Scott-O-Meter

Enact tougher penalties for violating environmental regulations

"Gov. Scott will propose legislation to increase penalties to ensure fines match the value of Florida’s natural resources, and also provide agencies with the flexibility to analyze the past actions of those seeking environmental permits in Florida."


Updates

Gov. Rick Scott breaks promise to enact tougher environmental penalties

For the second session in a row, Gov. Rick Scott made no progress toward his re-election campaign promise to enact tougher environmental penalties.

"Gov. Scott will propose legislation to increase penalties to ensure fines match the value of Florida's natural resources, and also provide agencies with the flexibility to analyze the past actions of those seeking environmental permits in Florida," Scott promised during his 2014 re-election campaign.

But so far, his priority has been helping businesses avoid fines. There has been one bill intended to increase fines for only a tiny slice of businesses regulated by the environmental department -- oil and gas -- and that has failed.

In 2016, legislators proposed a bill that set rules for "high-pressure well stimulation" -- a controversial type of oil and gas extraction known as fracking. The bill would have increased the civil penalty from $10,000 per day to $25,000 per day for violations that would have harmed the air, water, animals or property.

This year, the oil and gas industry spent nearly $500,000 in donations to legislators' political committees trying to authorize fracking, the Miami Herald found. But ultimately their efforts failed amid local opposition to fracking during an election year.

The bill passed some committees but never made it to a full vote in the Senate or the House and died for the year when the session ended March 11.

We asked spokespersons for Scott and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) if he still plans to pursue his promise. Scott's office deferred to the DEP.

"The Florida Department of Environmental Protection continues to focus on protecting Florida's environment," said Lauren Engel, spokeswoman for DEP. "We believe in prevention -- focusing on what we can do to prevent impacts to our natural resources. Compliance rates across the department's regulatory programs remain at record highs, which can be attributed to concerted and continued outreach efforts to businesses."

The compliance rate was 97 percent in 2015, Engel said.

But the number of enforcement cases opened and penalties assessed under Scott's tenure has nosedived. During Scott's first term, the state's emphasis shifted from prosecuting violations to helping the industry avoid fines. For the 2015 calendar year, DEP assessed about $866,000 penalties combined in 179 cases.

A watchdog group that tracks environmental fines says that many violations result in no enforcement action or only minor fines. In some cases, inspectors are labeling the cases "areas of concern" rather than "violations," said Jerry Phillips, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Florida.

"Under Governor Rick Scott, the number of hazardous waste violation cases brought has plummeted by more than 80 percent and the level of fines assessed has dropped by more than 90 percent," according to a Jan. 21 press release from Public Employees for Professional Responsibility.

Scott still has two more sessions to advocate for legislation to increase penalties for polluters, but so far he hasn't shown any interest. In fact, his administration has a record of trying to help the industry avoid fines.

We rate this Promise Broken.

Sources:

Florida Senate, SB 318, 2016 session

Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Enforcement Statistics, 2000-2014

Public Employees for Professional Responsibility press release, "Illegal profits from polluting Florida go untouched," Jan. 21, 2016

Miami Herald, "Big donations didn't all win big results from Florida Legislature," March 18, 2016

Miami Herald, "Senate committee kills fracking bill, but measure could return," Feb. 25, 2016

Tampa  Bay Times, "Under Scott, Department of Environmental Protection undergoes drastic change," Oct. 18, 2014

Interview, Lauren Engel, Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, March 17, 2016

Interview, Jerry Phillips, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Florida and a former enforcement attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection 1992-1996, March 21, 2016

 

Bill would only increase environmental penalties for tiny fraction of businesses

Gov. Rick Scott's re-election promise to increase penalties for polluters fell short in 2015.

Scott's Department of Environmental Protection pointed to one bill linked to his promise. But that measure failed to pass during the spring legislative session. It was also a bill limited to fracking -- a type of oil and gas extraction -- not overall environmental protection. Oil and gas wells equal less than 1 percent of the 81,000 businesses and entities that DEP regulates, from paper mills to wastewater treatment plants.

SB 1468 called for increasing penalties from the current $10,000 a day to $25,000 per day for oil and gas companies using "high pressure well stimulation" for a variety of violations that would have harmed the air, water or ground. Those violations included not following DEP rules, improper storage of gas, or refusing to allow a state inspection.

