County passes on pressing
for stronger oil drilling laws,
turns deaf ear to the public

April 17

By Robert Moher, President and CEO
Conservancy of Southwest Florida

Collier County has become the epicenter of Florida’s oil drilling regulation debate.

As the 2015 legislative session draws to a close, state leaders, environmental groups and the media, as well as we, the residents of Southwest Florida, are looking to Collier County for guidance on what is widely recognized as the No. 1 issue our county will face this year — oil drilling legislation and regulation.

It is important to remember how this all began. In December 2013, Collier County was the site of unauthorized fracking-like activity at the Collier-Hogan well. As news slowly became public regarding this first-ever incident in the state, the response from our community was unequivocal — the public was shocked and outraged that fracking-like drilling was taking place so close to our groundwater supplies without any significant local or state oversight.

The Conservancy of Southwest Florida, along with a number of other environmental and civic organizations, understood that powerful interests were driving the desire to extract this resource in ways that were unproven in Southwest Florida’s environmentally sensitive and unique geology and hydrology. Action was needed.

The Conservancy set upon an exhaustive course — researching the facts, conducting analysis and reviewing countless documents. We engaged technical, regulatory and legal experts to assist us in understanding how these types of oil extraction techniques could impact our environment, if not properly regulated. Based on the findings of these experts, we formulated an advocacy plan to help shape the legislation needed to provide meaningful protection to our fresh drinking water supply.

The Collier County Commission also expressed exasperation at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for failing to properly manage oil extraction operations. Commissioners hired an unbiased professional to perform a study and make recommendations about necessary legislative reform. Commissioners publicly proclaimed they would seek to ensure these recommendations were put in place this year.

Now, let’s fast forward to this past week’s County Commission meeting.

On numerous occasions, commissioners told citizens their top priority this year is stronger oil drilling regulations. Yet their actions at this past week’s commission meeting again show they are not fulfilling that promise. Citizens deserve to be able to give their input and should be treated in a fair and transparent manner — particularly on matters that clearly impact community interests and shared resources.

Commissioner Penny Taylor asked her fellow commissioners why the county’s lobbyist had been directed to “stand down” from this issue of pursuing meaningful oil regulations at the state level. No commissioner responded to her question, nor denied that was the directive given to the lobbyist.

Instead, the commissioners did something unprecedented. They removed Taylor’s agenda item to discuss the issue of oil and gas regulation and the related allowance for public comment on that subject.

The other four commissioners intentionally deviated from standard protocols at the April 14 public meeting to again thwart public comment. More than 30 people had intended to speak. Many took time off of work and other responsibilities because this issue was so important to them. Rather than welcoming the public’s input, commissioners eliminated public comments on the noticed agenda item and moved the general public comment time without telling those who had signed up to speak.

Then, commissioners ended the whole meeting hours early, before the standard 1 p.m. general public comment period.

As the state watches and waits for Collier County’s perspective on Florida’s oil drilling regulation, our commissioners directed our lobbyist (our voice) to stay silent.

Time is of the essence. This meeting was the final opportunity for the county to decide to aggressively engage its Tallahassee lobbyists to advocate on behalf of our community’s needs. Not doing so is an inexcusable missed opportunity to get the basic safeguards needed to protect public health, water supplies, and our environment here in Southwest Florida.

Meanwhile, the currently proposed oil and gas bills do not provide the minimum safeguards needed for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida to support them.

Because the majority of Collier County commissioners have decided not to be your voice in Tallahassee on this issue, citizens who care about protecting water resources in our community will have to communicate for themselves that they oppose these unacceptably weak oil and gas bills that do little more than provide false assurances.

Go to today for information about how to send a quick email to your legislators. Tell legislators to stop the passage of legislation that would continue to allow irresponsible oil drilling in our community that puts public health and water supplies at risk.

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