Lawsuit seeks stop to Big Cypress oil exploration, and maybe fracking

Big Cypress Preserve

The freshwaters of the Big Cypress Swamp, essential to the health of the neighboring Everglades, support the rich marine estuaries along Florida’s southwest coast.

Protecting over 729,000 acres of this vast swamp, Big Cypress National Preserve contains a mixture of tropical and temperate plant communities that are home to a diversity of wildlife, including the elusive Florida panther.

The preserve was established in 1974, in part, for the purpose of maintaining certain existing rights, one of which was oil and gas exploration and development.

The Collier family conveyed the land to the park service and owns the oil and gas rights.

A large part of the Sunniland Trend, an oil reserve that stretches from Fort Myers to Miami, is located within the preserve. Wells produce oil from limestone formations more than two miles below the surface.

Oil exploration and production has been ongoing in Sunniland since 1943.

The oil, when refined, produces auto and aviation fuels, diesel fuel, lube oils and asphalt.

Sources: National Park Service, Collier Resources Co.

Fracking in Florida? It’s not used here — and a group of environmental organizations has filed a lawsuit to make sure it stays that way.

The suit was filed last month in response to the National Park Service’s approval of a request by a energy company to use seismic testing in its search for oil. The environmental groups fear the approval for seismic testing could pave the way for fracking in the Big Cypress preserve — 45 miles west of Miami — and elsewhere in the state.

“The preserve is part of the park system,” said Jennifer Rubiello, state director for St. Petersburg-based Environment Florida. “Seismic exploration is the first step that can lead towards drilling and fracking in places where it should not be happening.”

The company that got the seismic testing permit says it has no plans to frack.

“We are only planning to conduct a 3-D seismic survey at this point,” said Burnett Oil Co. President Charles Nagel. “Seismic operations have previously been conducted by other organizations within the preserve starting back from 1974. What separates our plan from previous operations is that we are using the most up-to-date, high-tech and least invasive methods to collect data.”

Fracking techniques have been used in the past in Florida — at least twice — and environmentalists say they don’t want it to be used again. Fracking is legal in Florida, but the controversial method more commonly known as hydraulic fracturing is not known to be in use now in a state that produces a small but significant amount of oil and natural gas each year through conventional drilling — and has for decades.

While no one will confuse Florida with Texas, or other Big Oil states, the Sunshine State has a decades-long history in oil production.

In 1943, oil was discovered in Collier County in Southwest Florida in the state known more for beaches, tourism and citrus. Humble Oil struck “black gold” after Florida’s governor and cabinet offered a $50,000 prize for the first find. The oil was needed during World War II.

Since then, the state has produced more than 620 million barrels of crude oil and 727 billion cubic feet of natural gas. Peak production was in 1978, when Florida ranked eighth among oil-producing states, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The state’s oil production has sharply fallen since then. But three Texas-based companies — Burnett Oil, Breitburn Operating LP, and Cholla Petroleum Inc. and Fort Myers-based Hendry Energy Services — still hold active DEP permits for either exploration or drilling in the state’s two primary oil-rich areas, Southwest Florida and the Panhandle.

None of the companies has filed any plans to frack, Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said.

Fracking is a method that fractures rock apart with a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals and sand so that gas and oil are more easily released. Environmental groups disdain it because of the need for large amounts of water, and what they claim are toxic impact.

While state law permits fracking, companies employing the technique must get state approval. But in one instance, a company used fracking without the state’s permission, records show.

In 2014, the state cited the Dan A. Hughes Co. of Beeville, Texas, for conducting an unauthorized “enhanced extraction procedure,” which DEP found met the EPA’s description of hydraulic fracturing. The company had a drilling permit, but did not have permission specifically for the procedure, DEP said.

The company, which has since left the state, said it wasn’t fracking because it wasn’t using the usual chemicals, just an acidic solution. It was fined $25,000 and signed a consent order without admitting any wrongdoing.

“The last conventional hydraulic fracturing on record in Florida prior to the Dan A. Hughes operations was conducted in the Jay oil field in Northwest Florida in 2003,” Miller said.

The National Park Service’s approval of Burnett’s plans to conduct 3-D seismic testing to search for more oil and natural gas deposits in 110 square miles of Big Cypress Preserve sparked a lawsuit against the federal agency that governs public lands like national parks and preserves. In May, the park service said it concluded the seismic survey would pose no significant environmental impacts.

The lawsuit filed in federal court in Fort Myers on July 27 states otherwise.

“The scenic and wild public lands that encompass the seismic survey area will be significantly disturbed in ways the Park Service has refused to evaluate fully and disclose to the public,” according to the complaint.

The Collier family donated the land that makes up the Big Cypress Preserve in 1976 and 1996, but maintains the private ownership of the mineral rights. It leases those rights to Burnett and others.

Burnett Oil’s Nagel said the target formation, Upper Sunniland, is a conventional, high-quality reservoir and does not require fracking. To date, more than 120 million barrels of oil have been produced from Sunniland without any fracking.

He insisted the procedures it will employ are similar to an ultrasound and very different from fracking.

“Our Vibroseis technology generates sound waves from sources that are sent into the earth and recorded with geophones,” Nagel.The buggies we use are not thumper trucks which pound the earth — our technology sends sound waves into the ground for about 3o to 60 seconds allowing us to capture images from below the surface, similar to an ultrasound. Our buggies use balloon tires that are specifically designed to leave root systems of grass intact in the preserve.”

But Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director of the Center for Biological Diversity in St. Petersburg, says the testing itself which involves rolling 60,000 pound trucks through the swampy lands and placing a thick, heavy metal 4-by-8- foot plate on the ground could trash the preserve.

“The truck goes out and drops the steel plate on the ground, really hard, and really quickly,” Lopez said.

She added the testing will cause birds and animals, such as the endangered Florida panther, to flee their habitat.

“Burnett has not released its drilling plans,” Lopez said. “We can only say what has been done before, using Hughes as an example.”

Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said there’s never been a catastrophe caused by on-shore drilling in Florida and the environmental impact has been benign.

“It may be a smaller spigot, but all spigots are important. They are cumulatively what we call American oil,” Mica said.

Mica says the environmental groups don’t see the need for “American energy out of Florida” and that their true agenda is that they don’t want any drilling at all.

In fact, Rubiello, the state director of Environment Florida, says public lands should be off limits for drilling.

“The big picture is we do not think there should be any oil or gas exploration on public land,” she said.

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