The bill followed a controversial drilling project that was later shut down in Collier County, where Scott calls home.

The bill ended up dying without a full vote when the House went home a few days early amid a fight over Medicaid expansion and the budget.

"No oil regulatory or trade secret bills passed of any kind," said Jennifer Hecker, director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, after the session. "No rulemaking from DEP to do anything either."

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, sponsored the 2015 bill and has introduced a similar bill, SB318, for the 2016 session, which starts Jan. 12. The bill is similar to HB191, which passed a House committee Dec. 2.

Richter told PolitiFact Florida that Scott supported the bill in 2015. As for 2016, Richter said, "I don't believe his position on it has changed."

The main purpose of these bills, over the objections of environmentalists and local governments, is to make it easier for oil and gas companies to engage in fracking. The bills would take away the power of local governments to ban fracking and put the power in the hands of the state. The bill requires a $1 million one-year study to determine the impact of the chemicals on the state drinking water supply before rules are written in 2017.

Both the House and Senate versions call for increasing the penalty from $10,000 to $25,000.

Overall, environmental fines have fallen during Scott's tenure compared with his predecessor Gov. Charlie Crist, according to Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has compiled assessment data for a decade.

The amount of fines in 2014 was $1.5 million -- an increase compared to $1.4 million the year before. But it pales in comparison to the record under Crist -- for example the penalties totaled  $13.1 million in 2010, the year before Scott took office.

We asked a spokeswoman for Scott if he supports the bills related to oil and gas company fines. "Gov. Scott will review any legislation that makes it to his desk," Jeri Bustamante told PolitiFact Florida.

We'll see if the fracking legislation passes the Legislature in 2016. But it still falls short of Scott's overall promise to increase environmental penalties. For now, we continue to rate this promise Stalled.

Sources:

Florida Senate, SB 1468, Introduced March 3, 2015

Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, "Report on Enforcement Efforts by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection," Calendar year 2014

PolitiFact Florida, "A misleading ad by NextGen Climate against Rick Scott," Aug. 29, 2014

Interview, Jerry Phillips, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Florida and a former enforcement attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection 1992-1996, July 7, 2015

Interview, Jennifer Hecker, Conservancy of Southwest Florida's Director of Natural Resource Policy, June 24, 2015

Interview, Jeri Bustamante, Gov. Rick Scott spokeswoman, Dec. 10, 2015

Interview, Lauren Engel, Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, Dec. 10, 2015

Interview, Sen. Garrett Richter, Dec. 10, 2015

Fracking bill passes panel, but only addresses tiny slice of companies regulated by DEP

After being criticized by environmentalists for his pro-business policies during his first term, Gov. Rick Scott stepped up his environmental promises for his re-election campaign.

One of those promises was to crack down on polluters by proposing "legislation to increase penalties to ensure fines match the value of Florida's natural resources, and also provide agencies with the flexibility to analyze the past actions of those seeking environmental permits in Florida."

When we asked the Department of Environmental Protection if there was any legislation pending, spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller pointed to SB 1468.

The bill addresses some types of fracking, though it uses the term "high pressure well stimulation" instead of fracking. (Not all techniques using these chemicals use high pressure to create fractures; some use acid instead to dissolve the rock.) The bill defines "high pressure well stimulation" as a procedure that involves injecting more than 100,000 gallons of fluids into a rock formation at a pressure that is high enough to cause fractures to increase oil or gas production. The bill calls for increasing penalties from the current $10,000 a day to $25,000 per day for oil and gas companies that are using certain types of fracking. Those penalties could be for a variety of violations that could harm the air, water or property, such as not following DEP rules, improper storage of gas, or refusing to allow a state inspection. DEP collaborated on the bill with its sponsor, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples.

On March 31, the Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee passed the bill 6-2.

We asked a spokeswoman for Scott, Jeri Bustamante, if he supports the bill and she said "the governor will review any legislation that will come to his desk."

Richter told PolitiFact Florida that Scott "did weigh in on the bill and provided support to DEP."

