Everglades oil drilling proposal may face tougher time with Biden administration
A Texas company’s plans to drill for oil in the Everglades could become more difficult after a government seized power in Washington that is skeptical of fossil fuels.
Burnett Oil Co. has proposed drilling at two locations in Big Cypress National Preserve, an important panther habitat in Florida that spans both sides of Alligator Alley. Although modest oil drilling has been carried out there since the 1970s, the potential expansion has generated fierce opposition from environmentalists.
They hope to find an ally in President Joe Biden who has taken steps to reduce fossil fuel consumption and tried to impose a moratorium on new state oil and gas leases.
“If the Biden government allows this project to continue, it would be the first and only new industrial oil well built in a national park unit across the country since he took office,” said Melissa Abdo, regional director for the National Association for the Conservation of Parks .
“It would run counter to the government’s climate goals. We all have hope and expectation that Minister of the Interior [Deb] Haaland will listen to the many voices, including indigenous people, who speak out against this alarming proposal. “
Riders experience Big Cypress as a 30-mile tree along both sides of Alligator Alley. But behind the fences that keep wildlife off the highway is an important habitat for the Florida panther, red woodpecker, black bear, alligator, and many other species. The reserve is a popular destination for hunting, fishing, hiking, and bird watching.
Burnett Oil, which did not respond to requests for comment, conducted seismic exploration work during the Trump administration and used sound waves to search for oil. The work had been approved during the Obama administration.
Since those first operations, a new government has taken the lead and started implementing less oil industry-friendly policies. Biden announced a moratorium on new state oil and gas leases and began implementing tougher measures to combat climate change, which is primarily fueled by fossil fuels.
The lease moratorium was lifted this summer except for a judicial challenge, and the oil drilling proposal for Big Cypress would not have been affected as the mining rights are privately owned. However, environmentalists hope that a government worried about climate change will critically examine the idea of extracting more oil from the Everglades.
“They have Biden’s Executive Orders that focus on addressing the climate crisis and environmental justice,” said Jaclyn Lopez, director of the Center for Biological Diversity in Florida. “And you’d think you wouldn’t want to continue oil exploration activities in Big Cypress, especially given the potential contribution to the climate crisis.”
Anti-work environmental groups launched a website this week at www.savebigcypress.org.
The oil drilling plan also requires state approval, including permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Governor Ron DeSantis blocked a proposal last year to drill for oil in the Everglades in western Broward County and arranged a takeover to protect the land. But that proposal would have affected state land, and Big Cypress’s proposal is on state. And the governor’s influence on a particular permit application is limited by the legal requirements for an agency’s permit decisions.
Jared Williams, a spokesman for DeSantis, referred questions to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The company has applied for government permits to build two oil rigs, with additional permits required before drilling can begin. DEP said the application process is still in its infancy as the agency is soliciting more information from the company about its plans. In addition, DEP will receive comments from other authorities, such as those involved in wildlife conservation, and open the process to public comments before a decision is made.
“The examination of the applications by the ministry is still very early,” said a statement from the agency. “The department has sent a second request for additional information from the applicant.”
The National Park Service said the company’s application is still being considered.
Oil drilling has been carried out in southwest Florida since the 1940s, although the region has never become the main source of production hoped for by its pioneers.
Two small drill fields are now active at Big Cypress, where the mineral rights have remained in the hands of the Collier family, descendants of pioneer Barron Collier from southwest Florida. The oil is trucked to Port Everglades, where it is shipped to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
The new drilling would take place in two places. One rig would be north of the Tamiami Trail near the Miccosukee Reservation and the other south of Alligator Alley within five miles of the Seminole Reservation.
“The Seminole tribe has a keen interest in these uses and the areas adversely affected by the proposed activities,” the tribe wrote in a letter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Big Cypress “is of great importance to the Seminole tribe as part of the tribe’s historical and cultural home,” the tribe wrote. “As a result, there are sites throughout the BCNP that are of historical and cultural importance to the Seminole tribe, and the BCNP ecological mosaic provides habitat for numerous animal and plant species that are also of cultural importance to the tribe.”
This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded to cover the effects of climate change on the state.