FRACKING CONFRONTS FLORIDA: Profitable but controversial technique of drilling for oil and gas proposed here.
By Mary Wozniak
South Florida may be ripe for fracking.
The controversial process of drilling for oil and natural gas is pumping billions into government coffers, residents' pockets and energy company bank accounts across the country, creating thousands of jobs, reducing reliance on foreign energy - and causing environmental concerns.
Fracking, formally called hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting a well with a cocktail of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure to fracture rock and access previously untapped reserves.
A fracking frenzy has swept through North Dakota, Pennsylvania, New York, Wyoming, Colorado, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Ohio, Montana, Texas and elsewhere. In Williston, N.D., Mayor Ward Koeser said fracking brought the state $1.5 to $2 billion in the last year alone. 'It's been intense,' he said.
Fracking is inevitable in South Florida, maybe within a year, said Ed Pollister, owner/operator of a small company called Century Oil, with offices in Immokalee and Michigan.
Pollister said he's discussed his desire to frack with officials from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
'At some point if I don't do it, somebody else will,' he said.
Alico Inc. also could have a future in fracking. The company discovered as much as 94 tons of possible fracking sand in Hendry County.
Fracking fever is fueled by new technologies developed over the last 10 years that make it economically feasible and profitable to drill for previously untouchable sources of oil and gas.
But the economic boom has its price. Environmentalists and other critics say fracking can contaminate groundwater and a 2011 congressional report says the fracking cocktail can include a combination of any of 750 chemicals and other components.
Fracking has even been blamed for several small earthquakes in Ohio. 'I think that it's something that is, without adequate regulation and management of the fluids and without adequate water supplies to do the fracking, it's something that needs to be avoided for Southwest Florida at least for the foreseeable future,' said Andrew McElwaine, CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida in Naples.
Florida Department of Environmental Protection officials insist fracking is not on the horizon.
'No, fracking is not being proposed and there are no permit applications to conduct fracking,' said Calvin Alvarez, chief of the bureau of mining and minerals regulation in the DEP's Division of Water Resources Management.
But a public records request by The News-Press, asking for emails and documents exchanged by DEP officials from January 2010 to the present, show despite growing interest in fracking, the agency seems late to awake to it and pushing to catch up.
In a Sept. 21, 2011, email, Alvarez wrote: 'Fracking is not a factor in South Florida.' Nearly nine months later, Ed Garrett, oil and gas section administrator, responded June 6 to a group email asking for proposed EPA rules that would impact agency programs. The EPA has recently been trying to strengthen air and water discharge rules related to fracking, Garrett wrote, 'but Florida doesn't frac.' That changed six weeks later in the weekly oil and gas section notes for activities ending July 20, which stated: 'Conference call to Ed Pollister (Century Oil) on Wednesday 7/18 about P-1335 (Permit 1335) and imminent fracking job in S. Florida.
Pollister is going to give us a thorough proposal as soon as he can. He has some references from similar formations in Mexico. He said that he would like to drill in the next six months.' 'I made a request,' Pollister said. 'I told them what I was considering doing, and they said they had never done this.' Pollister did not go through with his July plan. He now wants to try to make more money from directional drilling, which means drilling at an angle instead of vertically. But he said fracking is on his horizon.
In the effort to get up to speed over the last year, the DEP looked into a fracking webinar offered by the National Association of Environmental Professionals, 'to educate those who are not presently involved in fracking issues,' wrote organizer Paul Looney in an email to a DEP official. The DEP also crafted fracking FAQs, issued a fracking background memo and monitored the progress of new rules proposed by the EPA and the Department of the Interior.
In an April 19 email, Jonathan Arthur, state geologist and director of the Office of the Florida Geological Survey, suggested writing an article 'on Fracking 101 and its potential future in Florida.' The article would be
called 'What the Frack?' he wrote, and noted 'OK … maybe too edgy.' The DEP receives calls about possible fracking. However, 'Talk is cheap,' Garrett said.
