Environmentalists in Florida are celebrating the failure of an oil industry-backed bill they say would have opened a pathway to fracking in the ecologically sensitive Everglades wetlands.
State lawmakers unexpectedly dropped the measure in a hearing in Tallahassee on Tuesday, just as they were about to begin debate on the controversial, high-pressure drilling practice, bowing instead to a groundswell of public opinion.
More than 40 local authorities around Florida had already passed ordinances or resolutions banning fracking for oil and natural gas on their lands, a power they would have been forced to cede to a single state agency had the bill become law.
“It’s a very good day for democracy, and a good day for the Florida Everglades,” said Kim Ross of Floridians Against Fracking, a grassroots alliance of activists that helped organize numerous rallies in recent months, including a 100-strong protest at the capitol building on Tuesday.
“The people of Florida don’t want fracking and almost 70% are represented by cities and counties that don’t,” Ross said, adding that the bill “really awakened a sleeping giant”.
“This is only a small part because the Everglades needs so much more,” she added. “There are all kinds of water and pollution issues. But for today at least this is a great and wonderful moment.”
The bill’s sponsor, Republican state senator Garrett Richter, had presented the measure as one that brought more safeguards to residents, in part through a $1m study by the Florida department of environmental protection. The study would have examined the mechanics and chemicals of hydraulic fracking, and the possible effect on drinking water, and Richter said it would have guided new rules to govern the industry. He also argued there would have been a moratorium on exploratory drilling, at least until the study was complete and the rules drawn up.
Conceding defeat, Richter said that fracking in Florida was determined by the low price of oil, and promised that the issue would surface again. “When prices go up oil companies will produce more oil to meet demand, and that’s when we’ll see fracking again in this state,” he said.But opponents insisted that no study was needed to see the threat that heavy drilling poses to Florida’s porous and fragile limestone bedrock – and to the underground Biscayne Aquifer, the only source of fresh water for more than three million south Florida residents.
“This bill was a well-intended piece of legislation,” Richter added. “I’d hoped to give our regulators more statutory tools to do their job, I wanted to see a stronger and more effective set of laws. This is a controversial subject, controversy will continue, and I dare say will draw even more concern when oil supplies drop and prices go up.”
Ross meanwhile told the Guardian that the death of the fracking bill in the state senate was a victory for common sense, and the continuation of the campaign to better protect the Everglades and Florida’s other natural resources.
“We have to keep working until we get what we truly want, a ban on fracking in Florida and a renewable energy infrastructure so we are less dependent on fossil fuels,” she said.