The last big company, Shell Oil, dropped out in the early 1990s after an intense backlash. A decade later, Collier Resources also backed off a proposal for a massive expansion of seismic testing and exploratory drilling in the Big Cypress.
This time, little-known small and mid-sized companies are doing the groundwork, pursuing drilling permits outside wilderness areas like the preserve and the adjacent Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
The Dan A. Hughes Company, which has partnered with Collier Resources, for instance, has drilled one well in an Immokalee tomato field and early this month applied for state permits for two wells a mile from southeastern Golden Gates Estates, a subdivision at the rural edge of Naples. Kerogen and other companies also are shopping for surface rights — also necessary to site a drilling rig and sink a well — in areas with few nearby residents such as rock quarries and ranches.
“Our idea was to develop areas that were not environmentally sensitive,’’ said Henry Kremers, chief operating officer for Hughes, which is based in Beeville, Texas. “We’re drilling in agricultural lands. Let’s find out if there is anything there before we go further.’’
Still, environmentalists worry about the ripple effects of industrial development — from the noise of small explosions and “thumper trucks” used in seismic exploration to the prospects of heavy traffic, messy spills and construction of unsightly wells, pumps and tank farms.
“We’re concerned,’’ said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon Florida, which owns Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a pristine 14,000-acre preserve near Hughes’ Immokalee well. “We’re going to pay careful attention to what Hughes and Collier Resources are doing.’’
Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the Florida Wildlands Associations, said the Golden Gates Estates well borders prime panther habitat and, at the least, would increase traffic, which has become one the biggest killers of rare cats. Six have been run down this year. Some area neighbors also have raised health, safety and traffic concerns.
“When you industrialize an area, there’s a loss of habitat, a degradation of habitat,’’ Schwartz said. “The panther and the western Everglades are already dying by a thousand cuts.’’
Oil drilling has a long history in Southwest Florida, starting with Humble Oil’s 1943 discovery of the Sunniland Trend, a 20-mile-wide formation about 11,000 feet down that runs across much of the lower peninsula, from Fort Myers through the Big Cypress and narrowing as it crosses the Everglades toward Miami. Over the next four decades, companies would drill hundreds of wells in 14 fields, pumping out a peak of some 17,000 barrels a day by the 1970s.
But plunging prices and the fact that the thick crude is expensive to pump and process whittled the industry down. By 2005, a handful of operators were producing about a tenth of peak volume from fewer than two dozen active wells.
But in the last few years, the industry has begun to rebound. DEP’s Garrett called it a “moderate uptick’’ that has corresponded with rising oil prices, currently hovering near $90 a barrel.