Anniversary Highlights Threat to Everglades Restoration

It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since President Biden issued a moratorium on new oil and gas leases on public lands or in offshore waters and committed to strengthen relationships with tribal governments. Since then, the moratorium was challenged in court and the issue has become far more complicated. One place that is not as complex is the Big Cypress National Preserve in the Florida Everglades.

Big Cypress National Preserve
Photo credit: Alison Kelly

While an oil company has targeted this sensitive ecosystem for new oil exploration and drilling, no federal leases are required. That’s because most of the oil beneath the preserve is privately owned. But the federal government still owns the surface, rich with wetland soils, cultural resources, endangered species habitats, namesake cypress trees, and the rare ghost orchid. Thus, the federal government should protect its interests in Big Cypress at all cost.

A ghost orchid in Big Cypress National Preserve
Photo credit: Tony Pernas

New reports show that oil drilling in the Everglades only benefits a privileged few and could be devastating to this sensitive region that feeds fresh water to Everglades National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. What’s more, the Everglades is currently undergoing a multi-billion-dollar restoration effort. In fact, the Biden administration recently announced historic funding for this effort.

This begs the question: should we jeopardize Everglades restoration for small amounts of oil? A new report by Conservation Economics Institute answers this question with a resounding “no”.

Oil represents only a tiny sliver of Florida’s economic activity, as we previously reported. The new economic report confirms this and makes the following conclusions:

  • Oil and gas extraction account for 0.0002 percent of Florida’s GDP (gross domestic product, i.e., the value of all goods and services produced in the state) – essentially invisible;
  • Florida oil production is a small fraction (less than 0.04 percent, or one‐twenty-fifth of one percent) of U.S. oil production; 22 other states produce more. Broadly speaking, oil production does not matter to the Florida economy, and Florida does not matter to oil production;
  • The fossil fuel industry’s interest in oil production in and near the Everglades threatens public lands, natural and cultural resources, wildlife, water supplies – and losses to Florida tourism, a vastly larger industry than oil;
  • Florida possesses clean energy resources and related employment opportunities, which would be more sustainable for Florida’s economy than oil;
  • With climate change effects already occurring in Florida, it is economically prudent to restrict future oil development and to instead protect natural resources to assist with climate resilience and refuge for biodiversity;
  • New oil development is directly at odds with federal and regional goals of decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and restoring the hydrologic flows of the Everglades.

In short, the risks of new oil development in Florida are simply not worth the minimal returns to a few private mineral owners.

Another new report by PSE Healthy Energy, co-authored by a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist, highlights some of the ecological threats of proposed new oil drilling in Big Cypress:

  • While oil drilling has occurred in Big Cypress National Preserve since at least the 1970s, water

contamination from leaks and spills has already adversely impacted the preserve;

  • The introduction of two new oil drilling and associated wastewater disposal locations raises concerns about future, additional soil, surface water, and groundwater contamination;
  • Burnett Oil Company proposes to construct and operate new oil drilling operations in the  Tamiami and Nobles Grade Prospects in Big Cypress, in wetlands, which is prohibited by National Park Service regulations;
  • Cypress trees and other wetland vegetation would be removed for new oil development;
  • Both of the proposed new oil drilling sites are located within endangered Florida panther habitat and the habitats of other protected species, such as the Florida bonneted bat;
  • New pipelines would be constructed to transport oil from tank battery to the loading facility and these pipelines would need to have automatic shut-down valves;
  • Burnett Oil should identify the chemical additives used in the proposed acid maintenance application. Acid maintenance is a cleanout process that removes scale on well surfaces. Unlike hydraulic fracturing where chemicals make up ~0.5% of the fluid, acidizing chemicals can make up to 6% of the fluid for acid maintenance, which involves numerous chemical additives, and if spilled, the additives need to be known to properly treat the impacted area;
  • Blowout prevention is not proposed to be installed while drilling the surface hole even though previous drilling in the area found abnormally low pressure in the Sunniland Formation. Previous permit applications have suggested using blowout preventers;
  • Burnett Oil does not specify that constructed roads would be removed and returned to preexisting conditions. Additionally, the oil company has not provided a restoration plan that includes required topographic elevations, plant species for replanting and planting specifications, or maintenance and monitoring, including exotic and nuisance vegetation control;
  • Burnett Oil has not proposed to conduct baseline soil, surface water, and groundwater sampling prior to the start of construction or operations. During routine monitoring, or, if there is a potential leak/spill, samples could be compared to the baseline samples to determine whether there are adverse environmental impacts resulting from any new oil drilling operations  permitted;
  • The Plugging and Abandonment Plans for Burnett Oil’s proposed Nobles Grade and Tamiami Prospects do not specify 200 feet of cement around base of the underground source of drinking water (USDW), which could cause future fluid migration from saline zones into the USDW after the well is abandoned.

Further, an investigation by UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability found that greater state oversight over oil and gas well stimulation activities, including acidizing, is necessary in Florida. The report recommends updates to current regulations concerning the use of well stimulation techniques, to ensure greater oversight by Florida Department of Environmental Protection and calls on the agency to make related permitting and compliance documents available to the public and surrounding communities.

In short, given these identifiable risks and liabilities, state and federal agencies should not approve any permits allowing Burnett Oil to conduct new oil development operations at either of the proposed prospect sites. One of many reasons is that the oil company’s proposals would destroy wetlands and fragment wildlife habitat.

Additionally, the proposed new oil drilling in Big Cypress could jeopardize critical environmental justice concerns. The Seminole Tribe of Florida has expressed numerous concerns over the proposed new oil development, as have members of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. Indigenous community leaders led a “Signs Across the Alley” event in Big Cypress where frontline community  members, environmental groups, including NRDC, and concerned citizens walked the proposed route of the Nobles Grade Prospect, which was covered by numerous media outlets, including the Seminole Tribune.

Signs Across the Alley Event, Big Cypress National Preserve (April 2021)
Photo credit: Alison Kelly

While there are several permit applications pending before the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) (state Section 404 Clean Water Act and environmental resource permit applications), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (underground injection (UIC) permit applications), the National Park Service plans to release Burnett Oil Company’s operations permit application for public comment, pursuant to the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) under a process called “scoping.” The agency will then use those public comments to develop a draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which is anticipated to be released for public comment later this year.

You can monitor the National Park Service’s website for public comment opportunities and meeting announcements regarding proposed new oil development in Big Cypress here.

Burnett Oil will also need to apply for and obtain an oil and gas permit from Florida DEP and consumptive use permits for the industrial use of water (previously proposed as one million gallons of water per day, per well) from the South Florida Water Management District.

It is believed that paper is the traditional first anniversary gift because it symbolizes the blank pages on which you write the newest chapter in your life. Let’s write a new chapter in the saga of oil in Big Cypress by rejecting new plans for drilling and closing this chapter permanently.

More information can be found here and you can take action here to save Big Cypress.

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