Oil Company’s Holiday Wish Is to Drill the Everglades

Tis the season to be jolly—unless you’re an endangered Florida panther.

Burnett Oil Company ravaged Florida panther habitat in the Everglades’ Big Cypress National Preserve to hunt for oil over three years ago, yet still hasn’t completely fixed the damage. Under its state and federal permits, the company was supposed to correct the damage while conducting its seismic survey operations and also has to provide compensatory mitigation. But the damage persists, and mitigation for the losses of Florida panther habitat and sensitive wetland functions remains incomplete.

The National Park Service oversees the preserve. It recently announced a proposal to modify Burnett Oil’s permit, after-the-fact, to change its mitigation requirements. NRDC and our partners have problems with this proposal, and you can read the comments we submitted to the agency here.

In short, Burnett Oil’s original permit required it to compensate for the temporal loss of wetland functions by restoring an equivalent length of areas damaged by off road vehicles within the preserve. Now, the National Park Service proposes to instead require that Burnett Oil restore former agricultural lands. But the mitigation proposed is not enough.

First, Burnett Oil has yet to successfully correct the wetland damage its seismic activities caused in the preserve in 2017 and 2018. The oil company hasn’t accurately monitored and reported on the reclamation. And over three years after stopping its Phase I seismic activities, its compensatory mitigation remains incomplete. The damage is extensive—just look at what experts have reported on the harm Burnett Oil caused.

It’s better for Burnett Oil to conduct mitigation activities to compensate for the loss of wetland functions within preserve boundaries than to buy mitigation bank credits. Still, any mitigation must be in addition to correcting the seismic lines and related damage it caused. Since Burnett Oil’s activities demonstrably disturbed wetland vegetation, re-planting of vegetation—including the preserve’s namesake cypress trees—must be required in the areas directly impacted by the oil exploration in any revised permit.

Also, the National Park Service must ensure that Burnett Oil fully compensates for the loss of wetland function and accounts for both time lag and risk—in accordance with the best available science. In Florida, that’s the Uniform Mitigation Assessment Method. As it stands, the agency is not requiring enough wetland mitigation and we have not seen any plans for Florida panther habitat mitigation.

The National Park Service has the broad legal authority to protect the preserve’s natural and cultural resources and recreational values from the adverse effects of oil and gas development. So, we are urging the agency not to retroactively revise Burnett Oil’s permit authorizing its first phase of seismic surveying for oil – unless it also comprehensively addresses the full nature and extent of the damage Burnett Oil caused—and requires full reclamation, monitoring, and compensatory mitigation for the loss of wetland functions and endangered Florida panther habitat.

There is simply too much at stake for this ecosystem for the National Park Service to get this wrong.

Big Cypress was the first national preserve incorporated into the National Park system and covers over 700,000 acres of a water-dependent ecosystem in the western Everglades. The Big Cypress basin provides approximately 42 percent of the water flowing into Everglades National Park and is a vast hydrologic network—among the least altered remaining in south Florida—at present. Water flows on the surface of the preserve in marshes and sloughs and below ground through porous substrate in aquifers. Big Cypress Swamp serves as a significant aquifer recharge area to aquifers that provide drinking water to nearby communities.

Big Cypress is also home to a wide array of important species, including the Florida panther—one of the most endangered mammals in the country—as well as the Florida black bear, Florida bonneted bat, Eastern indigo snake, wood stork, red-cockaded woodpecker, many species of wading birds, and rare plants like the ghost orchid. The preserve is also beloved for the many outdoor recreation opportunities it provides. In 2016, the preserve hosted 1.1 million recreational guests. The number of visitors declined in Big Cypress in the years the first phase of Burnett Oil Company’s oil exploration took place—2017 and 2018—but returned to over one million visitors in 2020

In light of Burnett Oil Company’s alleged non-compliance with its permits for the Phase I oil exploration in Big Cypress, the National Park Service must:

  1. Conduct a supplemental environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act to reevaluate Burnett Oil’s adverse impacts to preserve resources and make it available for public comment;
  2. Ensure that any permit modifications require Burnett Oil to complete full reclamation of the damage it caused, conduct thorough monitoring, and provide compensatory mitigation for the loss of wetland functions and endangered Florida panther habitat – including time lag and risk—using the best available science;
  3. Re-initiate consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pursuant to the Endangered Species Act;
  4. Initiate government-to-government consultation with Native American tribes; and
  5. Reject Burnett Oil’s proposal to drill for oil in the Preserve, as it no longer has reasonable assurances that the company will comply with its permits.

As reported by the National Parks Traveler, until the oil company is required to correct the damage it caused and make the preserve whole again, it will continue to receive preferential treatment over other permittees in Florida. This sends a message to industry that it’s okay to ignore legal requirements because they will not be enforced.

You can help make sure Burnett Oil Company does not get its holiday wish this year by taking action here.

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