If a few state senators had voted differently last February, Miami-Dade County would have had zero control over whether oil companies could build fracking wells on county soil. That's because the Florida Senate proposed a bill that would have banned local governments from regulating the controversial oil-drilling process.
Critics blasted the measure, saying it would have given oil companies carte blanche to buy off the state Legislature and start fracking across Florida.
Thankfully, that bill failed. And now Miami-Dade County has formally proposed banning fracking outright. The commission will debate the measure, which would declare fracking illegal in the county zoning code, at its public meeting this Tuesday.
"This is about our water supply," the ordinance's sponsor, Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, tells New Times. "In this kind of acid fracking, the chemicals are potentially very dangerous and not disclosed. The risk of them entering our water supply through our porous limestone substrate is too high."
Almost all of Miami-Dade County sits atop the Biscayne Aquifer, one of the largest sources of drinking water in all of Florida. The aquifer is protected by a thin layer of porous limestone, and independent scientists have agreed for years that if the aquifer were polluted, it would likely remain that way permanently. Fracking in South Florida would require drilling through that aquifer.
During fracking, a mixture of water, sand, and "fracking fluid" is injected underground to break up hard-to-penetrate rock and reach oil and natural gas underneath. As it stands, the chemicals used in fracking fluid remain "trade secrets," and oil companies are not required to disclose them to the public. If the well leaks, it could spill thousands of gallons of potentially harmful, unknown chemicals into the aquifer.
Fracking proponents — who are mostly either members of the oil industry or pro-industry Republicans such as Gov. Rick Scott — say the use of fracking in America has successfully brought down the worldwide price of oil and created thousands of new American jobs.
But while fracking has led to a drop in oil prices, a number of studies have shown that the jobs fracking wells create are either fewer than oil companies project or vanish once wells dry up. As the fracking boom in North Dakota wanes, several fracking-based "boomtowns" have already fallen into disarray.
Fracking is also linked to earthquakes. There's now a quake problem in fracking-heavy Oklahoma even though that state has historically never had an earthquake issue.
So Levine Cava's legislation — which the county commission first discussed in June before amending a small section of the bill — would ban fracking outright by making it illegal in the zoning code. County zoning ordinances would be amended to ban "well stimulation for oil and gas exploration."
Importantly, the bill does make a small carve-out for variances that "would not be contrary to the public interest" or when enforcing the new law would "result in unnecessary hardship," among other factors. The County commission would get to approve all of those variances — so if the bill passes, expect some wealthy oil companies to put forth some exceptional effort to persuade the county to let them skirt the rules.
Variances won't be approved if they cause "structural damage to buildings," impacts to drinking water, or "increased demand on water resources." Variances also won't be granted if the project could leak chemicals or natural gas.
County Mayor Carlos Gimenez's office has voiced its support for the ban. Deputy Mayor Jack Osterholt wrote a letter to the commission this week backing the measure.
"Fracking in an urbanized county such as ours may have an adverse impact on our residents, economy, environment, and regional wildlife," he wrote.
Broward County passed its own fracking ban earlier this year. A private company, Kanter Real Estate LLC, had filed an application to drill an "exploratory well" in the Everglades west of Miramar — but if Kanter finds oil, it won't be allowed to frack anywhere in that county. Oil companies have, for decades, attempted to drill for oil under the Everglades.
Levine Cava, meanwhile, says she hasn't yet heard of any organized opposition to Miami-Dade's measure. In 2015, she persuaded the county to pass a measure urging the state to ban fracking in all of Florida.
"We don’t need to produce the gas or oil locally," she told New Times. "The small potential benefit to a few landowners is far outweighed by the potential risk to the general public."
Here's a copy of the proposed ban: