Cerabino: Florida’s oil exploration plans are all wet — and that’s good

It appears that Mother Nature has taken matters into its own hands in Florida.

For the second year in a row, the summer rains have put a temporary halt to man’s plan to explore for oil in the Big Cypress National Preserve, which borders on Everglades National Park.

Burnett Oil, a Texas company looking for oil in Southwest Florida, has fought off a lawsuit by a slew of environmental organizations to hunt for oil fields in Florida’s most environmentally protected lands and the home of the endangered Florida panther.

The search is done by 33-ton, big-wheeled vehicles called vibroseis trucks that plow deep twin tracks through the preserve, destroying mature dwarf cypress trees and other vegetation over a 110-square-mile tract. The trucks are mapping out the area by applying vibrating plates to the ground which shake the earth to disclose underground formations where oil may exist, some as deep as 12,000 feet below the ground.

Last year, the operations were halted by the summer rains and the soaking of Hurricane Irma, which hampered the truck travel.

Once things dried out, operations resumed this year, but last week they were halted again for the rest of the season by the more-than-normal rainfall. And if scientists’ predictions come true, the appearance of an El Niño weather system later this year could spell out wet conditions that continue well into next year’s dry season.

Mother Nature is defending itself.

Burnett is required by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection and the National Park Service to fix any damage its vehicles do to the land. And environmental groups are trying to make sure the regulators do their jobs.

“We go out and see the truck operating,” said Amber Crooks, the environmental policy manager for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “They’re loud and invasive, and you can feel the vibrations they create from far away.”

Burnett’s able to explore because when the preserve was created in the 1970s, the family of Collier County pioneer Barron Collier hung on to the mineral rights. Burnett already has two drilling sites on the land, and by its exploration, is looking at expanding it. The company has already experimented with fracking in the area.

But it’s hard to imagine why Floridians should embrace oil exploration in the state.

Even putting aside that it would be desecrating the land we’ve dedicated for preservation, it doesn’t make sense for the so-called Sunshine State to slouch toward Oklahoma.

Oklahoma is now the earthquake capital of America.

It got that way by allowing oil companies to change the geology of the state. A byproduct of oil drilling and hydraulic fracking is the toxic wastewater that must eventually be stored underground. This wastewater is handled through disposal wells which inject the water deep into the earth.

The large volume of this tainted water causes rock formations to shift and earthquakes to become more common occurrences. State regulators in Oklahoma have begun to impose new restrictions on oil drilling after the state bypassed California as the earthquake state.

As drilling expanded, Oklahoma went from 41 earthquakes in 2010 to 903 earthquakes five years later, according to Oklahoma’s energy department.

Crooks said environmentalists worry that even if little oil is found or extracted in Florida the oil explorers will run ragged over the environmental land with their big trucks and not be held by federal and state agencies to restore it.

“They’re not supposed to be cutting large cypress trees, but that’s what’s being done,” she said. “And they’re not restoring the land very quickly.”

So for now, Florida’s best defense is the rain.

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