Fracking in Florida

By: Diane Roberts

            We’re not fracking in Florida. Not yet. But the legislature nevertheless proposes to exempt the “trade secrets” of fracking companies from public records while pretending to give us “transparency.”

            Hydraulic fracturing–fracking–is the extractive industry flavor of the month, praised by  “Drill, Baby Drill” enthusiasts, President Obama, and even some environmentalists–never mind the scary way water out of the faucet in frack-happy parts of Pennsylvania is wont to catch on fire. HB 71, the “Fracturing Chemical Usage Disclosure Act,” would direct Florida’s  Department of Environmental Protection to make drilling companies disclose the amount of water and the types of chemicals used for each well on an online database called FracFocus.org. Sponsor Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, has told reporters that with fracking companies eyeing sites in southwest Florida, he figured the citizens ought to “know the chemicals that go in the ground.”

            Fine idea, but that’s not what will happen. HB 71 has an evil twin, also sponsored by Rep. Rodrigues. Where the first bill assures the citizens they’ll know all about the stuff used in fracking, HB 157 undercuts it, exempting any information about chemical ingredients designated “trade secrets.” And what’s a trade secret? Anything the frackers say it is. So much for industry in the sunshine.

            Even the disclosure database isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: FracFocus.org is paid for by the American Petroleum Council and America’s Natural Gas Council. As a source of information for the public and an incentive for industry to behave itself, FracFocus is a bust. A Harvard Law School study published in 2013 concluded it “creates obstacles for compliance for reporting companies, and allows inconsistent trade secret assertions.”

            Florida’s Rep. Rodrigues used a bill provided by Texas legislator Jim Keffer as a template for his. Keffer has ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group funded by Exxon Mobil, Wells Fargo, and Koch Industries, among others. Implacably opposed to new and sustainable energy sources, ALEC  has exhorted fellow-traveling legislators to “wage guerilla warfare” against EPA, and it has been scheming in Florida and other states to tax people who install solar panels on their homes and charge them for feeding their surplus electricity back into the grid.

            Of course, protecting proprietary information is important: you don’t want to hand competitors all the tricks of your trade, tricks you may have spent a lot of money developing. On the other hand, if people get sick, if water gets poisoned, surely that propriety information should be revealed in the public interest. Look at West Virginia: Freedom Industries, the (now bankrupt) company responsible for contaminating the drinking water, didn’t want to reveal details about PPH, the second coal-cleaning substance Freedom spilled into the Elk River. It’s a trade secret. The Centers for Disease Control said PPH is “probably less toxic” than MCHM, the first chemical stinking up the water, but they couldn’t be sure.

            Various drilling companies headquartered in Texas, Mississippi, and one in Immokalee, Florida, are eyeing leases in the counties of Collier and Lee as well as in northwest Florida. There will be a debate–an important debate–between those who worry that drilling will prove toxic to our already-stressed ecosystem and those who think it’s our right to suck every drop of usable energy out of the earth. What should be beyond debate is the public’s right to know what goes into the chemical cocktail the drillers use and what it might do to our water, our wildlife and ourselves. The Florida Legislature should not insult us with bills that pretend to give us sunshine while keeping us in the dark.