Damage from Florida Everglades Oil Hunt Persists

The Florida Everglades is a sensitive ecosystem facing extensive threats from sea-level rise, pollution, hurricanes, population growth, and shockingly—oil.  As we previously reported the fossil fuel industry targeted the Big Cypress National Preserve in the Florida Everglades—a National Park unit—for new oil development. Big Cypress is home to an array of wildlife and plants such as Florida black bears, Florida panthers, dwarf cypress trees, orchids, and bromeliads—just to name a few.

Florida black bear track observed in an area impacted by seismic testing
Florida butterfly orchid in Big Cypress National Preserve

Since the Burnett Oil Company began its hunt for oil in Big Cypress in 2017, scientific experts, hired by NRDC and its partners, have been monitoring the damage. So far, significant damage remains from the seismic testing for oil, including the driving of “vibroseis” vehicles weighing as much as 33 tons off-road through wetland ecosystems. Video footage taken from these damaging trucks can be viewed here.

The latest evidence collected by our experts refutes the oil company’s claims that it can explore for oil without significant, long-term damage to sensitive wetlands. The latest report can be found here.

The report confirms what we already suspected—the oil company has not fully restored the damage it caused in Big Cypress, which, according to our experts, may not even be possible. Federal and state agencies assert they are requiring “reclamation”—which we understand refers only to the re‐grading of seismic lines created by the driving of “vibroseis” and other off‐road vehicles through wetlands and soft soils—but does not include restoration of damaged soils or replanting of damaged or cut vegetation like dwarf cypress trees. Despite their small size, dwarf cypress trees can range in age from 31 to 2,500 years. These trees provide important roosting sites and refuge from high water levels for birds and other wildlife.

Seismic line and cut cypress trees in Big Cypress National Preserve

Cut dwarf cypress tree stump near seismic line in Big Cypress National Preserve
Desiccated (dried out) Florida butterfly orchid located adjacent to a seismic line in Big Cypress National Preserve
Edge of seismic line showing contrast in periphyton cover between the impacted area and an adjacent undisturbed area

Other observations of adverse impacts caused by the oil exploration in Big Cypress include:

  • Plant species and abundance within the representative seismic line inspected remains significantly different from adjacent habitats not directly impacted by seismic survey activities—for example, dwarf cypress trees were observed in less than 1% of the seismic line, whereas these trees make up 50% of the plant cover in adjacent undisturbed habitats;
  • Average total groundcover was around 5‐10% within the seismic line inspected, as opposed to 40‐60% in adjacent undisturbed habitats;
  • Trees, shrubs, and epiphytes (primarily consisting of bromeliads and Florida butterfly orchids) were conspicuously absent within the seismic survey line observed compared to adjacent undisturbed habitats;
  • Dwarf pond cypress tree stumps that were cut with chainsaws by oil company crews—many exceeding two feet in diameter—were abundantly observed in the seismic line inspected and were not re-sprouting;
  • Desiccation (drying out) of bromeliads and Florida butterfly orchids on the edges of the seismic lines due to removal of the adjacent dwarf cypress tree canopy important for maintaining temperature and moisture levels;
  • Dwarf pond cypress tree seedlings were rarely observed in the seismic line inspected, although they were frequently observed in adjacent undisturbed habitats;
  • The extent of torpedograss, a Category I invasive plant species in Florida, appeared to have increased since the seismic survey activities began—this is concerning since the state of Florida already spends an estimated $30 million taxpayer dollars per year on invasive plant management;
  • Two native but potentially nuisance plant species—common reed and Carolina willow—were observed within the seismic survey line, suggesting that conditions are favorable for their continued growth and spread into other parts of the Preserve;
  • Periphyton cover was significantly reduced within the seismic line compared to adjacent undisturbed habitats—periphyton is a critical component of the food web because it provides the primary food source for small consumers such as fish and invertebrates;
  • The oil company’s attempted reclamation of ground elevations impacted by vibroseis vehicles resulted in a difference of up to seven inches in some locations—the differences in ground elevations will have adverse effects on the natural recruitment of desirable native plants;
  • Soils were destroyed due to rutting and compaction caused by vibroseis and other off‐road vehicles driving over them and then re-disturbed by subsequent reclamation attempts.

Based on a comparison of the locations of the seismic survey lines provided by the National Park Service with aerial photography and observations made in Big Cypress, our experts determined that the extent of impacts caused by the seismic survey lines created may have been underestimated. Therefore, it appears that significant seismic survey impacts remain undocumented and unknown. Despite this, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has deemed approximately 90% of the oil company’s attempted reclamation complete.

Burnett Oil Company’s state-issued oil and gas geophysical permit expires in December 2019. We don’t yet know whether Burnett Oil Company plans to apply for a new permit to resume seismic survey activities or to begin drilling. But based on the known nature and extent of the damage already caused by the Burnett Oil Company, the National Park Service and Florida Department of Environmental Protection should instead focus their attention on requiring full restoration and mitigation of the damage the oil company caused. After all – national park units belong to all Americans—not just a privileged few.

About the Authors

Alison Kelly

Senior Attorney, Dirty Energy, Lands Division, Nature Program

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