Controversy Spreads over Everglades Oil Drilling

SunSentinel | July 5, 2014 | William E. Gibson, Washington Bureau Alarmed by the spread of oil drilling in the Everglades, environmental activists and some lawmakers are pressing for stricter regulation of the energy industry and a state ban on new fracking-like techniques that blast open oil deposits near Florida’s aquifers. Critics in Collier County, the center of a mini-oil rush, warn that drilling leads to pipelines, refineries and hazardous-wastewater disposal — a domino effect that threatens a delicate ecosystem and water supplies. They say Florida is ill-equipped to control the search for black gold and that Texas wildcatters are taking advantage of the state’s limited laws. “It’s not just the drilling activities on site but what happens with this hazardous waste and where it is disposed of, which could affect communities well outside of the oil-drilling zone,” said Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, a 50-year-old environmental group in Naples. Low-volume drilling has quietly taken place near the Everglades since the 1940s. But new techniques — horizontal drilling and high-pressure injections of water and chemicals to fracture underground rock — have prompted energy companies to delve deeper into lands where panthers and wading birds roam. The result is pressure to drill near or below the Big Cypress National Preserve, the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge — all part of a watershed that stretches across the lower Florida peninsula. Collier Resources Co., which controls much of the land in this lush corner of the world, is leasing mineral rights for oil exploration under hundreds of thousands of acres, and energy companies are lining up to take advantage. The Burnett Oil Co. of Texas, for example, is seeking state approval to conduct seismic tests under almost 235,000 acres in Big Cypress. It plans to use vibrators to send sound waves that help pinpoint oil deposits. Drilling proponents, eager to make Florida more energy-independent, say horizontal drilling underground is less intrusive than a field of vertical wells. “That doesn’t bother anybody, really, but a couple of bugs and snakes, which I don’t have a lot of sympathy for,” said Frederick Taubert of Delray Beach, who retired from the oil-importation business. “”The Everglades probably has a ton of oil and natural gas. Don’t let it just sit there. Our kids need it.” But others are aghast about drilling in a sensitive ecosystem full of threatened species, and they fear a major spill would poison the water. “I cannot believe our governor or anybody would allow this to happen in the Everglades, which is supposed to be a major filter for our water into the homes,” said Douglas Brodhead, 57, of Fort Lauderdale. “They should be letting kids know that this is what grownups are doing, and that this is what your water supply is going to be when you grow up.” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the Collier County Commission and some state legislators are raising alarms about expanded drilling. “My biggest concern is that we are a state where it’s not really appropriate to have fracking, with the Floridan Aquifer underneath and with so much of our drinking water in jeopardy,” said state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, who hopes to enact a ban. He said passage in the Legislature “will be a tough road but one that’s achievable. “We are seeing more awareness across the state now that the truth is coming out. A lot of the environmental community here and statewide groups are discussing the issue. Even developers and growth-management people have to take this seriously. Tourism is a huge ally. We learned from the BP spill that tourism and oil spills don’t mix,” Soto said. Much of the recent controversy over drilling focuses on the Dan A. Hughes Co. of Texas, which plans to drill an exploratory well next to the Panther Refuge and is producing oil from another site 10 miles away. Without state approval, the company used high-pressure injections of toxic chemicals and water around New Year’s Day. Critics say this is akin to “fracking,” a controversial practice that extracts oil from shale. The company says it’s not the same because it employs an acidic solution in porous limestone. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection fined the company $25,000, the most allowed by law. Hughes has suspended the method while continuing to pump oil. “The company is encouraged by the results from this first well, and their initial program envisions drilling two more wells,” said David Blackmon, a Hughes spokesman. He said “fear tactics” by critics have delayed the process but that “the company has been supporting DEP any way it can.” He said vacuum trucks carry wastewater from the well every two or three days to Raider Environmental Services in Opa-locka.