Richter's bill follows a controversial drilling project that has since shut down in Collier County. In December 2013, Dan A. Hughes used a drilling procedure, even though DEP had asked it to hold off. That led the department to fine Hughes $25,000 and file a lawsuit.

But since the proposal by Dan A. Hughes did not involve using high pressure, it would not have faced the increased fines under this bill, said Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resources at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Richter's bill uses too narrow of a definition of well stimulation "that does not capture all the fracking-type oil extraction techniques that use highly hazardous and toxic chemicals being injected underground," she told PolitiFact Florida.

Hecker also said that the proposed increase in fines may not deter companies that stand to reap millions in profits.

"It's an improvement, but it's a pittance of improvement when you are dealing with oil," she said.

Environmental fines decline under Scott

Scott's promise was about raising penalties in general -- not specifically for oil and gas companies alone. Oil and gas wells equal less than 1 percent of the 81,000 businesses and entities that DEP regulates -- everything from paper mills to wastewater treatment plants.

During Scott's first term, the state's emphasis shifted from prosecuting violations to helping the industry avoid fines. For 2014, the compliance rate was at 95 percent, according to DEP.

We asked a spokeswoman for the DEP and spokespersons for Scott to provide the amounts for each year of his term since DEP's website only shows the amount of fines during Scott's first year in office. We were not able to obtain that information from DEP by our deadline; however, we were able to obtain it from Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which has compiled assessment data for a decade. The data shows a decline in assessments compared to Crist:

 

Year

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

Total number of Assessments

1472

1408

1362

1318

949

528

130

Dollar amount

$12.3 million

$11.7 million

$10.9 million

$13.1 million

$9.3 million

$3.4 million

$1.4 million

 

(PolitiFact Florida rounded the dollar figures)

Florida PEER director Jerry Phillips said he hasn't completed the analysis for 2014, but the total dollar amount assessed grew slightly to about $1.5 million.

"Actually, we've found that the number of enforcement cases and dollars assessed traditionally rise during the last year of a governor's term," Phillips said. "One could speculate that this is because the administration wants to show that it is tough on enforcement going into a reelection campaign."

Scott's promise to enact tougher penalties also included this language: "provide agencies with the flexibility to analyze the past actions of those seeking environmental permits in Florida."

But Phillips noted that DEP already has the authority to consider the history of noncompliance and economic benefit of noncompliance when determining the amount of a penalty (see page 11). Also, the state already has the authority to consider a permit applicant's past history when determining whether to issue a new permit.

We only see evidence of a tiny step here: A senator has proposed increasing the fines for oil and gas companies, and it appears to have the support of Scott's administration. However, we found no evidence that Scott had taken steps to raise penalties for other types of businesses, and oil and gas companies comprise less than 1 percent of the businesses regulated by DEP. We will revisit this promise if Scott takes action, but for now we rate it Stalled.

Sources:

Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Enforcement statistics, 1993-2011

Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Administrative directive, Feb. 14, 2013

Florida Department of State, Administrative code for permits, Oct. 1, 2013

Florida Senate, SB 1468, Introduced March 3, 2015

Florida Senate, SB 166, Introduced March 3, 2015

Florida House, HB 169, Introduced March 3, 2015

Florida Channel, Florida Senate Environmental Preservation and Conservation Committee hearing, March 31, 2015

Florida Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, "Report on enforcement efforts by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection for calendar year 2013," August 2014

Naples Daily News, "Bills seeks to ban fracking, regulate resources," March 7, 2015

Tampa Bay Times, "Scott's DEP takes a softer approach," Oct. 19, 2014

Tampa Bay Times, "New DEP chief may Herald change," Dec. 12, 2014

PolitiFact Florida, Scott-O-Meter, Accessed March 25, 2015

Interview, Jerry Phillips, director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Florida and a former enforcement attorney with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection 1992-1996, March 25, 2015

Interview, Dee Ann Miller, Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman, March 25, 2015

Interview, Jeri Bustamante, Gov. Rick Scott spokeswoman, March 26, 2015

Voicemail, Sen. Garrett Richter, March 29, 2015

Interview, Jennifer Hecker, Conservancy of Southwest Florida's Director of Natural Resource Policy, March 30, 2015