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Updated: Oil firm’s intentions concern Everglades advocates

A Texas oil company wants to build well pads and access roads in a section of the Big Cypress National Preserve in the Everglades to lay the groundwork for new oil exploration. It has advocates of the health of the preserve – opposed to new oil drilling in the area – on alert, including tribal voices.

The Seminole Tribe’s Big Cypress Reservation and Trail community, and the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians are all located near edges of the preserve, which occupies portions of Collier, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties.

Fort Worth-based Burnett Oil Co. filed two applications in late January with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to fill in wetlands and build new infrastructure in an area south of Interstate 75.

The requests came just days after the former Trump administration gave the state permitting authority under Section 404 of the federal government’s Clean Water Act.

The applications refer specifically to dredging and filling wetlands for well pads and access roads in the Nobles Grade area and in the Tamiami area. The locations are near Raccoon Point, where ExxonMobil discovered oil in 1978.

Burnett Oil is already familiar with the preserve. It conducted seismic survey activity there in 2017 and 2018 to look for oil.

The nonprofit group Friends of the Everglades claim the survey activity damaged the preserve, “leaving deep scars on the landscape that could have long term impacts on the preserve’s hydrology, vegetation structure and wetland function.”

The western edge of Big Cypress National Preserve is 45 miles west of Miami. Photo by @luisgfalcon

Concerned that more oil drilling is the ultimate goal of the new applications, environmentalists, conservationists, activists and others are encouraging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to oppose any future drilling permit requests.

Friends of the Everglades held an online event Feb. 25 with Miccosukee activist Houston Cypress of Love the Everglades and representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Center for Biological Diversity.

The panel discussed topics related to the preserve, including its importance to tribal communities, the public water supply, tourism, wildlife and the economy.

“Big Cypress is an area critical for sending fresh water south to Everglades National Park and a crucial habitat for the endangered Florida panther and other imperiled species,” Friends of the Everglades said in a statement. “The preserve also acts as a critical carbon sink, and any alterations would threaten to remove a natural first line of defense against rising seas.”

‘Deeply concerned’

Kevin Donaldson, director of real estate services and tribal historic preservation for the Miccosukee Tribe recently told the Miami Herald that the permit applications left members “deeply concerned.”

“This area is replete with known cultural sites which cannot be impacted. The tribe is looking at this application closely to fully evaluate the request and ensure that Miccosukee interests are protected and preserved for future generations,” Donaldson wrote in an email to the Herald.

A Feb. 5 Herald report said conservation groups have sent a letter to DEP’s Secretary Noah Valenstein and to the National Park Service opposing the company’s request and complaining about the lack of transparency in the process.

“We became aware of these permit applications as a result of an exploratory search of the Department’s new Section 404 permit program database. The website itself lists no public notices regarding any Section 404 permit,” representatives from the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Center for Biological Diversity wrote in the letter.

As stated in the Herald report, oil exploration in the preserve has taken place since the 1940s. When the preserve was created in 1974, the National Park Service, which manages the area, allowed the Collier family, which owned part of the land, to continue to drill for oil in areas north of Alligator Alley and east of what is now the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

A few years later, oil was discovered in an area southwest of the Miccosukee reservation, and new wells were drilled.

The Herald report said that a spokesperson for Burnett said the purpose of the applications is to request access to privately owned mineral prospects “by way of a small limestone pad accessed by single lane limestone road.”

“Based on existing production within the Preserve and new seismic data, we are confident that our proposed wells will be economical and not merely exploratory,” the spokesperson said in an email to the Herald.

In the applications the Herald examined, Burnett provides a proposed timeline for exploration plans: begin building the site in December 2021, start drilling in June 2022 and begin production about 12 weeks after that. Production is estimated to last for 30 years, according to the documents.

‘Keep your drilling in Texas’

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who opposed the state taking over wetlands permitting because it would eliminate federal oversight, criticized the applications.

“I [call] … to permanently prohibit oil drilling off Florida’s coasts, and we don’t need drilling in our wetlands, either. These folks can look for oil somewhere else – keep your drilling in Texas, and don’t mess with Florida,” Fried said in a statement to the Herald.

Meanwhile, last year the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Burnett had caused damage to sensitive habitats in the preserve, violating the Clean Water Act. The Corps said that the activity had caused “an identifiable individual and cumulative adverse effect on aquatic function.” It stated in a letter that any activity by Burnett would need to be approved by the Corps in the future.

But the Herald reported that the Corps later reversed its statement and said it had “engaged with the staff at Big Cypress and re-evaluated all of the current and available information” related to Burnett’s exploratory activities.

The Corps concluded that there was “no clear evidence of any residual adverse effects from Burnett’s activities on the hydrology or biology of Big Cypress.”

Advocates called the Corps’ reversal “suspicious” – in that the agency changed its mind about damage that it had already documented.

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Damon Scott
Damon is a multimedia journalist for the Seminole Tribune. He has previously been an editor and reporter for digital and print media in Florida and his home state of New Mexico. Send him an email at damonscott@semtribe.com.
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