FORT LAUDERDALE — A swath of land in the Everglades at the center of a fight between a family determined to drill for oil and a constellation of parties urging them not to might finally have a new future.
The state intends to buy the 20,000 acre tract outright and halt the threat of oil drilling on the protected lands near Broward County’s western suburbs, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday.
The seller, a Miami family who made their fortunes in real estate, won the right to drill for oil on their land last year, despite opposition from the state. If the sale goes through, it’ll be the largest state land acquisition in a decade.
“This will permanently save the land from oil production,” DeSantis said. “With this acquisition, there will be nearly 600,000 acres of wetlands in Water Conservation Area Three that will be protected by public ownership for recreation and restoration.”
The Kanter family agreed to sell the land for $16.5 million, but that price goes up to $18 million if the state doesn’t close the deal by June 30.
Chauncey Goss, head of the South Florida Water Management District, said his board hasn’t met formally to discuss the issue since the idea was first proposed less than a month ago. He said the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is taking the lead on the purchase, but if water district officials happen to have cash at the ready faster, they will go through with the purchase instead of the Department of Environmental Protection.
“There’s buckets for Everglades restoration everywhere,” he said. “It’s just a matter of who has it at what time.”
The Kanter family originally purchased the land more than 50 years ago with plans to build a new city in the Everglades. In 2015, they asked the state for a permit to hunt for oil on their land. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection turned them down, but the Florida Court of Appeal reversed the decision in February. The appellate judges said DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein “improperly recast factual findings to reach a desired outcome, contrary to law.”
“This was something we challenged in court and the court simply didn’t agree with our administration and allowed oil drilling to move forward,” Valenstein said at the Wednesday press conference.
According to Kanter’s expert testimony in the case, there is only a 23% chance of finding oil on the site, but if it were discovered, the well could produce 180,000 to 10 million barrels at about $50 per barrel.
To begin drilling, Kanter would have had to get several permits from Broward, the federal government and the water management district, as well as a reclassification of the now conservation land. Broward and Miramar, the city a mere six miles from the proposed drill site, loudly pushed back on the drilling from the start.
Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, fought Kanter in court every step of the way, but he said Kanter’s legal argument was stronger than his because there’s no state law that says you can’t drill in the Everglades.
His concern with the location of the Kanter well was how close it was to the Biscayne Aquifer, which provides all the drinking water for Broward and Miami-Dade County. Any potential spill — of diesel fuel, chemicals used for drilling or the super salty water from that deep in the ground — could have been a danger to a drinking source for millions of people.
“Drilling is messy stuff. It’s not like drilling a hole in a piece of wood,” he said. “There were all kinds of opportunities for this to go wrong.”
Environmental groups throughout the state praised the Governor for the potential land deal and its impact on Everglades restoration efforts.
“We hope today’s announcement will be the beginning of meaningful action to acquire all the lands needed to restore and protect the Everglades,” the Sierra Club wrote in a statement. “We also urge the Governor to take the next steps in addressing the causes of climate change that threaten the very existence of the Everglades.”
The last time a Florida governor announced plans to buy back land for Everglades restoration, it didn’t go as planned. In 2008, then-Governor Charlie Crist announced a bold plan to buy most of U.S. Sugar’s Everglades land for $1.75 billion. Then, the recession hit and the state budget shrunk. Two years later, the state bought a small fraction of the land.
Taking the Kanter lands off the oil drilling table is a victory for municipalities and environmental groups across South Florida, but the battle rages on in Big Cypress National Park, near Naples.
Oil companies are still hunting for new wells in the protected land today. Others are applying for permits to join them. When asked about how his administration plans to address the issue, DeSantis said “we’re looking at everything going along.”
Schwartz said the wells in Big Cypress have been producing oil since 1943, but by his calculations the industry has only extracted 120 million gallons since then. He called it a drop in the bucket compared to the daily consumption of the US — 20 million gallons.
Last month, the state allowed six new permits for the same type of exploratory wells Kanter hoped to drill up in the Apalachicola River basin, near the Panhandle.
“I hope the Governor and the DEP realize that this is not the only oil drilling on sensitive land in the state,” Schwartz said. “One day I hope to see oil drilling illegal in every protected land in Florida.”