2017-04-20 / Opinion

Tallahassee must face — and address — the fear of fracking


TRECKER TRECKER For the third straight year, the Florida legislature has punted on fracking. No decision was made — not to ban outright, not to regulate or even to study the possible damage, if any, it might cause.

This year it looked like the Senate was ready to ban. But the House wanted to study first. So nothing happened. And Florida remains one of the few states without any regulations on enhanced oil recovery.

Let’s step back a bit and try to understand what’s going on.

First, oil production is nothing new to Florida. The Sunshine State has been recovering oil for more than 70 years. Oil Well Road wasn’t named for its citrus groves.

Some 300 wells have been drilled in Collier County — not a large number by Texas or Oklahoma standards, but enough to show that this is not some new phenomenon. And without mishap, oil production has prompted little attention over the years.

That all changed in 2013. Dan A. Hughes, a Texas oil company, filed for permits to drill exploratory wells in Golden Gate Estates — very close to some existing homes. Residents complained and local environmentalists jumped in, gleeful to have a new cause, something sexier than copper in Naples Bay.

The huffing and puffing continued into 2014, when it was discovered Hughes had acid-treated an existing oil well — the so-called Collier-Hogan well near Lake Trafford — and did so without a permit. The environmentalists had Christmas in July. “Fracking without permission,” they cried. “Polluting our streams. Putting drinking water at risk.”

Fracking became a rallying cry for the uninformed left, a right of passage for liberal journalists. The genie was out of the bottle. Hughes was attacked mercilessly and driven out of town. Tasting blood, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and its acolytes wanted more. They wanted a statewide ban on fracking.

But where was the justification? No harm had been done. There was no evidence that acidizing the Collier-Hogan well (it was never fracked) polluted the nearby groundwater or the aquifer under it. While farmers and city folk were pouring fertilizer runoff into Florida’s waterways, causing toxic algae blooms all over the state (think Lake Okeechobee), the oilmen were polluting nothing.

But zealots often ignore facts, and the rallying cry became, “But it could happen!” Fracking could damage the fragile Sunniland formation. Toxic fluids could leak into the aquifers (even though the oil-bearing rock is thousands of feet below it).

It’s useful to consider what fracking is and what it does.

Fracking is shorthand for hydraulic fracturing: busting open dense rock (often shale) with water injected under high pressure in order to free trapped oil or gas. The injection fluid contains suspended sand for holding open the fractured rock and a small amount of chemicals — mostly biocides, suspending agents, lubricating fluids.

Combined with horizontal drilling, fracking unleashed a revolution that will make the U.S. energy independent by 2020 — a remarkable feat, something not thought possible in our lifetime.

While fracking and horizontal drilling are relatively new (most accounts credit George Mitchell with economically fracking the first well in 1998), other methods were previously used to coax oil and gas out of the ground. Acid treatment has been used in the industry for more than 80 years. Hot water or carbon dioxide or even microbial injections are sometimes used to thin heavy oil, improving its recovery. More exotic is the use of surfactants backed by viscosifiers to scrub residual oil from rocks. Gelants have been pumped into formations to promote oil flow and restrict water incursion.

These techniques have evolved, often by trial and error, and sometimes with bad consequences.

And so it was with fracking. Early attempts led to leakage of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. Improper sealing of casings resulted in some groundwater pollution. Reinjection of spent fluids harmed a number of reservoirs. These were not unlike the growing pains for wind turbines, nuclear power plants and even hydroelectric dams when those technologies were in their infancy.

Most of the fracking problems have now been solved, driven by economic necessity. As the technology has matured, tens of thousands of wells have been fracked without incident. Emissions have been curtailed and spillage sharply reduced or contained. Chemicals now used are harmless at the very low concentrations employed, and they are diluted even further underground.

Nonetheless, caution is justified.

And that takes us back to Tallahassee.

What should our legislators do? What they should not do is ban fracking and shut off a possible revenue source. Instead, they should impose a moratorium on all enhanced-recovery methods, not just fracking, and task the Department of Environmental Protection with conducting a thorough study of possible effects on groundwater and aquifers. Then, armed with knowledge, they should legislate.

And while they’re at it, they should take steps to control nutrient pollution. There it’s not a matter of whether it could happen. It is happening — and with terrible consequences all over the state.¦

— A Ph. D. chemist, Naples resident Dave Trecker retired as a senior vic e president at Pfizer. He is a founder of the Collier Citizens Council. Follow his blog at www.theresidentscorner.com.

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