FORT MYERS — Hundreds of environmentally concerned citizens attended the Florida Fracking Summit Nov. 2 to learn about the threats to the environment and what they can do to help prevent them.
The room remained silent throughout the day as the crowd listened intently to expert speakers at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. The serious and technical agenda held the attention of the audience comprised of college students, working adults and retirees.
The summit, sponsored by Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Natural Resource Defense Council, Earthjustice and Center for Biological Diversity, featured a lineup of 11 scientist and activist speakers. Keynote speaker and fracking expert Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, went from being an industry insider – he was a principal investigator of research and development projects for institutions and companies including the National Science Foundation, NASA, Exxon, General Dynamics, Boeing and more – to an outspoken fracking opponent.
“Fracking is a global issue that creates air and water contamination and affects climate change,” said Ingraffea, Cornell professor of engineering and senior fellow of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy. “I hope to continue the education of this group so when they engage with regulators and legislators they do so knowledgeably. People in charge of making the rules don’t know the science and it makes them vulnerable to non-science influences, like lobbyists.”
Ingraffea presented facts and figures, graphs and charts. Laser pointer in hand, he stood before the audience like the professor he is and explained the dangers of fracking in plain language.
“We are citizens of the world and the issues we face are not particular to Florida,” he said. “As far as we know, there are 4,100 oil and gas wells drilled in Florida. Likely there are hundreds more we may never know about until they start to leak.”
The first Florida oil well was drilled by Humble Oil Company in 1943 near Immokalee in the Sunniland Trend, an oil field that spans from Fort Myers to Miami. Much of Sunniland is located in the Big Cypress Preserve not far from the Big Cypress Reservation.
Florida’s oil industry is small compared to others in the U.S. There are less than 100 producing oil and gas wells statewide that account for income of about $15 million per month, a paltry amount by industry standards.
“There is always someone making money,” Ingraffea said. “As usual, a few will get rich and we will have destroyed the Everglades in the process.”
In Florida, 32 counties and 48 cities have either banned fracking or passed resolutions opposing it.
The process of finding and extracting natural gas requires millions of gallons of water per well, which is forced through the rock through fracturing, or fracking. An alternate method, matrix acidizing, dissolves the rock to create channels for oil to flow through. The only difference is the method, not the outcome or the amount of water and toxic chemicals used.
The natural gas boom began in 2008 and went bust by 2015. Ingraffea believes the shale natural gas boom worsened climate change. He cited hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers that are overwhelmingly critical of shale gas, including one written by himself and a colleague at Cornell in 2011. That paper concluded that modern oil and gas are far worse than coal because more methane gas escapes into the atmosphere.
“When shale was approved in 2009, no science was available,” Ingraffea said. “The decisions were all based on industry lobbying.”
Since then, 256 scientific articles have been published, most of which say fracking contaminates water and air and has a negative impact on human health. Ingraffea believes its impact needs to be minimized with more viable alternatives.
“Shale is the most expensive and extreme form of energy invented by humans,” he said. “Had we not gone to shale we would have had more renewables today. Shale stopped that progress.”
During the question and answer period following Ingraffea’s presentation, Tyrell Hall, legislative assistant to Florida Senator Dwight Bullard, asked how to change the minds of legislators who refused to let an anti-fracking bill out of committee for a Senate vote during the 2016 session.
“Show them the papers so they can see what scientists say,” Ingraffea said. “There is no excuse for ignorance anymore; there is ample science now.”
The science, however, doesn’t stop companies from exploring for oil and gas.
In 1974, Big Cypress Preserve was created when the Collier family donated about 160,000 acres they owned. The family retained mineral rights to the land, which allows them to lease it out for oil and gas exploration. Breitburn Energy Partners has operated a few wells in Big Cypress since 2007.
Texas-based Burnett Oil Company received approval in May from the National Park Service to search for oil and gas in 110 square miles of Big Cypress Preserve using seismic testing. In July, a coalition of six environmental groups – including all of the sponsors of the summit plus the South Florida Wildlands Association – filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers to stop Burnett.
Seismic testing uses heavy off-road equipment to pound the ground with large steel plates. The coalition claims the activity could be catastrophic for the Florida panther and other wildlife and that drilling could endanger South Florida’s water supply. According to the NPS’s environmental assessment, no significant impact would result from the seismic survey.
“Florida is on the front line of climate change,” said speaker Scott Smith, chief technology officer and investigator at Water Defense, a non-profit organization dedicated to clean water. “Whoever controls energy controls destiny. If your government doesn’t believe in climate change then organize, organize, organize.”
Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, closed out the summit with some practical tips for communicating with those in power, such as legislators and regulators.
She advised those who want to get involved to know the proper decorum and etiquette, use the right language to sound credible, understand an issue completely and speak unemotionally without yelling.
“This is our moment,” Hecker said. “They [the oil companies] aren’t dug in here yet; it hasn’t progressed to a point that we can’t control it. It is still an imminent threat but citizens are complacent because they don’t think it’s a real thing. We have a window of opportunity during the next legislative session; this is our best chance to get something positive done.”