National park advocates are publicly urging federal environment officials to invoke a rarely used veto to protect Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve from future oil exploration.
It’s an option the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has used only 14 times in five decades — including most recently the Jan. 31 decision to protect Alaska’s Bristol Bay from mining — but the National Parks Conservation Association says Big Cypress is the perfect candidate for the federal government to use its veto authority and shield wetlands from the threat of future oil drilling.
The association’s reasoning: Big Cypress is home to several endangered species, including the Florida panther, and is a crucial ingredient to maintaining the health of Florida’s Everglades; it’s vulnerable to the seismic testing oil companies have used at the preserve in the past to search for oil; and one of the few times the Environmental Protection Agency has used its rare authority was to protect the Everglades from a rock-plowing project in 1988, meaning the precedent already exists.
“Future oil exploration poses a substantial and clear threat to the sensitive wetland habitats and habitats for endangered and threatened species like ghost orchids, Florida panthers and others,” Melissa Abdo, a regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the Tampa Bay Times in an interview Tuesday night.
The association, which advocates on behalf of the national parks system, publicly called on the Environmental Protection Agency Wednesday morning to use its veto authority under the Clean Water Act, referred to as Section 404(c). The appeal followed a letter from the association’s lawyer sent to the Environmental Protection Agency’s head, Michael Regan, on Jan. 25.
“It is clear to us that oil activities would have an adverse impact on these wetlands and on wildlife. And thus it’s very clear to us that 404(c) is warranted here,” Abdo said.
In 2017 and 2018, Texas-based Burnett Oil surveyed for possible oil deposits in the preserve, and ultimately won a lawsuit against a coalition of environmental groups. After Burnett Oil completed seismic testing, federal regulators with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers first determined heavy machinery had gouged Big Cypress’ wetlands, but then walked back that assessment.
In February 2022, Burnett Oil withdrew its application for a construction permit for an oil and gas well pad in the preserve, but in a letter to the state hinted it would submit a new permit soon. The company has yet to reapply for a new permit, Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Alexandra Kuchta said Tuesday night.
Despite many Florida environmentalists’ opposition, Florida took control of wetlands permitting from the feds in 2020, becoming only the third state in the nation to do so. But if the Environmental Protection Agency were to ultimately invoke the Clean Water Act, it would supersede the state’s authority, according to Jaclyn Lopez, an environmental law professor at Stetson University and former Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
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“I certainly think this is a compelling case for the EPA to exercise its authority,” Lopez told the Times. “This isn’t just a run of-the-mill project. This is oil drilling in an untouched area of a national park system.”
Not only is the ecosystem important for moving water into the thirsty Everglades, it’s also significant to the Miccosukee and Seminole tribes of Florida, Lopez said.
“These are really special wetlands,” she said. “If the EPA was ever going to exercise its retained authority to revoke certain types of dredge and fill permits, this would be the exact type of situation that it should be doing that.”
The Environmental Protection Agency’s ruling would likely be more narrow, like refusing a company’s request to build oil infrastructure, instead of a broad ban on oil drilling in the preserve, according to Lopez. The agency has received and is reviewing the association’s petition, spokesperson James Pinkney said in an emailed statement.
The preserve is overseen by the National Park Service, but rights to some resources under the surface are privately owned. The Collier family conveyed more than 76,000 acres of land to the National Park Service in the 1970s, but kept the mineral rights. Mineral rights are for materials like gas and oil that are beneath the land’s surface.
The National Parks Conservation Association says its request for the Environmental Protection Agency to use its veto authority doesn’t apply to legacy oil fields already in the preserve, like Raccoon Point in the southeast corner of the preserve, and the Bear Island oilfield in the northwest. Any oil and gas activity in a national park site “is of deep concern” to the association, but the veto would only prevent new exploratory and oil development work, according to the group.
Meanwhile, efforts are ongoing to have the federal government purchase the mineral rights and end the prospect of drilling in Big Cypress for good.
“I still think that a buyout is going to have to be the ultimate solution. Even if the EPA does this, there’s still going to have to be some kind of buyout” to end drilling entirely, said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. Schwartz successfully fought to reduce the number of off-road vehicle trails in parts of Big Cypress.
Still, he said, he’d be “delighted” if the Environmental Protection Agency went through with the decision.
“There’s no question that all oil drilling activities have been damaging to Big Cypress,” Schwartz said. “Big Cypress is unique. It’s not only one of the most biodiverse places in Florida, it’s one of the most biodiverse pieces of land in North America.”