March 11, 2019Jim Turner

Ben Albritton
TALLAHASSEE --- A move to ban “fracking” in Florida advanced Monday in the Senate with some oil-drilling protections for the Everglades, but not more comprehensive language sought by environmentalists.

The Senate Agriculture Committee voted 3-2 along party lines to approve a measure (SPB 7064) by Chairman Ben Albritton that would meet Gov. Ron DeSantis’ call to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting large volumes of fluids into rock formations at a “high rate” of pressure to help release natural gas and oil.

Sen. Doug Broxson, a Gulf Breeze Republican who voted for the proposal, expressed concern that the ban could impact the industry. Broxson noted that while the fracking technique has not been employed in the state, Florida has long had oil drilling in parts of the Panhandle and Southwest Florida.

“Florida has very limited resources as far as what is in the ground,” Broxson said. “What we’ve done is safe and responsible. And let’s don’t do anything to interrupt what we’ve done right for the last 60 years.”

While adamantly opposed to fracking, environmentalists have opposed Albritton’s bill because it doesn’t address a technique called “matrix acidizing.”

The acidizing technique utilizes many of the same chemicals as used in hydraulic fracking, but it dissolves rocks with acid instead of fracturing them with pressurized liquid.

Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach, said by not prohibiting the acidizing technique, as well as hydraulic fracturing, the proposal continues to be a “risky proposition” for the state’s fragile ecosystem.

“I don’t understand why we are taking chances, Oklahoma has, as we heard last week, has fracking going on and for the first time in their history they’ve got 2,000 earthquakes between the years 2015 and 2017,” Rader said. “I know there is a little bit of debate that it is due to fracking or not, but the majority of the debate believes that it is.”

Before voting, the committee made a change proposed by Albritton, R-Wauchula, that would impose additional state Department of Environmental Protection reviews on oil exploration within the Everglades Protection Area, along with increasing permitting costs and penalties.

Albritton’s amendment came after the 1st District Court of Appeal last month ruled that a Broward County landowner should receive a permit for exploratory drilling on about five acres of land in the Everglades. DeSantis’ administration, Broward County and the city of Miramar are asking for a rehearing in the appeals court.

Albritton said his proposal wouldn’t prohibit the drilling permits.

“At the end of the day, the courts have ruled that they can drill there, it really doesn’t leave us with very many options,” Albritton said. “My goal with this amendment was to provide for additional cost and safety measures, if they so choose to expand the drilling in that area.”

Proposals to ban fracking have repeatedly emerged in recent years but have not passed. Groups such as the Florida Petroleum Council have opposed the proposals, contending that fracking is safe, can boost production and help hold down energy costs for consumers.

But Albritton’s proposed ban gained traction this year after DeSantis in January released a list of environmental proposals that included opposition to hydraulic fracturing.

Opponents of Albritton’s proposal, many of whom contend they will remain opposed to the current bill if it doesn’t address “all forms of fracking,” argue fracking threatens Florida’s already-stressed water supplies, can impact agricultural production and can cause environmental damage.

David Cullen, a lobbyist for Sierra Club Florida, said even the Everglades amendment includes loopholes, noting a prohibition on access corridors and drilling pads through sensitive areas would continue to allow such uses when “reasonable and prudent alternatives are not available.”

“In other words, we get to do whatever we want to do in the Everglades, one way or another,” Cullen said of oil companies.

Albritton’s proposal is similar to a House bill (HB 7029) that has started moving forward. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, has proposed a bill (SB 314) that would ban hydraulic fracturing and matrix acidizing.
DeSantis focused heavily on now-familiar priorities such as the environment and education during Tuesday’s time at the podium.

The governor touted issues that he has discussed during appearances across the state since taking office Jan. 8. They included efforts to improve water quality, expand school choice and prevent so-called sanctuary cities.

“Let’s fight the good fight, let’s finish the race, let’s keep the faith so that when Floridians look back on the fruits of this session, they will see it as one of our state’s finest hours,” he said in the address, the traditional start to the legislative session.

