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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Florida Fracking Fracas

A Florida ad attacking Republican Gov. Rick Scott has touched off claims of lying and illegality. We find both sides are bending the facts.

  • An ad from billionaire climate-change activist Tom Steyer’s group claims that Scott got $200,000 from “the company that profited off pollution” while drilling for oil near the Everglades. Actually, no pollution has been documented, and it was Scott’s administration that ordered the drilling halted before any oil (or profit) was produced.
  • A response ad from the Republican Party of Florida calls the Steyer ad “total fiction,” claiming “Scott never took a nickel.” Actually, a Scott committee took $200,000 from members of the landholding Collier family, which owns the drilling site.
  • The GOP also says Scott’s leading Democratic rival, former Gov. Charlie Crist, is responsible for the Steyer group’s ad, which he isn’t. Steyer’s group can’t legally coordinate its ads with candidates.

NextGen’s Attack

Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action started the fracas with an ad that first aired Aug. 11. It claims Scott received a “fountain” of campaign cash from “the company that profited off pollution” by using a “dangerous” type of oil drilling near the Everglades.

Actually, Scott’s administration isn’t doing the driller any favors as the ad implies. Quite the contrary.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection says it denied permission for the company drilling the well to use the so-called “acid fracking” procedure last December, and when the driller used the procedure anyway it fined the company $25,000. The agency later revoked the company’s drilling permits, and has taken it to court seeking additional penalties in excess of $100,000. The company shut down the well as of July 15.

According to the court papers filed by the state, environmental officials last December notified the company verbally that it would not approve use of an “enhanced acid stimulation” method (which has been called a “fracking-like” procedure) to stimulate oil flow from the well, a method not previously used in Florida. But the company conducted the operation anyway, starting last Dec. 30 and ending Jan. 1. The state filed a formal, written “cease and desist” order on Dec. 31, after the operation had started, but the company ignored the order and completed the operation, the DEP stated. The state then extracted a $25,000 fine, and got the company to sign a formal consent order on April 7 in which the company also agreed to monitor groundwater for possible pollution violations.

The state made no public announcement of all this until May 2, after it says the company failed to come up with an acceptable independent expert to conduct the groundwater monitoring, as it had agreed to do. The company’s relations with the Scott administration have only gone downhill since then, culminating in the state’s lawsuit alleging that the company wasn’t living up to the terms of the original $25,000 settlement.

No Pollution Found

So far state officials have not found that the “acid stimulation” procedure the ad refers to has resulted in any contamination of groundwater, however. Environmental officials even installed their own groundwater monitors, and said preliminary results showed no evidence of contamination. Calling somebody a “polluter” before there’s any sign of pollution is like calling somebody a “robber” before there’s evidence that anybody has been robbed.

And in any case, the driller is not even the source of the $200,000 that the ad says came from “oil interests.” Though one would never know this by simply watching the ad, the money actually came in last year from four members of the wealthy Collier family, whose interests include Collier Resources. The Collier company partnered with the driller — the Dan A. Hughes Co. — which was leasing the drilling site. The Collier family, we should note, has interests far beyond oil. It also owns shopping centers and office parks, and develops planned communities on its vast land holdings, where it also grows citrus and vegetables, and raises cattle, not to mention sod and palm trees sold for landscaping.

A Vanishing ‘Connection’

This ad even drags in an erroneous news report about a third company in its hodgepodge of citations. The opening clip is from a June 16 report by an Orlando TV station. An anchor is seen referring to “a significant financial connection between one of the drilling companies and Gov. Rick Scott.” But the connection has nothing to do with the $200,000 mentioned later, and it no longer existed at the time of the report.

The reporter refers to a personal investment by Scott in Schlumberger Ltd., the international oilfield technology supplier. The investment was valued at $135,000 in 2010 when Scott put it into a blind trust. But when Scott recently ended the trust and publicly listed all the assets he owned at the end of last year, there was no sign of the Schlumberger stock he once held.

The connection would have been a thin one even if it still existed. The station quoted a Schlumberger spokesman as saying the company’s role was assisting Hughes in getting permits for saltwater injection wells and providing information to a consultant who put the Hughes permit application together. It’s hard to imagine that this would have a significant impact on Schlumberger’s global profits, one way or the other, much less on the financial well-being of its stockholders, even if Scott were still among them.

