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Fracking-like drilling near Everglades raises alarms

WASHINGTON - A Texas company has been caught using fracking-like blasting methods to drill for oil near the Everglades, raising alarms from state officials and inflaming a long-simmering controversy over energy exploration in the midst of a cherished ecosystem.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., urged federal officials to investigate. The state fined the company and demanded a temporary halt to five new exploratory wells.

And the fracking-like episode drew widespread attention to an emerging oil rush at the western edge of the Everglades, rousing opposition from environmentalists across the state who worry about the impact on water quality and wildlife.

“This is our watershed,” said Vickie Machado, of Fort Lauderdale, a Florida organizer for Food & Water Watch. “They are using millions of gallons of clean water, mixing it with chemicals with known carcinogens, and pumping it underground to break up the protected rock formations out there. The potential is pretty scary.”

State officials last month cited the Dan A. Hughes Co., of Beeville, Texas, for using an “enhanced extraction procedure” in December akin to fracking without a permit in defiance of a cease-and-desist order to stop the practice. The Department of Environmental Protection said the enhanced procedure, which some call fracking, “had not previously been used in Florida.”

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, blasts open rock formations through high-pressure injections of chemicals and water while filling fissures with sand to hold them open, drawing out trapped oil or natural gas. Environmentalists scorn the practice and some communities are considering banning it, largely because it produces large amounts of toxic wastewater.

The Hughes Co. last year asked the state for permission to use high-pressure injection of dissolving acids at a production well in Collier County. The environmental protection officials, concerned about this new procedure, told the company not to move forward but later found that it did anyway.

The department slapped the company with a $25,000 fine for “unauthorized actions,” which the agency called the maximum civil penalty under Florida law, and ordered it to hire an independent expert approved by the department to monitor groundwater near the site. Then on May 2, under pressure from the state, the company agreed to stop drilling five new wells until a review of the impact of the fracking-like episode is completed, probably in December.

Spokesman David Blackmon said the company is “confident the results are going to show that the groundwater hasn’t been negatively impacted” and that its operations do not pose a threat to contamination.

“The way these wells are constructed, there are multiple layers - five layers of concrete and heavy steel - that prevent any of the fluids going through the well bore from contacting the groundwater formation,” Blackmon said.

The company denies that the new practice amounts to fracking because it uses an acidic solution instead of the usual fracking chemicals and a “modest volume” of water and sand.

But state officials remain wary of the practice. And Sen. Nelson has asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to review the groundwater data once it is submitted by the company and state officials.

To environmental activists, already concerned that oil drilling will contaminate water supplies and damage the Everglades, the episode seemed to confirm their worst fears.

“It doesn’t reassure many people that they are pumping acid into the ground under high pressure to break up rock and draw out more oil,” said Matthew Schwartz, of Lake Worth, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “Those liquids could move around laterally, but also up and down and into the drinking water supply.”

Energy companies have been extracting small amounts of oil on lands near the western Everglades since the 1940s without a major spill. Some 162 wells are operating in Florida, and the state has granted 37 drilling permits over the past five years.

New drilling techniques, the high price of oil and the depletion of deposits elsewhere have prompted energy companies to intensify the exploration while looking for black gold under deepwater areas offshore and near delicate ecosystems like the Everglades. The Hughes Co. well is within a few miles of the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.

The company also is drilling on a site adjacent to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. It has asked the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to dig an injection well next to the site to store wastewater dredged up from the drilling, a bid strongly opposed by many homeowners in Naples and activists across the Everglades watershed.

The fracking-like episode “shows us how far they will go to get the oil out. They will even break the law, knowing the fine is so nominal that they can just add it into the cost of drilling,” said Karen Dwyer, of Naples, who has organized opposition to drilling. “Hopefully, there will be enough local, state and national attention so we can shut down Dan A. Hughes permanently in Florida before we get a catastrophic accident. We don’t need an onshore BP oil spill that could wipe out our Everglades.”

The Hughes well, 13,500 feet deep, is on private farming land owned by a Collier family company that has leased mineral rights to several oil companies exploring the region.

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