The Bonita Springs city council looked perhaps the richest and most influential family in southwest Florida straight in the eye on July 15 and didn't blink.
Facing the promise of lawsuits from Collier Resources, one of the companies owned by the billionaire progeny of Baron Collier himself, the council voted unanimously to prohibit oil and gas well stimulation like fracking inside city limits. Collier family attorneys and a lobbyist for the oil industry warned council lawsuits are in the offing.
Fracking is the practice of injecting water and chemicals down a well under pressure to force oil or gas to the wellhead. The practice has breathed life into wells across the country even as it's been blamed for everything from groundwater contamination to earthquakes.
Fracking came to the local forefront when Texas-based wildcat driller Dan A. Hughes Company used it at a well south of Lake Trafford leased from Collier Resources. The company initially denied it, but the state ordered a halt and subsequent reports confirmed it had. Nearby residents still fear contamination of the land and the groundwater.
The Colliers are estimated to own the mineral rights for three quarters of their namesake county, a ratio officials speculate is true in south Lee County , too. Attorney Ron Weaver told the city council during two public hearings that the family owns the rights to potentially billions of dollars worth of oil and gas beneath the city.
Weaver said the city would be taking away rights the Colliers have to extract those resources. He cited an opinion from the Lee County attorney's office that fracking regulation is pre-empted by state authority, and urged the city council to protect "the Colliers and hundreds of mineral owner victims."
Weaver urged the council to at least delay the ban, actually an amendment of the city land development code, to allow further discussion. He said the ban would be illegal on multiple fronts and the city was certain to face expensive lawsuits.
Weaver was by no means the only lawyer in the room, however. David Guest, managing attorney for the Florida office of Earthjustice, the largest non-profit environmental law firm in America , said his group stands ready to join the fight.
"We are here to support you," said Guest. "We have lawyers who have won in other states, and we will represent you if necessary."
"We will be there to fight," he said.
The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Sierra Club, the Responsible Growth Management Coalition, the Stone Crab Alliance, Pave Our Paradise, the Coastal & Ocean Coalition and other groups urged the council forward.
"We would be an intervenor (in a lawsuit)," said the Conservancy natural policy director Jennifer Hecker.
Coastal & Ocean Coalition director and former Lee County Commissioner Ray Judah said that it would be foolish of the locals to trust the state to deal with the issue. In fact bills that dies in the most recent legislative session would have made it easier, not harder, to frack.
"When I hear 'leave it up to the state' I'm reminded of the last several years in which the Legislature and the Governor have obliterated all our landmark growth management legislation, the same Governor and Legislature that gutted the budget of the South Florida Water Management District and all the districts, the same Legislature that's so dysfunctional it couldn't even come up with a budget, that ignored the will of the voters and used Amendment 1 money to balance the budget. No, I don't think it would be wise to rely on the Legislature and the Governor."
The Colliers did have their supporters, albeit paid lobbyists. David Mica is executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council and the brother of U.S. Rep. John Mica, R – Winter Park , the only Florida representative who supports offshore drilling.
"We as Floridians use an awful lot of my industry's product," David Mica said.
Southwest Florida's Sunniland Trend alone has produced 120 million barrels of oil, Mica said, enough for 5 billion gallons of fuel. Mica said Florida uses 28 million gallons of fuel every day, Mica said.
"We have experienced a significant renaissance because of changes in technology and engineering," he said. "Energy security begins in places like Bonita Springs ."
The council wasn't buying it. Councilwoman Janet Martin, who initially proposed the ban, made the motion.
"Our duty is to protect our citizens and our wildlife," she said.