MIAMI — Renewed hunts for oil in sensitive Florida ecosystems have environmental groups raising questions about the state's regulation of the oil and gas industry.
A Miami company, Kanter Real Estate LLC, has submitted a permit application to drill an exploratory oil well on the eastern edge of the Everglades.
Meanwhile, federal approval is pending for a seismic survey meant to locate new areas for drilling in the Big Cypress National Preserve, a freshwater swamp whose health is vital to the neighboring Everglades and to native wildlife, including the endangered Florida panther.
The state recently issued a wetlands activity permit to Fort Worth, Texas-based Burnett Oil Co. Inc. for the survey that would cover 110 square miles within the preserve. Florida and the National Park Service are requiring a number of steps to ensure minimal harm to wildlife and the environment, but the proposal worries critics who have complained that lax oversight of previous drilling operations left ecologically sensitive areas vulnerable to contamination.
From 2012 to 2014, Florida issued three environmental violations for oil and gas operations in the state, according to violations data analyzed by the Associated Press.
The three violations occurred in 2014 after Collier County officials raised concerns about another Texas oil company's use of a fracking-like oil recovery practice at a well near panther habitat.
The Department of Environmental Protection — the state's oil and gas regulator — say the number doesn't show lax law enforcement, but rather that Florida's strict inspections keep well operators in compliance.
"During the 2014 calendar year, DEP's inspectors conducted 2,472 inspections on the 160 active wells in the state. Due to the frequency of these inspections, potential problems are identified and remedied before a violation occurs or a compliance action is required," said DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel said in a statement.
Environmental groups argue that Florida's regulations currently only cover conventional drilling methods, not the "acid stimulation" that prompted last year's violations or other advanced extraction techniques.
"We've learned that Florida's oil and gas laws are extremely antiquated and rudimentary and don't address new techniques such as fracking," said Jennifer Hecker, director of natural resource policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
Drilling has been a part of the Big Cypress since before it became a national preserve in 1974. The first wells were dug in the 1940s, and drilling continues to this day, as new technologies may improve the efficiency of extracting oil from deposits running underground from Fort Myers to Miami.
The Burnett survey would be scheduled for Florida's winter dry season and produce vibrations created by plates attached to thumper trucks driving across a grid.
The state has gone on record opposing some methods of seismic testing, but it has not objected to the Burnett project.
DEP sent a letter to the Obama administration opposing new rules allowing seismic surveys for oil and gas off the state's Atlantic coast because not enough was known about the surveys' effects on marine life.
The seismic survey in the Big Cypress, however, has to comply with Florida laws, said Engel.
"With onshore seismic, we have regulatory authority through this permitting program," she said.
Burnett says it's prepared to address concerns about the survey's environmental impact. The wetlands activity permit issued by DEP requires the company to restore "using hand tools" any habitat damaged by the survey vehicles, and it encourages crews to remove any invasive plant species they encounter.
The survey trucks' wide, balloon tires will be less damaging than off-road vehicle tires, said Burnett spokesman Ryan Duffy.
The survey would cover an area between active well fields in the eastern and northwestern parts of the preserve, far from recreational areas.
In addition to the state permit, the park service could impose additional stipulations on Burnett to mitigate any environmental damage, said Ron Clark, the preserve's chief resource manager.
Drilling has been a rarity east of the Big Cypress. In 1985, a Texas company drilled in western Broward County, but that well was plugged and abandoned the same year, according to DEP.
The Kanter permit application calls for a 5-acre operation to drill down 11,800 feet.
In a statement, John Kanter said the application is "one of the first steps in a long-term plan that includes proposed mining, as well as water storage and water quality improvement components that have the potential for assisting with Everglades Restoration."
His family has owned the Broward County property slated for exploratory drilling for over 50 years. "As stewards of this land, we are fully invested in ensuring this project provides maximum public benefit while also providing Florida with solutions for water storage and treatment in South Florida," he said.
Environmental groups and some local elected officials say any drilling expansion threatens the region's water supply and Everglades restoration plans.
"Florida law asks the driller to do the best job possible, but it doesn't say you can't drill for oil in wetlands, in the Everglades, in panther habitat," said Matt Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.
In Miramar, the city 5 miles from the where Kanter wants to drill, the mayor and city commission recently voted to oppose the plan because of the threat to their drinking water.
Bonita Springs is over 30 miles from the Big Cypress and hasn't been a target for drilling, but the city council last week unanimously approved an ordinance banning fracking within city limits.