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Oil company drilling in sanctuary fined $25K for violation that could be fracking

By Craig Pittman

The Texas company that stirred controversy by applying to drill for oil in Florida panther habitat was doing more with one of its wells than what its state permit allowed.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Friday afternoon revealed that it had fined the Dan A. Hughes Co. $25,000 for violating its permit. The violation involves using a process that sounds like fracking — although the word "fracking" appears nowhere in either Friday's DEP news release or the legal paperwork about the fine from 10 days earlier.

Instead, the 12-page consent order, dated April 8, says DEP officials became concerned about a "workover operation" that the Texas company launched without DEP permission in late December 2013. The well site is on an island surrounded by the National Audubon Society's Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a major nesting site for wood storks. DEP officials told Hughes to stop right away.

Determining exactly what the company did is difficult because the DEP censored that part of the order, labeling it "a confidential trade secret."

However, the DEP news release says Hughes "proposed an enhanced extraction procedure that had not previously been used in Florida. The company proposed to inject a dissolving solution at sufficient pressure to achieve some openings in the oil-bearing rock formation that would be propped open with sand in pursuit of enhancing oil production."

That matches the dictionary definition of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking: "the forcing open of fissures in subterranean rocks by introducing liquid at high pressure, especially to extract oil or gas." Florida Petroleum Council executive director David Mica said it may mean Hughes was fracking, or it could mean it used one of several similar procedures.