One environmental issue in Florida that tends to unite people from both parties is opposition to offshore drilling. The risk of a spill damaging the state’s popular beaches and, by extension, the tourism industry seems too great compared to any economic benefit.
Oil companies have been far more successful with drilling on land in Florida. Under Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection has done little to stop them.
In 2017, the agency issued one permit for a company that wants to drill in the Broward County portion of the Everglades, but denied a second one. The company challenged the denial and won earlier this year. The state agency’s leaders chose not to appeal the ruling, despite millions of dollars spent in the past two decades on Everglades restoration.
Meanwhile, last month the agency announced its intention to issue a permit to allow a different company to sink wells on land that’s in the Apalachicola River’s watershed in North Florida.
“The state has spent tremendous sums of money to protect the Apalachicola River, which is Florida’s largest river by volume,” said Georgia Ackerman, who leads the Apalachicola Riverkeeper environmental group. To allow drilling there now, she said, “makes no sense.”
According to Matt Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, the agency’s failure to stop oil drillers is similar to its failure to halt destructive development: Legislators have rigged the rules in favor of business and against saving the environment.
“Part of the problem is that Florida law doesn’t support denials,” said Schwartz, whose organization is hopeful federal officials will still block the drilling company by rejecting a needed wetlands destruction permit.
Every permit application is reviewed on a specific case-by-case basis, said Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environmental Protection, "to ensure that all aspects of the operation are lawful and are protective of the environment, human health and safety, drinking water and underground natural resources.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
The Texas company proposing to drill near the Apalachicola River is called Cholla Petroleum. The company is seeking permission to sink six exploratory wells, each of them between 13,600 feet and 14,200 feet deep, in an area of Calhoun County between the river and the Dead Lakes, a popular fishing spot.
“Under current law, DEP had no grounds to deny the Cholla permit,” Miller said. She emphasized that it’s only for an exploratory well and does not guarantee other permits would be issued in the future.
Cholla wants to set up four drilling pads for the six wells, all of them located within the Apalachicola River basin and close to flowing river water, according to Ackerman’s group. The company did not respond to a request for comment.
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Cholla is pursuing the permit even though a Mississippi company, Spooner Petroleum, recently drilled an exploratory well in that vicinity and came up dry. Spooner is now seeking a permit to drill another exploratory well in neighboring Gulf County.
Cholla turned in its application just two months before Hurricane Michael hit the Panhandle. That storm put that parcel of land under floodwaters, Ackerman said. She said her organization fears that a flood that overwhelms the drilling site will spread pollution everywhere downriver, including in areas that get their drinking water from that watershed.
The state has spent millions of dollars trying to protect the Apalachicola watershed from pollution, she pointed out, as well as additional millions suing Georgia to stop it from draining so much water from upstream to keep lawns green in Atlanta.
In the Everglades, the company pursuing a drilling permit is not in the oil business. It’s the family-owned Kanter Real Estate, which owns 20,000 acres in Broward County. The company wants to drill an exploratory oil well on a five-acre site about 10 miles south of Alligator Alley. Kanter did not respond to a request for comment.
According to Schwartz, drilling for oil there will put at risk not only the multi-million-dollar Everglades restoration program but also the water supply for South Florida. Like Ackerman with the Cholla permit, he worries too about the drilling site becoming inundated.
“I’ve been in water up to my neck on that site,” said Schwartz, a professional guide.
Miller said the loss in the Kanter case “informed” the agency’s decision that there were no grounds for denying the Cholla permit.
Oil drilling may not be common in Florida, but it’s not new either. In 1943, after the governor and Cabinet offered a $50,000 prize for the first one to find oil in Florida, the Humble Oil and Refining Company struck oil 2 miles beneath what’s now the Big Cypress National Preserve near Naples. That field still produces 2,800 barrels of oil per day.
Then, in 1970, Exxon discovered oil beneath the Panhandle town of Jay about 30 miles northeast of Pensacola. It eventually sunk 93 wells there, pumping millions of dollars into the local economy. By 1990, the Jay field had produced 365 million barrels of oil but the flow had slowed to a trickle.
Although a successful oil discovery might boost tax receipts, opponents of the Kanter drilling plan include the Broward County Commission and the city of Miramar, which have asked the state Supreme Court to overturn the recent appeals court ruling. Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam told the Sun-Sentinel that Kanter’s permit imperils the city’s water supply, and “it’s terrible … to even think of the prospect of oil drilling just outside our city.”
The same is not true in the Panhandle. The Calhoun County Commission has seen no reason to stand in the way of Cholla, especially given the events of the past year, according to commission chairman Gene Bailey.
Hurricane Michael obliterated the timber industry, which was the county’s economic driver, he said. Commissioners hope for an oil-fueled economic boom to take its place.
“We don’t have a railroad, no four-lane roads, no sandy beaches and our tax revenue is nonexistent,” Bailey said. “It’s down to, ‘Do you want something to eat?’”