Everglades oil drilling proposal could be more difficult with the Biden administration
A Texas company’s plans to drill for oil in the Everglades may have a harder time getting approved, now that an administration skeptical of fossil fuels has taken over in Washington.
Burnett Oil Co. has proposed to drill at two sites in Big Cypress National Preserve, an important Florida panther habitat that stretches on both sides of Alligator Alley. Although oil drilling has taken place there on a modest scale since the 1970s, the potential expansion has met with stiff opposition from environmentalists.
They hope to find an ally in President Joe Biden, who has taken steps to reduce fossil fuel use and tried to impose a moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal lands.
“If the Biden administration allows this project to continue, it would be the first and only new industrial petroleum development allowed to be built inside a national park unit anywhere in the country since it entered into function, ”said Melissa Abdo, regional director of the National Association for the Conservation of Parks.
“It would go completely against the administration’s climate goals. We have all the hopes and expectations that the Home Secretary [Deb] Haaland will listen to the many voices, including indigenous ones, who oppose this alarming proposal. “
Drivers experience Big Cypress as a blur of 30 mile trees along both sides of Alligator Alley. But behind the fences that keep wildlife away from the freeway stands important habitat for the Florida panther, red cockade woodpecker, black bear, alligator, and many other species. The reserve is a popular destination for hunting, fishing, hiking and bird watching.
Burnett Oil, which did not respond to requests for comment, carried out exploratory seismic work under the Trump administration, using sound waves to search for oil. The work was approved under the Obama administration.
Since these early operations, a new administration has taken over and started implementing policies less favorable to the oil industry. Biden announced a moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal lands and began implementing tougher policies to tackle climate change, which is largely driven by fossil fuels.
The lease moratorium was overturned this summer pending a legal challenge, and the oil drilling proposal for Big Cypress would not have been affected anyway, as the mineral rights are in private hands. But environmentalists say they hope an administration concerned about climate change will critically examine the idea of extracting more oil from the Everglades.
“You have Biden executive orders that focus on tackling the climate crisis and environmental justice issues,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “And you would think that at Big Cypress you wouldn’t want to engage in other oil extraction activities, especially in light of the potential contribution to the climate crisis.”
Environmental groups opposed to the works set up a website this week at www.savebigcypress.org.
The oil drilling plan must also be approved by the state, including permits from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Governor Ron DeSantis last year blocked a proposal to drill for oil in the Everglades of western Broward County, staging a buyout to protect the land. But that proposal would have affected state land, and Big Cypress’s proposal is on federal land. And the governor’s influence on a particular permit application is limited by legal requirements on how an agency makes permit decisions.
Jared Williams, spokesperson for DeSantis, referred the questions to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
The company has applied for permits from the state to build two drilling rigs, with more permits required before drilling can begin. The DEP said the application process was in its early stages, with the agency seeking more information from the company about its plans. In addition, the DEP will receive comments from other agencies, such as those concerned with the protection of wildlife, and will open the process for public comment before rendering a decision.
“It is still very early in the review of applications by the department,” the agency said in a statement. “The department sent a second request for additional information to the applicant.”
The National Park Service said the company’s claim is still under review.
Oil drilling has taken place in southwest Florida since the 1940s, although the region never became the primary source of production envisioned by its pioneers.
Two small well fields are active today at Big Cypress, where mineral rights have remained in the hands of the Collier family, descendants of southwest Florida pioneer Barron Collier. The oil is trucked to Port Everglades for shipment to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.
The new drilling would take place at two locations. One drilling rig would be north of Tamiami Trail, near the Miccosukee reserve, and the other south of Alligator Alley, less than five miles from the Seminole reserve.
“The Seminole Tribe has a significant interest in these applications and the areas that will be adversely affected by the proposed activities,” the tribe wrote in a letter to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Big Cypress “is of great significance to the Seminole Tribe as part of the tribe’s historical and cultural home,” the tribe wrote. “As a result, there are sites of historical and cultural significance to the Seminole Tribe located throughout BCNP and the BCNP ecological mosaic provides habitat for many species of animals and plants which are also culturally significant to the tribe. ”
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