Oil drilling in the Everglades was a race to the start — in 1940s

At its peak, in 1977, the Sunniland Trend in the western Everglades produced more than 14,000 barrels per day, but now it’s down to 2,800 barrels a day.

Florida Photographic Collection (1952)

At its peak, in 1977, the Sunniland Trend in the western Everglades produced more than 14,000 barrels per day, but now it’s down to 2,800 barrels a day.

GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann startled some people last week when she said she'd be in favor of drilling for oil in the Everglades. Most oil-drilling discussions in Florida concern whether it will sully the beaches, not whether it would ruin the River of Grass.

But then, this week, Gov. Rick Scott appeared to back Bachmann up, then backed down, and now other politicians and activists are weighing in.

As Scott pointed out, drilling for oil in the Everglades is not some wild-eyed scheme that Bachmann made up. Oil has been pumping out of wells from what's known as the Sunniland Trend in the western Everglades since 1943.

So here's a quick 10-point tutorial on Sunniland, the unlikeliest oil patch in the South — and so far one of the safest, since according to state records there has never been a major oil spill there.

1. IT STARTED WITH A CONTEST: Back before the Everglades was a national park, Florida's governor and Cabinet offered a $50,000 prize for whoever could be the first to find oil in Florida. More than 100 wells were sunk all over the state and came up dry. Then Humble Oil — now better known as Exxon Mobil — found black gold at a depth of 11,700 feet in an area 12 miles south of Immokalee. The discovery set off a scramble as hundreds of other people — including the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court — tried to strike it rich there, too. Humble claimed the prize, then donated the money to the University of Florida and Florida State for scholarships.

2. THE LAND IS NOT PART OF THE PARK. The oil, found four years before President Harry Truman dedicated Everglades National Park, was found on land originally owned by Barron G. Collier Sr. — for whom Collier County is named — who bought 1.3 million acres in the early part of the century and built the Tamiami Trail. The Collier family still owns the property, but the oil fields are managed by the Collier Resources Co., which represents his descendants.

3. IT'S NOT JUST IN COLLIER COUNTY. After the original Humble Oil discovery at Sunniland, 13 more oil field discoveries were found along the northwest-southeast trend through Lee, Hendry, Collier and Dade counties. Oil was found at Bear Island in what's now the Big Cypress Preserve beginning in the mid 1970s and at Raccoon Point, also in the preserve, beginning in the early 1980s. The fields of the Sunniland Trend have produced more than 118 million barrels.

4. THE COLLIERS HELPED CREATE THE PRESERVE AROUND THE WELLS. When the federal government created the Big Cypress Preserve in the mid 1970s, the Collier family donated 76,790 acres — but kept control of the mineral rights.

6. THE BUSH BROTHERS TRIED TO STOP IT. In 2002, President George W. Bush and Gov. Jeb Bush announced a complicated $120 million plan to buy back the Colliers' oil and mineral rights. But amid questions about whether the rights were really worth that much, Congress refused to put up the money. The agreement expired.

7. THERE'S NOT A LOT THERE NOW. At its peak, in 1977, the Sunniland Trend produced more than 14,000 barrels per day, but now it's down to 2,800 barrels a day. At the time of the proposed buyout, the Bush administration estimated the land still held 40 million barrels of low-grade oil, roughly equal to about two days of U.S. oil consumption. One section of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, by comparison, is estimated to have 10.6 billion barrels of available oil, or 265 times as much. But David Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council points out that at $85 a barrel, even a few barrels are worth a lot of money.

8. THERE MIGHT BE MORE NEARBY. "Since 1990, Collier Resources has identified several potential new oil fields in Southwest Florida and is currently active in furthering exploration of the Colliers' over 800,000 acres of mineral assets," the company's website says. A company employee referred questions to a public relations person who did not respond to a request for comment.

9. IT'S A PLOT. Carl Hiaasen used the search for more oil in the Big Cypress Preserve — as well as efforts to protect Florida panther habitat — for the plot of his most recent book for kids, Scat.

10. THAT'S NOT THE ONLY OIL FIELD IN FLORIDA. In 1970, Humble struck oil again, this time near the Panhandle town of Jay. Company officials hailed the discovery as the largest in North America since oil was found on the Alaskan North Slope. By 2009, though, the company running the Jay field needed a tax break from the Legislature to keep its 70 employees working.

Information from the Associated Press and the Santa Rosa Press Gazette were used in this report. Craig Pittman can be contacted at craig@sptimes.com.

Oil drilling in the Everglades was a race to the start — in 1940s 09/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 8, 2011 12:01am]

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