The agency has received 'seven or eight inquiries total' about fracking in the last year, wrote Patrick Gillespie, a DEP spokesman, in an email. 'The department will occasionally receive calls from legislators, the public and other sources as well about the topic.' Asked if inquiries about fracking have taken DEP officials by surprise, Gillespie wrote, 'No. Fracking has been a possibility in Florida for years.' Fracking is allowable under DEP rules and regulations, Alvarez said. 'The DEP understands that fracking is of a controversial nature.' In a Sept. 27, 2011 'frack memo,' Garrett wrote DEP statutes provide the authority 'to conserve and control the natural oil and gas resources of the state and to safeguard public health and welfare.'
If fracking is proposed, 'we would require documentation sufficient to assure that the work will be carried out safely and our inspectors will verify that the work is conducted as proposed,' he wrote.
But the Lower Sunniland's geology is not conducive to fracking, Alvarez and Garrett said.
In South Florida, oil drilling has been going on in the Upper Sunniland Trend for decades. The trend is 150 miles long and 20 miles wide, stretching from Fort Myers to Miami. It also runs through the 729,000-acre Big Cypress Preserve, the western end of the Everglades ecosystem.
Now the focus is on the lower, unexplored part of the Sunniland, at a depth reaching up to 17,000 feet. The rock is limestone and dolomite. 'Fracking can be a questionable technique for oil and gas recovery,' Alvarez said.
Also, there is little data available about the Lower Sunniland regarding feasibility of fracking, Gillespie said In the 'frack memo,' Garrett wrote even if frack jobs were commonplace in Florida, the fracking would be too
deep to affect potable groundwater. All of Florida's oil production comes from 12,000 to 17,000 feet deep, he said. There are several aquifers at various depths no more than about 2,000 feet deep. In addition, the cap rock above the oil reserve protects the aquifers from contamination, he wrote.
Most of the mineral rights in the Sunniland Trend are owned by Collier Resources, namesake company of Barron Collier.. The company owns 800,000 acres of mineral rights across Southwest Florida, including 400,000 in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
Alvarez said Collier Resources has not asked about fracking. Andrea MacClendon, Collier spokeswoman, said in an email any detailed questions about oil exploration and production techniques are best answered by the production companies that lease the mineral rights.
Los Angeles-based Breitburn Energy leases the majority of Collier's mineral rights and 37,109 acres in the Sunniland Trend. Greg Brown, executive vice president, also said the geology of the Lower Sunniland doesn't lend itself to fracking. 'We do not have plans for fracking in the Sunniland,' he said.
Others believe the Lower Sunniland is full of promise.
Brandt Temple, president and founder of Sunrise Exploration & Production of New Orleans, said his research proves it.
'Oil and gas producers are in the infant stages of a new liquids-rich play in the South Florida basin that could revive the oil industry in rural-agricultural parts of South Florida,' he wrote in a March story in Oil & Gas Journal.
'Over the past two years we have conducted more petrophysical tests and accumulated more shale data on Sunniland than the rest of industry combined. Our tests indicate an impressive mix of reservoir and source rock properties that point to an overlooked oil resource play,' he wrote.
Brandt, a geologist, said he has put together eight-year leases for 135,000 acres in Lee, Collier and Hendry counties. The land is not in the Big Cypress National Preserve, and it is not being leased from Collier Resources, he said.
When asked how he will explore his 135,000 acres, Brandt said he wants to try less expensive, conventional methods first. 'We're not going to come out of the chute fracking at all,' he said.
Temple is looking for an oil industry partner, and since May, 40 companies have signed a non-compete agreement to look at the deal, he said. 'I'm not giving up on this. I'm a gambler, but I've got science behind it.' David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said fracking has 'caused the rewriting of textbooks about America's oil and gas potential.' But he declined to say whether fracking is coming to Florida. 'I have no idea. I don't want to go there.
'I don't evaluate technology for use in specific areas,' Mica said. 'It's not been used in Florida as yet. It would be frontiertype technology.' However, 'I think it's very critical for your readers to know that the state permitting agency for the DEP is very qualified to evaluate permit applications and technologies, and I'm confident if someone should file for a permit it would be analyzed and reviewed appropriately with the best
science available,' Mica said.