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Drilling firm challenging denial of oil exploration efforts in Big Cypress Swamp

OilRigBigCypress-BreitburnRaccoonPt.jpg
The Associated Press
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Burnett Oil Co. did not have a rendering of its proposed exploratory oil drilling facility it might build in the Everglades should permits be granted. This is a photo of another company’s oil drilling operation in the Big Cypress Swamp Preserve in 2015.

Oil drilling firms are crossing paths trying to get permits to explore deep underneath the greater Florida Everglades watershed, despite accusations that one of the firms, Burnett Oil Co., has left behind miles of scars in the environmentally-sensitive land during previous efforts.

Trend Exploration of North Fort Myers, another firm that wants to drill for oil in Collier County, is challenging a November decision by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to deny it a permit the company sought to drill an exploratory well to seek oil reserves.

Florida Division of Administrative Hearings Judge Francine Ffolkes is scheduled to hear Trend Exploration’s appeal.

DEP denied permit

The Florida DEP denied the permit on numerous grounds, including that the proposed well would be in the environmentally-sensitive Big Cypress watershed and would be near areas of eastern Collier County that likely will be developed. The DEP also had concerns that Trend failed to provide the information needed to evaluate alternatives for the proposed projects, measures for avoidance and minimization of impacts, and wildlife, water quality, and wetland resource protections.

Several environmental groups praised the denial of the permit, especially now when the Everglades is in the midst of a multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar effort to undo previous attempts to manipulate the region for development and flood control by cleaning the water and restoring its flow.

Jaclyn Lopez is with the Florida office of the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit conservation group focused on the protection of endangered species and wild places.

“Drilling for oil in this wild and beautiful wilderness will always be a terrible idea with unacceptable risks to endangered panthers and the greater Everglades,” Lopez said in a written statement supporting a denial of drilling in the watershed. “Big Cypress is vital to ensuring clean water in the Everglades. It deserves perpetual preservation, not dangerous industrialization that will further contribute to the climate emergency.”

There are a handful of small oil wells scattered about the Everglades, which continue to operate because the are effectively grandfathered in. Reports by government oversight agencies show the safety record at the existing drills is considered excellent, with a few small spills - from a broken hose or tipped over barrel ranging from a few gallons to 32 gallons. In each case, containment measures worked and the oil was cleaned up and never entered the ecosystem, the reports state.

Mineral rights available

In its challenge, Trend Exploration said it has an option to lease 2,963 acres of oil, gas and mineral rights from Collier Resources Co., which manages large land holdings in Southwest Florida. The company pointed to other drilling that has been approved in the region, including five wells in the watershed within a two-mile radius of the proposed site.

It also disputed the state’s arguments about potential nearby development, as it said Collier-related entities own much of the land in the area and “will continue to determine the use of surface lands that is in their best interest including use of the lands for oil, gas and mineral exploration and possibly production purposes.”

Opposition to Trend Exploration’s plans has also come from people who say it could contaminate the water supply in the area and trucks would disrupt one of the prime habitats of the Florida panther. The Seminole Tribe has requested a survey of the area for its cultural significance prior to any drilling.

Florida at one the 'greatest threats'

"If you consider that Florida is at one of the greatest threats of sea level rise and climate change from intensifying storms," Tania Galloni, an attorney with the Florida office of Earthjustice, said. “The idea that we would drill for oil at all — and begin new drilling in the Everglades, one of the most ecologically sensitive parts of the state and for the region — it really makes no sense at all."

Burnett Oil Co. has at least temporarily withdrawn its newest applications for permits that could have been a step toward drilling for oil and gas in Big Cypress.

Alia Faraj-Johnson, a Burnett spokeswoman, said the company appreciates the time and attention the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has given to its applications and looks forward to resubmitting the applications once the National Park Service is further along in its review of Burnett’s proposed project in the Big Cypress National Preserve.

“Our permit applications have already gone through rigorous technical reviews consistent with federal and state regulations, and we look forward to continuing working with the NPS to ensure the least amount of impact on the Big Cypress National Preserve,” Faraj-Johnson said. “As we have stated in our permit applications, we remain committed to utilizing the least impactful methods for extracting the private minerals underlying the preserve.”

"If you consider that Florida is at one of the greatest threats of sea level rise and climate change from intensifying storms," Tania Galloni, an attorney with the Florida office of Earthjustice, said. “The idea that we would drill for oil at all — and begin new drilling in the Everglades, one of the most ecologically sensitive parts of the state and for the region — it really makes no sense at all."

A letter from Peninsula Engineering said recent decisions by the park service would lead to a longer review period and potential design changes.

It said Burnett “requests that its applications previously submitted to the Department (of Environmental Protection) be withdrawn until the project is further along in the design process to adequately assess the department’s permitting criteria.”

Applications not for drilling

The DEP said in a news release that the permit applications involved well pads for the project, not for actual drilling. It also said it recommended in December that the permit application be withdrawn until the project’s design was further along.

It said in a statement that “the applicant failed to provide the information needed to evaluate alternatives for the proposed projects, measures for avoidance and minimization of impacts, and wildlife, water quality and wetland resource protections.”

Burnett’s previous drilling efforts are the focus of several environmental groups’ ire.

Lopez, from the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a letter that Burnett’s previous “seismic testing operations in 2017 and 2018 severely damaged wetlands and cypress trees in the delicate ecosystem, a crucial habitat for the endangered Florida panther, Florida bonneted bat and other imperiled species.

“We refuse to watch this dying industry trash one of Florida’s most important havens for endangered wildlife,” Lopez wrote when opposing Burnett’s permits last year. “This selfish, shortsighted request to ignore the harm in order to squeeze a few more drops of oil out of a national preserve must be denied.”

Big Cypress National Preserve is critical to sending fresh water south to Everglades National Park and surrounding communities and contains many vulnerable and endangered flora and fauna, Lopez said.

“Taxpayers in Florida and around the country have pumped billions of dollars toward restoring the Everglades ecosystem, of which the wetlands of Big Cypress National Preserve are a vital part,” said Melissa Abdo, Sun Coast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association. “The preserve has not even begun to heal from the severe impacts of Burnett’s last hunt for oil.”

— WUSF Public Media's Steve Newborn contributed to this story.

Environmental reporting for WGCU is funded in part by VoLo Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to accelerate change and global impact by supporting science-based climate solutions, enhancing education, and improving health.