A small Texas oil company wants to drill in Big Cypress National Preserve

A friend I made during our recent trip to Big Cypress National Preserve.

Big Cypress National Preserve is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places in the United States. It is also home to many threatened and endangered species – including the Florida Panther and West Indian Manatee – whose existence depends on park management to do right by them. There are only 130 Florida panthers remaining in the wild.

In a move that shocked South Florida residents across the political spectrum this week, a small Texas oil company applied for permits to drill for oil across Big Cypress and Indian Country, close to the Miccosukee reservation.

“But President Biden signed an executive order saying that is not allowed,” you reply. Yep. President Trump also signed executive orders restricting drilling in Florida. Senators Rubio and Scott have pushed legislation doing the same. Even the Bush administration tried to end drilling here. There’s actually significant agreement politically this is a terrible idea, which irreparably harms Florida’s natural wonders and punishes the state’s vital tourist industry.

It doesn’t matter.

While Big Cypress National Preserve is overseen by the National Park Service, the mineral rights underneath the park are privately held. The land was donated to the federal government in the 1970s by the Collier family, but they kept the mineral rights in the name of the Collier Resources Company. This should be a model for how not to negotiate the transfer of land to the public trust. The George W. Bush administration attempted to purchase the mineral rights and formally end oil exploration in the park, but the going price then was $120 million, which Congress refused to fund.

Burnett Oil, the company that has submitted applications for permits to drill in the park last month, has been surveying the land for oil deposits. Conservationists attempted to challenge their surveys in court, but failed. The company maintains that it uses the least impactful methods for oil exploration available, as its 33-ton trucks roam the habitats of various endangered species shooting explosives into the ground. It’s obscene.

And it’s not even to retrieve that much oil, which (in addition to reputational issues) is why larger corporations are not pursuing it. From the Tampa Bay Times:

An oil prospect called the Sunniland Trend runs under the preserve. It produces about 2,800 barrels of oil a day, the Collier Resources Company reports. Roughly 11 million barrels are produced daily in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Contrary to what local news outlets have been reporting, the company may not need to undergo the drawn-out process of an environmental impact review. The same company approached the Obama administration years ago, and were instructed they did not need to go the EIR approach, but check off a list of mitigating factors.

Conservationists have been successful at harassing oil companies away from Big Cypress and the Everglades, and hopefully that will be the case with Burnett Oil too. This happened last year:

A Mississippi-based oil company has dropped plans to drill for oil just outside Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida, a move heralded by the South Florida Wildlands Association that had challenged the drilling permit.

Tocala, LLC, cited no reason for abandoning the lease in May when it asked the state to withdraw the permit and release the bond the company had posted. The permit was for an area involving a mix of private and state lands, including Dinner Island Ranch Wildlife Management Area, adjacent to the northern boundary of the preserve. Endangered Florida panthers that make Big Cypress home use this area as well. 

“While not getting as much attention as some of the other high-profile oil operations in the Greater Everglades, Tocala’s project was one that definitely kept us up at night,” South Florida Wildlands Executive Director Matthew Schwartz said Thursday.

“The area is just north of the Bear Island section of the Big Cypress and is a known hotspot for terrestrial wildlife in the Everglades. State Road 29, which runs north-south through the lease area, is already ground zero for panther roadkill in Florida,” he added. “It was hard to imagine what thousands of explosions going off – plus lots of off-road traffic in an area that generally has no public access – would have done to the wildlife in the vicinity. Nothing on this scale had ever been done before in South Florida.  We were very happy to learn that Tocala had pulled out before any of their operations got started.”

According to the association, the uplands in the lease area are probably the most important habitat in the state for the Florida panther.

In 2014 SFWA had filed a legal petition against the Florida Department of Environmental Protection challenging the permit issued to Tocala. That permit covered a geophysical survey of 161 square miles and allowed for the drilling of up to 8,800 shot holes along with the distribution of approximately 23,500 “geophones.”

“Pentolite” explosives were to be loaded into the shot holes at depths of up to 150 feet and exploded, according to the association. The seismic geophones would then pick up the vibrations and create a 3D picture of the underlying geology with a focus on potential oil deposits…

“Hopefully, this is a sign that oil exploration is no longer profitable in the Everglades,” Alison Kelly, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been working to stop oil exploration in Big Cypress by Burnett Oil Co., said of Tocala’s decision.

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