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Hydraulic fracturing public records bill passes Senate panel as opposition mounts

A public records bill oil and natural gas hydraulic fracturing passed its final committee stop with the bill sponsor indicating it is in trouble as it heads to the Senate floor.

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as high-pressure well stimulation or fracking, involves the use of water, sand and chemicals to extract oil and gas from rock. The practice raises concerns about the threat of contamination to groundwater and drinking water supplies although the oil and gas industry says it’s safe.

SB 1582 by Sen. Garrett Richter, a Republican from Naples, provides for an exemption from public records disclosure for proprietary information and a court process for companies to request that the information be withheld.

SB 1582 passed the Senate Committee on Appropriations by an 11-7 vote after 1-1/2 hours of public testimony and debate. Because the bill provides a public records law exemption, a two-thirds vote will be needed to pass it on the Senate and House floors.

“I think thats going to be probably pretty doggone challenging based on testimony and the comments and the debate we have received here today,” Richter said.

He said he offered the bill because the Department of Environmental Protection requested it.

Bills were proposed to regulate fracking in 2013 and 2014 but they failed to pass the Senate. The issue gained momentum this year when DEP requested legislation after citing the Dan A. Hughes Co. with using fracking techniques at an oil well in Collier County.

DEP says under existing state law it cannot issue a permit that specifically approves or denies hydraulic fracturing. SB 1468, also sponsored by Richter, would provide for hydraulic fracturing regulation and a moratorium until a study is completed by March 1, 2016.

But several senators indicated they were concerned about allowing fracking and the emotional objections raised by speakers during each stop in the committee process. Other bills filed by Democrats to ban fracking have not been heard in House or Senate committees.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from St. Petersburg, said supported allowing the bill to move through committees. But now he said he will oppose it through the rest of the legislative process.

“I see scared people here and I just don’t feel good about this bill at this point,” Latvala said. “I think we have a responsibility to protect our people. If they’re scared, I think we need to try to respond to that and we need to tory to do what we can to make them not scared any more.”

But Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Democrat from Margate, while saying fracking is a “scary scary issue,” said the issued raised by the bill was not whether to ban fracking but how to regulate it.

“My fear is if we don’t do these bills we will continue to have a wild west,” Ring said. “At least we will be getting our arms around regulating something that exists.

Sen. David Simmons, a Republican from Altamonte Springs, said he would vote for SB 1582, the public disclosure bill. But he said he also wants language in the regulatory bill, SB 1486, to provide assurance that the “we are not going to have a disaster or anything close to a disaster.”

“So I’m going to vote for it,” Simmons said, “but it is with a caveat to ensure that before it goes to the floor of the senate there is an assurance this is going to permit the DEP to do the job the DEP ought to be doing and do in the right way with the right kind of parameters.

The House bills, HB 1205 and HB 1209, are on the House special order calendar for Friday.

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

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