Sarah Maricle Ayers: Weigh facts on fracking before banning its benefits

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The exciting energy frontier that hydraulic fracturing represents is one of the best-kept secrets in Florida. The process consists of blasting a water, chemical, and proppant solution under high pressure to create fissures in rocks, which then allows the release of the oil and hydrocarbons locked within. Current dialogue, unfortunately, ignores the tremendous benefits offered by fracking, and raised awareness is desperately needed.

Florida’s role as an oil and gas supplier has been declining since the 1970s, but fracking offers renewal of that economic power. Economically, cultivation of those natural resources will usher in many jobs, including high-wage ones. According to the Energy Information Administration, “average wages of oil and natural gas production jobs were $108,000 in 2013, more than twice the average wage for all private sector industries.” When looking at the total value chain associated with petrochemicals, the job projections only get brighter. The Manhattan Institute found in 2014 that, “For every direct oil and gas job, there are, on average, three jobs created in industries such as housing, retail, education, health care, food services, manufacturing, and construction.”

Government revenue would also explode. States such as Ohio and Texas, which have long been major players in oil production, impose severance taxes on energy extractions. Florida could follow their models of modest tax rates, which, over the life of the wells, would spell billions in additional state revenue. North Dakota fittingly illustrates this effect, when between 2008 and 2014 it experienced a 129 percent rise in tax receipts – dwarfing the revenues of other states in this time period – because of its oil advantage.

Geopolitically, fracking in Florida will also diversify its domestic energy profile and help unshackle the chains to worrisome foreign suppliers.

Florida is in the midst of an identity crisis on hydraulic fracturing. Only the tentative steps of exploration and perm applications have been taken by certain oil companies, such as Texas-based Cholla Petroleum, and the state’s legal framework of fracking is still under construction. Democrats in Florida are largely in opposition, with Sen. Darren Soto having a filed a 2016 bill to ban it completely.

Republicans are generally in favor, with Sen. Garrett Richter having filed a bill to delineate a sufficient regulatory environment for it. Florida is at a critical juncture with fracking, and now is the time to ensure that it gets a fair debate.

Anti-fracking groups are doing a disservice to this end because they promote inflated fears on ecological effects, such as toxins and water contamination. These purveyors of hyperbole, such as the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Sierra Club, and Earthjustice, are advocating for bans despite little scientific backing of their environmental claims.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a study this year that was five years in the making, and examined the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water. Among its major findings was that although some fracking mechanisms had the potential to possibly harm some water resources, overall, in the history of this extraction process, they “did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States.” Further, “The number of identified cases where drinking water resources were impacted are small relative to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”

Additionally, this year’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory report from the EPA shows that methane emissions from the gas and oil trade account for only 1.07 percent of national greenhouse gases, a meager amount given the size and scope of the industry. To lend perspective, agriculture currently accounts for 9 percent of greenhouse gases. Although following the logic of environmental extremists, all agriculture would need to be shut down immediately.

Fracking foes are also a destructive force in shaping policy because they refuse to evaluate oil production in terms of risks versus rewards. Risks can never be completely eliminated in any human endeavor, and energy development is no exception. The right approach, however, will come from weighing the benefits against the costs. It is not reasonable to ask Floridians to forego decades of rich, life-improving benefits on the basis of fear stoking and flimsy science.

What’s more, many of the anti-fracking voices are the same ones who push expensive state appropriations, such as 2014’s Amendment 1, a conservation program costing 700 million in tax dollars. The exertion of pressure on public coffers, while simultaneously squelching opportunities that fund them, like fracking, amounts to poor planning and reveals a narrowly focused political agenda.

State lawmakers have an opportunity in the upcoming Legislative Session to design a strong, long-term plan that responsibly welcomes hydraulic fracturing in Florida.

The current era is one of advanced directional drilling techniques, new methods of oil stimulation, and unexplored limestone formations that harbor great untapped value. An accurate and fair debate is required, however, for the right fracking policies to be crafted. Discussions on environmental effects and updated regulations have their place, but they should be realistic, and coupled with equal time on the bonanza of benefits.

Sarah Maricle Ayers has bachelor’s degree in economics from Florida State University, and an MBA from FSU. Her op-eds on economic issues have been published in Florida newspapers. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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