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Friday, 25 September 2015 09:02

Rodrigues Swipes at Home Rule: Takes Aim at Municipal Fracking Bans Featured

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Ray Rodrigues Ray Rodrigues

Fracking has been a hot topic in Southwest Florida this past year, with Bonita Springs outright banning the practice within their city limits this past summer with a unanimous vote by the City Council. In doing so, they were aware there was a chance they could open themselves up to lawsuits by those wishing to access resources within their borders. However, a response to the actions of the numerous Florida municipalities like Bonita that have taken a stand against fracking, whether through bans or proclamations, may not be coming through the courts. Instead, the response could be arriving by way of the Florida Legislature.

On September 17, Ray Rodrigues, the Republican Representative of District 76 in the Florida House, filed HB 191. The bill, titled “Regulation of Oil and Gas Resources” seems specifically targeted at the trend of municipalities using home rule to determine what extraction processes can or can’t be used within their boundaries.

“Preempts regulation of all matters relating to exploration, development, production, processing, storage, & transportation of oil & gas; declares existing ordinances & regulations relating thereto void,” the first lines of the summary reads, and the implications seem clear should this make it to the floor and be voted into law: the state can preempt a city’s right to self-govern when it comes to fracking.

A similar bill was filed in the Florida Senate by Senator Garrett Richter, titled SB 318, which also aimed to preempt local ordinances regarding oil and gas extraction processes. This will mark Representative Rodrigues’s third attempt to pass a bill regarding the regulation of oil and gas extraction. The previous two efforts failed.

Fracking (popular shorthand for Hydraulic fracturing) is the well-stimulation process of fracturing rock with pressurized liquid, in order to free natural gas and oil from deep rock formations below the surface of the earth.

Representative Rodrigues says that the bill is meant get out in front of fracking in the state of Florida, and impose regulations and oversight on any sites that are constructed.

“What we learned based on the Hughes Well in Collier County is that there were no requirements for fracking now as far as permitting goes,” Rodrigues said. “All a company had to do was get permitted for conventional oil extraction.”

Rodrigues said that new gas regulations were needed so that the fracking process had to go through permits, and “give the DEP the ability to look at a company’s background in not just Florida, but other states, and give DEP the authority to deny a permit.”

He also states that the bill will have language that would require the companies to disclose the chemicals they put into the ground to the government. However, controversy arises at this point, as the information on some of those disclosed chemicals is not made available to the public due to their proprietary nature.

“Everything gets turned over to DEP,” Rodrigues said. “Legally the state cannot disclose a trade secret. Bottom line is the trade secret protection exists in Federal law and state law.”

Rodrigues is unaware of any state that exempts these laws.

He also feels that the recent municipal bans on fracking are examples of cities exceeding their reach.

“The state already retains authority for regulation,” Rodrigues said. “Counties and municipalities do not have the authority to grant or deny permitting in this area.”

“We saw some environmental groups encourage the municipalities to use the powers they have for zoning, to do a backdoor attempt at banning fracking,” Rodrigues said. “That’s an abuse of the limited jurisdiction that municipalities have in this arena.”

Bonita Springs Mayor Ben Nelson disagrees with Rodrigues’ take on the issue.

“I can’t help but believe they’re aware we’re not real happy about it,” Nelson said. “This is pretty repugnant to happen to any city. Moreso, to make this somehow retroactive to where it wipes out any existing ordinances that are relating to that, I’m not sure I’ve seen that even happen before. We expected something to come out of this, but this seems kind of aimed at what we did.”

“We’ve worked really well with the Senator (Richter) and Representative (Rodrigues) in the past on quite a few different issues,” Nelson said, and he did have a brief phone discussion with Rodrigues on Monday, September 21. He noted that they respectfully disagreed on how much sovereignty a municipality should be able to exercise in situations like these. “I’m hoping that we’ll work through this, too, and allow these city’s ordinances to stay intact.”

“We’re a municipality, in an urban area,” Nelson said. “Do you really think we shouldn’t have a say? Fracking really should come within the realm of a municipality’s ability to regulate. That’s not asking a lot.”

“We thought we had the ability and right to do what we did, and we clearly did,” Nelson said, even though he thought that fracking would never take place within his City’s limits. His aim for the ban was to remove uncertainty that could be caused by speculation. “If people want to move somewhere, and there’s speculation that we may one day have fracking within our community, maybe they won’t move here.”

Nelson feels that a debate still needs to take place on the issues of municipal needs versus the needs of the state, but says that the debate in regards to fracking in Bonita Springs “is over.”

John Scott, Group Chair of the Sierra Club Calusa Group, was also concerned about the bill’s language and what it may mean to municipalities in Florida.

“It actually has stronger language than last session’s bill in eliminating home rule,” Scott said. “You know how people talk about states’ rights, and there should be a same type of thing with local rights. We shouldn’t be told by the state that we can’t ban a particular extraction practice in a community if we don’t want it, and obviously fracking and using acid in stimulation are really bad environmental practices that could affect our drinking water.”

“If you toxify an aquifer, you can’t clean it up,” Scott said, referring to the potential harm chemicals used in fracking could cause if they leaked into drinking water supplies.

In terms of state authority versus municipal authority, Scott was skeptical about the state’s desire to give proper oversight to any fracking projects.

“It’s all well and good if the state would deny permits, but if you checked the number of permits submitted, 39 have been applied for and 37 have been approved,” Scott said. “The state rubber stamps them. If we had a strong state-level DEP that took this matter seriously, it wouldn’t be such a problem.”

By Trent Townsend

Read 2146 times Last modified on Friday, 25 September 2015 09:35

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