Oil company wants to build wells in Big Cypress National Preserve

The Florida drilling proposal shows the limits of an order from President Joe Biden.
A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve in 2008.
A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve in 2008. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Feb. 4, 2021|Updated March 16, 2021

Days before President Joe Biden issued an executive order pausing new oil leases on public lands, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection received applications from a Texas oil company for the start of two new wells in Big Cypress National Preserve.

The proposal, opposed by environmentalists, shows the limitations of Biden’s order for Florida’s small drilling industry. Prospectors have long worked an oil play here that extends beneath Big Cypress, next to the Everglades. The preserve is overseen by the National Park Service, but rights to some resources under the surface are privately owned.

That means Collier Resources Company, from the Collier family that conveyed land for the preserve in the 1970s and kept the mineral rights, still has control.

“They don’t need any federal leases,” said Paul Boudreaux, a Stetson University environmental law professor. “It doesn’t belong to the government.”

The Collier company did not reply to two calls seeking comment Thursday. The superintendent of Big Cypress, Tom Forsyth, replied Friday morning that the Park Service had received an application for new drilling and production, which will require access to “privately-owned oil prospects” inside the preserve. Officials will review that request, he said, including an environmental assessment.

Burnett Oil, the drilling outfit, is confident it will find oil or gas, said spokeswoman Alia Faraj-Johnson. Burnett previously surveyed for possible deposits, in a process environmentalists unsuccessfully challenged in court. Following that work, federal regulators determined heavy machines then had gouged wetlands, but eventually walked back that assessment.

“We are committed to using the least impactful methods for extracting the private minerals underlying the preserve and compensating for any wetland and wildlife impacts,” Faraj-Johnson said.

Burnett’s application to the Department of Environmental Protection asks permission to fill in wetlands in Big Cypress as part of construction for two well pads and access roads. The state agency recently took over such permitting decisions from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The oil company wants to work on two sites across more than 30 acres, one off Interstate 75 east of Naples and another about 10 miles north of U.S. 41, near where Collier, Broward and Miami-Dade counties meet. The sites are close to the Miccosukee Indian community, and the tribe said it is worried about drilling disrupting historical sites.

“This area is replete with known cultural sites which cannot be impacted,” wrote Kevin Donaldson, who oversees real estate services for the Miccosukee, in a statement. “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.”

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Big Cypress encompasses more than 729,000 acres, providing freshwater and a home for endangered and threatened wildlife, including the Florida panther.

An oil prospect called the Sunniland Trend runs under the preserve. It produces about 2,800 barrels of oil a day, the Collier Resources Company reports. Roughly 11 million barrels are produced daily in the United States, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Alison Kelly, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said advocates learned about Burnett’s application from a map on the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s website. Several groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and National Parks Conservation Association, wrote a letter to the state complaining about a “lack of transparency” and spelling out their opposition to drilling.

The state agency said it received the applications Jan. 22 and is vetting them for completeness.

“It is still very early in the department’s review of the applications,” spokeswoman Weesam Khoury wrote in a statement. “Once the applications are deemed complete, these applications will be publicly noticed, which will start a 30-day public comment period.”

She said the state had received applications only for dredging or filling wetlands, not for actually drilling on the pads.

Related: Environmentalists sue to stop Florida from handling wetlands development permits

Though leasing may be a private matter, Kelly said Burnett will still need federal approval to go into the preserve and drill. The Biden administration, she said, signaled in its order that it could review oil and gas permitting on government land as the president seeks to cut fossil fuel emissions.

“Every well is going to have emissions coming off of it,” Kelly said. “That’s going to add to the climate crisis we’re currently trying to solve.”

Environmental consultants, in reports attached to Burnett’s application, described assessments they conducted around the proposed sites. They found colonies of threatened wood storks within 20 miles of the proposed well pads and wrote that traffic for construction would cause a “temporary disturbance due to noise, ground vibration and the presence of humans.” They ultimately concluded, though, that the development would not cause major harm to native wildlife.

Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, said other wells in the area interrupt a natural expanse.

“It looks like as far from the habitat out there you could get, unless you build a Walmart,” Schwartz said.

Burnett described how it planned to pursue a more costly approach, to drill off a single well pad and expand horizontally once underground, to reduce its footprint. In an example timeline, consultants said the company could start building in December, drilling in June 2022 and continue operations for about 30 years or until the oil is tapped out, at which point it would tear down the wells and try to restore the land — perhaps by 2056.

Editor’s note: The Collier family was compensated for land that became part of Big Cypress National Preserve. A previous version of this story misstated how the government obtained it.