Some of DeSantis’ actions, such as an initiative to improve water quality, have generally received bipartisan support. That initiative came after parts of Southeast Florida and Southwest Florida were plagued by red tide and toxic algae last year. DeSantis quickly focused on the environmental efforts during the State of the State.

“Florida is blessed with some of the nation’s finest natural resources,” he said. “We’re the fishing and boating capital of the United States. Our beaches bring millions of tourists to our state each and every year. The state’s unique natural environment is central to our economy, our quality of life and our identity as Floridians. I’m proud to have taken swift and bold action to protect our natural resources and improve Florida’s water quality.”

DeSantis also used part of his speech to tout his decision to suspend Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, who was harshly criticized for how his office handled the deadly mass shooting last year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. DeSantis replaced Israel with Gregory Tony, but Israel has appealed his suspension to the Senate, which has the power to reinstate or remove elected officials, and is fighting the ouster in court.

DeSantis noted that Israel’s suspension will come before the Senate soon.

“Why any senator would want to thumb his nose at the Parkland families and to eject Sheriff Tony, who is doing a great job and has made history as the first African-American sheriff in Broward history, is beyond me,” the governor said.

But Galvano, who appointed former Rep. Dudley Goodlette as a special master to oversee Israel’s appeal and to make recommendations, wasn’t comfortable with the governor’s comment about the Israel case.

“Look, he has every right to suspend him and has his reasons for doing so. But the Senate also has a role, and we’re going to do it right. We’re going to have due process and we’re going to vet through the suspension and we’ll make a decision,” Galvano said, adding he’s asked senators “not to prejudge” Israel’s case. “I’ve said this before. We’re not just going to be a rubber stamp for the governor.”


The Senate might not give DeSantis an automatic seal of approval on every issue, but the upper chamber bowed to the governor two days after the session began, overwhelmingly approving a measure that would allow patients to smoke medical marijuana if doctors deem it the proper treatment. The House is expected to take up the bill (SB 182) on Wednesday.

Under the proposal, patients could buy up to 2.5 ounces of medical pot during a 35-day period and would be able to possess up to 4 ounces of cannabis at any given time. Smoking of medical cannabis --- which would have to be purchased from state-authorized operators --- would be banned in public places. And patients under age 18 would be allowed to smoke the treatment only if they are terminally ill and have a second opinion from a board-certified pediatrician.

The quick legislative action comes in response to an ultimatum delivered by DeSantis days after he moved into the governor’s mansion. DeSantis gave the Legislature until March 15 to address the smoking ban. If they don’t act, DeSantis threatened to drop the state’s appeal of a court decision that found the prohibition violates a constitutional amendment that broadly legalized medical marijuana.

The smoking ban was included in a 2017 law aimed at carrying out the amendment, approved by more than 71 percent of voters in 2016.

Several Republican lawmakers, however, bristled at the idea of legalizing smokable pot. Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said that doing away with the ban defies common sense because of the well-known negative health effects of smoking.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who has been instrumental in passage of the state’s medical marijuana laws, argued the legislation erects “reasonable guiderails” that would be lacking if the governor drops the court appeal.

“It’s time to move this discussion from Tallahassee to doctors’ offices around the state of Florida,” he said.


Northwest Florida lawmakers Thursday promoted a $315 million proposal that would make loans available to local governments still reeling from Hurricane Michael and would set up a task force to determine additional state assistance for the storm-battered region.

The wide-ranging Senate bill (SB 1610) came after numerous other proposals have been filed in the House and Senate to provide relief following the deadly Oct. 10 storm that left a path of devastation after making landfall in Mexico Beach and roaring north into Georgia.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents some of the hardest-hit areas, said the intent is to make sure the region is “not forgotten.” So far, about $1.2 billion has been spent by the state to help with cleanup efforts, and local communities have burned through their budgets.

“The people of North Florida are self-sufficient, they’re independent, but there comes a time when government, rightfully so, should step in and help those who work hard,” Montford said.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Florida’s 60-day legislative session kicked off Tuesday, with the usual flowers, pageantry and speeches.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Make sure when you make your decisions with your patients that you do so in their health, in their best interest, and not turn this into some kind of joke.” --- Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, speaking about a move to allow patients to smoke medical marijuana if their doctors deem the treatment is necessary.