The state House approved a bill Wednesday that would create regulations for fracking despite strong opposition from Democrats who said the oil and gas drilling practice could contaminate groundwater, damage the environment, make people sick and hurt Florida's tourism industry.
The House voted 73-45 in favor of the bill (HB 191) after more than an hour of debate, with only a handful of Republicans joining Democrats in opposition.
The bill calls for the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct a $1 million study on how fracking would affect surface and groundwater and underground geology and then set regulations for the fracking industry. It will also look at how water and chemicals will be disposed of and any potential for contamination once a well has been plugged.
Supporters argued that fracking, which uses water and chemicals to blast through rock to get to oil and gas underneath, is already allowed under Florida law and the bill would simply make sure it's done safely. They downplayed the risks involved in the process.
"Wishing for a zero risk process or some absolute safety is not possible," said Republican Rep. Cary Pigman, a medical doctor from Avon Park. "Oil and natural gas production is an untidy process. So is all of mining. So is farming. So is industry. Yet our society needs energy, we need food and we need the finished products made from natural resources."
Democrats listed problems with contamination and spills in states that allow fracking. They also said wells often quickly run dry, leaving damage behind and no long lasting economic benefit. And they said that a state prone to sink holes shouldn't be blasting holes below the earth's surface.
"In order for the fracking industry to thrive in this state, Florida will have to be drilled so many times that it will become more porous than Swiss cheese," said Democratic Rep. Dwight Dudley of St. Petersburg.
He also said fracking will put the state's multi-billion dollar tourism industry at risk by threatening springs and other waterways.
"Let us not injure or kill the golden goose in pursuit of fool's gold," he said.
Democrats argued that lawmakers should ban, not regulate fracking.
Republican Rep. Shawn Harrison of Tampa said that fracking represents an emerging technology that can help make the country energy independent.
"We owe it to our constituents to fully explore whether this new technology can be safely done in Florida, where it can be done in Florida and if it can be done to protect our citizens while reaching for the goal that we all share, which is energy independence," he said.
Florida has several active oil and gas wells in the southwest peninsula and in the Florida Panhandle near Pensacola. The state is currently reviewing five applications to drill.
A similar Senate bill (SB 318) has one more committee stop before it goes to the chamber floor.