Guest post by Matthew Gozdor
Recent debates about fracking for oil and gas in Florida have brought attention to environmental concerns about fracking, which is important. But the debates have centered on legislative bans. Many counties and cities have passed legislation that would ban fracking in their respective locales. Anti-fracking bills have been proposed statewide (including HB451), but none are likely to pass this year. Opponents in the House are charging that studies must be done before concluding that fracking would be bad for Florida. Before we can contribute to this debate we have to understand what fracking is, what it means for Florida, who is to blame, and what we should or could do.
Fracking is defined as the process of injecting mostly water along with some sand and/or chemicals (typically a soy based friction reducer, a soap-like surfactant, a bactericide, and a small amount of acid) at high pressure into subterranean rock via boreholes to force open existing fissures and allow access to oil or gas for extraction. Overall, as the rock is fractured, oil and gas trapped within the rock is allowed to flow back up the borehole and be captured for use. This process requires fresh water to inject into the fracking borehole and disposal of wastewater as it exits the borehole.
In Florida, there are two general areas where fracking is being considered by oil companies. The first is the Sunniland Trend which is an area that stretches from Fort Myers to Miami and is approximately 20 miles wide. The second is the Smackover Trend near Pensacola. Generally, the Tampa Bay area would not be directly affected by fracking in either of these areas. However, there might be a possible reduction of groundwater supply near Sarasota due to the increased groundwater withdrawal to support the fracking process. There is a small possibility that viable oil and or gas reserves could be discovered near Tampa in the future, but current data indicates that is not likely.
Opponents of fracking argue that the water required for this technology could reduce our groundwater supply (which supplies our drinking water), cause sinkholes, contaminate groundwater and drinking water through spills and well bore malfunctions, disrupt natural habitat for the Florida panther, and cause earthquakes. Proponents counter by saying that: contamination of ground water resulting from fracking is caused by bad practices, not a bad process; earthquakes are not found in all areas where fracking is done; fracking uses less water and produces less waste water than traditional methods; fracking is good for the economy, with average oil field salaries in excess of $100,000; and property values increase near fracking sites as demand for housing outstrips supply.
Regardless of one’s stance, we are a nation that is dependent upon fracking. The American Petroleum Institute states that 80% of current natural gas wells have been fracked. Fracking has caused a surge in supply, which, in turn, has lowered the cost of natural gas for consumers and hurried along the conversion of coal burning power plants to ones powered by cleaner burning natural gas. In Florida, approximately 60% of our electrical power plants are natural gas-fired which has lowered our greenhouse gas, sulfur dioxide, and particulate emissions. Lastly, as of 2016, over 50% of US oil output is produced via fracking. In our race to produce the 19 million barrels of oil the US consumes each day, the US has increased its production of fracked oil from 102,000 barrels per day in 2000 to 4.3 million barrels per day in 2015. In simple terms, this means that roughly 1 out of every 4 to 5 times we fill up our car with gasoline, it is filled with gasoline derived from fracking. Also, let’s not forget that oil is used to make other items such as plastic, paint, sunscreen, and other consumer products.
In any free market economy, companies exist to make a profit by supplying a consumer with a good or service which they demand. As a society, we want our goods and services to be as inexpensive as possible. We don’t want an electric bill that bankrupts us each summer. We don’t want to return to an era of $4 per gallon of gasoline. So, businesses and governments do everything they can to supply what we want. One of the ways we get cheap electricity and gasoline is through fracking.
All of this tells us there are two ways to stop fracking in Florida or elsewhere in the US. The first is to apply the three R’s of environmentalism: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. If we reduce our consumption of oil and gas, there won’t be such a demand for it. As demand decreases, supplies of fracked oil and gas (which is relatively expensive to produce) will dwindle. Where we can’t reduce our consumption, we need to make sure we are reusing (e.g. used motor oil can be used as a lubricant). When reuse is not possible, we need to recycle so that, for example, recycled motor oil can find new life as fuel oil.
The second way to stop fracking in Florida is to elect legislators who do not support fracking. However, if we take only the second approach, we do nothing to reduce our own demand for energy produced through fracking. We are essentially saying it is ok for fracking to continue in other places like Texas and North Dakota, as long as we get our cheap electricity and gas in Florida. By banning fracking in Florida, we would outsource our fracking to other places, but we would not reduce the environmental consequences of the practice. The alternative to the “not in my backyard” approach is to ban fracking nationwide and deal with the resulting price spike.
As things stand today, it does not appear to make much sense for companies to go after the roughly 16 million gallons of frackable oil in Florida as it would only meet US oil demand for less than a single day. Since we rely so heavily on groundwater for our drinking water supply, the gains of fracking in Florida don’t appear worth the potential risk. However, oil and gas are finite resources that we will inevitably run out of someday. If we don’t reduce our consumption and invest in alternative energy technology now, fracking in Florida will look attractive to future generations as their supplies of oil and gas dwindle. The future of fracking is in our hands. Every time we turn on the light switch or turn the ignition in our car, we are casting a dollar vote.