The state, which has issued 24 permits over the last three years, now counts 46 active wells in Southwest Florida, more than double the number a decade ago. Garrett expects another 10 or so drilling requests are likely in the pipeline.
BreitBurn Energy Partners, which acquired a lease on long-standing operations in the Big Cypress from Collier Resources in 2007, did some of the early work, sinking five new wells in 2010 and 2011.
The company used a directional drilling method that runs a shaft horizontally, greatly improving the chance of tapping pockets of oil and improving production, said Greg Brown, executive vice president of the BreitBurn, which is based in Los Angeles. It also reduces the footprint of a pad, allowing companies to explore a wide area through a single surface hole, drilling wells like spokes on a bike wheel.
Output at Raccoon Point, the region’s largest field, remains modest, last year averaging 1,385 barrels a day, but Brown said the company intends to continue exploring with no plans to frack.
“Some of our wells have been very prolific and some have not and that’s kind of the nature of the business,’’ Brown said. “It’s very high risk. There are a lot more places you can drill and not find oil than places where you can find it.’’
Newcomers are banking almost exclusively on deeper zones, starting with the lower Sunniland, about 500 feet deeper than most wells have been sunk. One well into the area has produced some 300,000 barrels over the last 40 years, Kerogen’s Grigg said, but it has otherwise been lightly explored. Still, he believes the geological science is strong, built on more advanced seismic surveys and positive results from similar underground formations in other states.
Geologists point to even deeper pockets as well, ancient long-buried reefs and swamps another 1,500 to 3,000 feet down with colorful names like Pumpkin Bay and Wood River, which could be the “source rock” of oil that has percolated upwards over millions of years.
What is happening in Florida reflects a recent surge in domestic exploration, largely driven by fracking. The technique, combined with horizontal drilling, has turned trickles from shale formations into gushers of oil, money and jobs. Two of the most famous fields — Bakken, North Dakota, and Eagle Ford, Texas — together currently pump more than 1 million barrels daily. In four months, those two fields alone exceed all 70 years of oil production from Southwest Florida.
The industry acknowledges scattered problems with fracking but defends it as a generally safe practice that helps reduce dependence on imported oil
“American energy from Florida creates jobs,’’ said Dave Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council. “It’s a no brainer to the industry that we do it.”
Mike Cheeseman, a veteran industry geologist who owns Trend Exploration in Bonita Springs, also believes fracking is the key to making drilling pay in deeper zones that may not be as porous.
“The only thing we know is the oil is there,’’ said Cheeseman, who said he is working to acquire leases in the area. “The question is whether we can get it out in commercial quantities.”
For now, most operators say they intend to stick with horizontal drilling — in part because fracking adds considerable expense to wells.