, when you have neighbor looking at neighbor asking what is best for the community.”
And lawmakers are asking what is best in terms of fracking. Whether at the city, county or state level, the drill bits are being pushed one way or the other in and out of the state.
Recent advances have enabled horizontal drilling, allowing much more rock to be exposed in the well. High pressure jets of water with sand and chemicals are pumped into the well to open up the rock and allow the fossil fuel to be easily pumped to the surface. The whole well is encased to protect groundwater from the ‘slickwater’ that is pumped in and the ‘flowback’ water pumped back out. It is then stored on-site in pits, injected into deep wells or disposed of off-site at a wastewater treatment facility. The potential threat of ground or surface water contamination can occur at several stages of the process. Casings could crack and slickwater might be injected into groundwater, or backwater could be spilled at the surface and find its way to the water table. Natural gas leaks and industrial greenhouse gas emissions round out the possible environmental threats.
The devil here is in the details.
Much of the early fracking was done in shale rock to extract fossil fuels. In Florida, fracking will occur mainly in limestone. Shale is porous so it can hold liquid, but it is not very permeable, making it difficult for fluids to move through it. That’s why hydraulic fracturing exists, to open up those spaces allowing the fossil fuels to flow freely. Fracking in low permeability shale also means leaks are naturally contained. Slickwater containing acids, salts, detergents, alcohols, lubricants and disinfectants, as well as flowback water containing toxins, radioactive material, hydrocarbons and heavy metals that might inadvertently escape from the encased well into the surrounding shale will not flow freely in this situation, making it less likely to contaminate groundwater.
Florida’s geology is different. We sit on porous and permeable sedimentary limestone. Because of limestone’s high porosity and permeability (think sponges) it allows large amounts of fluid to flow freely in all directions. The state’s sandy soil sits atop a platform of sedimentary rock up to four miles thick in places. The formation of this platform dates back more than 200 million years when its basement rock was sandwiched between what would become North America and Africa on the supercontinent of Pangea. Tens of millions of years, two continents going their separate ways, the birth and development of an ocean and a cast of billions upon billions of tiny sea creatures led to the deposition of Florida’s sedimentary rock platform. A time known as the Siliclastic Invasion about 25 million years ago moved sand and clays from the Appalachians south to cover the Florida Platform with the landscape we know today.
The miles’ thick platform of sedimentary rock is where we find the fossil fuels is also where we find our freshwater in the Floridan Aquifer. With Florida’s limestone rock being significantly more porous and permeable, the threat to ground and surface water from fracking increases exponentially. According to Duane DeFreese, Ph.D., executive director of the Indian River Lagoon (IRL) Council, we already have a tremendous example of how well Florida limestone can move pollutants with the increased presence of nitrogen in the state’s springs.
DeFreese directs the IRL National Estuary Program and sees the nutrient pollution in the state’s springs flowing through the same natural pathways that would allow containments from fracking to impair Florida’s surface and groundwater.
“A good example is the passive delivery of nitrogen into first-order springs” said DeFreese. “Some lateral transport system in the subsurface geology is moving nutrient pollution from septic tanks and agricultural areas to the springs over great distances. This is the same type of movement that would allow leaks at fracking sites to flow freely into ground and surface water across the state.”
Fracking has created an economic boom, and most Americans have benefited in some way. The Brookings Institution estimates that gas bills have dropped $13 billion per year from 2007 to 2013 as a result of increased fracking, which adds up to $200 per year for gas-consuming households. Moreover, pass-through to retail natural gas prices is essentially 100 percent, implying that the consumer surplus gains estimated have accrued to end-users of gas rather than distributors or retailers.
A shale oil fracking boom has been taking place alongside the boom in natural gas according to Brookings. Oil production in the U.S. has increased by almost 50 percent from 2007 to 2013, enabled by the same technological improvements driving the natural gas boom. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, only 27 percent of the oil consumed by the United States in 2014 came from foreign countries, the lowest level of imports since 1985.
The economic benefits appear to be evident while the threat to nature seems buried deep below the surface. That is why DeFreese suggests that “science drive knowledge and knowledge drive fracking policy.” There is a conflict in Florida between energy and water, with both being necessary for a vibrant 21st century economy and environment. With so many individual pieces of legislation and regulation being bantered about the state, real data showing where fracking fits into the Florida landscape is missing.
Florida has no comprehensive plan for water or energy. DeFreese says, “We should not be looking at legislation without looking at it through the lens of science.”
A comprehensive data driven plan is not likely from the regulations created by 20 counties and nearly 40 cities. It is not likely at the state level either unless legislation is not interest driven. Without data, fracking regulations will be formed around what legislators think as opposed to what they know. If we can get the facts and form a comprehensive plan, then fracking regulation will come down to a simple question of following the plan and not reacting to the desires of special interests on either side of the debate.