A Texas-based oil company has applied for permits to build well pads and access roads in preparation for future oil drilling inside Big Cypress National Preserve, which provides habitat for endangered species such as the Florida panther.
Burnett Oil Co., which already did seismic testing to look for oil in Big Cypress in 2017 and 2018, filed two applications to Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to fill in wetlands and build new infrastructure south of Interstate 75. The requests were filed late last month, just days after the Trump administration gave the state permitting authority under the federal government’s Section 404 of the Clean Water Act.
The company is asking to build the infrastructure in two new locations, according to the permit applications. The applications refer only to dredging and filling wetlands for the well pads and access roads in the Nobles Grade area and in the Tamiami area, and not to any drilling activity. The locations are near Raccoon Point, where ExxonMobil discovered oil in 1978.
Conservation groups sent a letter to DEP’s Secretary Noah Valenstein and to the National Park Service this week 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.
Oil exploration in Big Cypress has been going on 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.
One of the areas where Burnett is seeking to build on is very close to the Miccosukee reservation. The permit applications left tribe members “deeply concerned,” according to Kevin Donaldson, director of real estate services and tribal historic preservation for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.
“This area is replete with known cultural sites which cannot be impacted,” Donaldson said in an email. “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.”
Alia Faraj-Johnson, a spokesperson at 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,” she said in emailed response to questions.
In the permit applications, Burnett provides a proposed timeline for its 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, the application says.
The company also said in the application that it’s proposing to use directional drilling from a single well pad to minimize environmental impact at the sites. But since drilling would be happening horizontally underground, covering a large area, there is a risk to water resources under the preserve and beyond, said Alison Kelly, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This is an area of porous limestone, and all the water in South Florida is connected,” Kelly said. She added that it’s unclear what the company would do to transport the oil for refining, and how it would manage wastewater and other byproducts of oil drilling in such a sensitive ecosystem.
Environmentalists, who have opposed the industry’s sporadic plans to expand exploration and drilling in an important freshwater wetland, were surprised by the applications.
“We are trying to reduce emissions and help resolve the climate crisis while protecting sensitive ecosystems; this project goes in the opposite direction,” said Melissa Abdo, Sun Coast regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who opposed the state taking over wetlands permitting because it would eliminate federal oversight she says is crucial for the protection of Florida’s environment, criticized the applications.
“I called earlier this week 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,” she said in a statement.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year said Burnett had caused damage to sensitive habitats in Big Cypress, violating the Clean Water Act. In a letter in March the Corps said seismic testing led to “channelization” and had done extensive damage to “high quality wet prairie and dwarf cypress” — work the agency said violated federal environmental law. The seismic work was being done under a permit granted by the National Park Service. The Corps said that the activity had caused “an identifiable individual and cumulative adverse effect on aquatic function.” The letter also said that any activity by Burnett would need to be approved by the Corps going forward.
But just a month later, the Corps reversed its assessment 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 said at the time it was “suspicious” that the agency would change its mind about damage that had been documented at Big Cypress.