In summary, NextGen cobbles together citations about three different companies, one of them incorrect, to support a claim that Scott somehow favored “the” company that “profited off pollution,” when no pollution or profits are in evidence, and when Scott’s administration actually took the lead in shutting down the Hughes well and revoking the company’s permits.

‘Violation of the Law’

Even before NextGen’s ad hit the air, the Scott campaign was threatening to sue any station that ran it. On Aug. 8, shortly after NextGen released the ad and announced its plans to run it, the Scott campaign’s communications director, Matt Moon, issued a news release accusing the ad of lying.

“The FALSE ad by Tom Steyer’s group in support of Charlie Crist blatantly lies by saying the Governor took ‘campaign cash’ from driller Dan A. Hughes,” Moon stated. “In fact, no political entity associated with Governor Scott has ever received contributions from the company — in this election or 2010.”

The problem with Moon’s statement is that the ad didn’t actually name Hughes as the source of the $200,000 it mentions, though it would be easy for a viewer to get that impression. Only by contacting NextGen were we able to learn that the “oil interests” the ad refers to are the landowners, not the lease holder. The ad could have made that point clear, but the fact is both parties stood to profit had the well not been shut down.

Moon also raised the Scott administration’s role in shutting down the well, which we’ve already mentioned. We find he’s on firm ground there.

But he also said, “[O]ur campaign is putting any station airing this ad on legal notice that it would be a violation of the law to air Charlie Crist’s allies’ latest work of fiction.” That implied threat of legal action has proven ineffectual. A total of 10 TV stations in Fort Myers and West Palm Beach later aired the ad anyway, according to Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group. And the Scott campaign has yet to announce it is actually filing a suit against any of them.

GOP Response

The response to the NextGen ad came in the form of another TV spot, from the Republican Party of Florida, saying, “There’s fiction on TV, thanks to Charlie Crist.”

We don’t dispute the description of the NextGen ad as “total fiction,” for reasons we’ve already stated. But there are glaring factual problems with the GOP response, too.

To start, the NextGen ad was not “thanks to Charlie Crist,” as the Republican Party response claims. It would be illegal for NextGen to even coordinate its ad with Crist, or any candidate it is supporting. And we’ve found no evidence that any such coordination took place. A NextGen spokesperson told us by email: “The Crist campaign staff did not have a hand in producing the ad.”

The GOP ad attributes the ad to “Crist’s team,” which is accurate only to the extent that NextGen is working to defeat Scott because the governor has said he has “not been convinced that there’s any man-made climate change.” The NextGen ad didn’t mention Crist, who isn’t even officially the Democratic nominee. He faces Democrat Nan Rich, a former state senator, in the Aug. 26 primary.

The GOP ad also errs when it claims that “Scott didn’t take a nickel” from the “polluter.” In fact, as we’ve noted, Scott’s committee did accept $200,000 from members of the Collier family, who own the land and mineral rights, even though he got nothing from the company doing the drilling. NextGen is right about that. But there’s no evidence of pollution by either of them, as we’ve said. The Florida GOP is no better than NextGen when it misstates matters on that point.

Crist’s ‘Polluter’

The Florida GOP ad goes on to say that Crist is a hypocrite because he himself “campaigns on private jets owned by — you guessed it — polluters.” The ad features video footage of Crist taken by a Scott campaign “tracker” who recorded the tail number of a Cessna 560XL executive jet on which Crist flew to an environmentalist event on July 24. The Scott campaign traced ownership back to developer James Finch, whose Phoenix Construction was fined — both by the state of Florida in 2009 and by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 — for allowing “fill material” from construction sites to flow into wetlands.

We won’t dispute that Finch can accurately be called a “polluter.” But we do note — as the GOP ad does not — that the 2009 fine by the state of Florida was levied while Crist himself was serving as governor.

How serious was it? The pollution in question that time occurred at the site of a huge airport being constructed near Panama City. It was described this way by the Tampa Bay Times: “Since work began last year, though, on four occasions, rainstorms led to cloudy, mud-laden runoff washing into nearby waterways, the DEP has found. Construction contractors are not supposed to allow that to happen.”

A final note: The latest polls show Crist running neck and neck with Scott. And since Florida is a must-win state in the 2016 presidential contest, each party is keen to control the governor’s mansion. So based on the sorry record of factual accuracy we’ve seen so far from both sides, we’ll probably be writing about more fact-twisting political propaganda in the Sunshine State before November rolls around.

— Brooks Jackson