Big Cypress Preserve

Deep in Big Cypress National Preserve, oil flows

Winding into Big Cypress National Preserve, 11 Mile Road isn’t much wider than an old swamp buggy trail and can handle only one-way traffic. Safety rules on the private road limit the speed of Ricky Stechmann’s pickup and require him to radio his location every half mile.

“Marker 7, incoming.’’ Two minutes later. “Marker 8, incoming.” And so on.

It’s a long, slow, invitation-only drive to the largest oil drilling operation in South Florida. For decades, isolation has helped keep the small oil industry largely out of sight and mind. Neighbors are typically surprised when Stechmann, who manages several drilling fields in the sprawling preserve for BreitBurn Energy Partners, tells them what he does for a living.

“They usually say, ‘You do what where?’ ” he says in the soft drawl of his native Mississippi.

Aside from state regulators and preserve rangers, BreitBurn’s operation isn’t seen by many outsiders but it offers a glimpse of what could pop up in more visible locations if a new wave of exploration and drilling finds untapped oil and profits under Southwest Florida. It takes a significant industrial operation, running 24/7, to pump some 1,400 barrels of oil a day, process it and pipe it out of the preserve.

Raccoon Point, just west of the Broward County line halfway between Tamiami Trail to the south and Alligator Alley to the north, consists of five scattered lime rock pads, each multiple acres in size and bristling with pipes, valves and machinery, most of it painted forest green.

The site was built by Exxon in the late 1970s. Los Angeles-based BreitBurn is the latest in a string of companies to run it under a lease from Collier Resources Co., which manages legacy mineral rights owned by the heirs of Barron Collier, namesake of the county and once Florida’s largest landowner.

Though BreitBurn has expanded exploration, drilling five wells in 2010 and 2011, it has done the work from the original pads, using directional drilling that in essence allows the company to bend the straw to sip from new areas. The towering rig that did the work has since moved but during a visit this month, a half-dozen workers labored at a shorter service rig to pull up and replace a worn underground pump. Once in operation, wells don’t amount to much, mostly pipes and valves like a bigger, more complex backyard pool system.

With no power lines, big generators hum in the background, and trucks rumble slowly between pads. Small pipelines snake between pads to the main processing pad where a string of “heater-treater” cylinders, each at least 20 feet tall, separate saltwater that comes with the oil and feed a small amount of captured natural gas back to the generators. The water is reinjected underground in a confining zone isolated from shallower freshwater aquifers, a practice common for treated sewage. Oil is stored in holding tanks then piped north to the trucking facility just off Alligator Alley.

The operation stands out starkly in a swampy forest where colorful bromeliads adorn many trees. But the worst damage was done long ago when the pads and roads were cut. Now wild turkeys, whitetail deer and even rare Florida panthers are regular sights for workers. One doe calmly grazed just off the road in an abandoned well site long ago reclaimed by marsh.

Drilling is forbidden in Everglades National Park to the south but in the Big Cypress, where it was specifically allowed to continue under the 1974 congressional order creating the preserve, the small oil industry hasn’t proven an environmental menace.

Over the years, it’s been a very, very clean operation,’’ said Big Cypress Superintendent Pedro Ramos. “We really haven’t had any issues to speak of.’’

State environmental regulators have reported no major spills over the years and, unlike at bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, there’s no threat of uncontained blowouts because the oil isn’t under pressure. It has to be pumped out, Ramos said. “That’s an important distinction to make when there are concerns about pollution.”

Stechmann acknowledges that with so much equipment, miles of pipes and a messy product, there have been minor accidents. But the pads are designed to retain spills, which he said are quickly mopped up.

Environmental groups have tolerated existing drilling but have repeatedly battled expansion plans and blasted politicians who suggest opening the Everglades, including Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann in 2011. Gov. Rick Scott said he supported current drilling in Big Cypress but backed away from expansion talk.

Don Hargrove, an environmental protection specialist for the preserve, said he’s fielded a few phone calls in recent months from mineral rights owners but no new company has inquired about exploration, at least yet. Preserve rules, at least on paper, would allow drilling on up to 10 percent of land. They now take up about 120 acres, Hargrove said — a tiny fraction of the 729,000-acre preserve.

“It depends on who is looking at it. If you’re a staunch environmentalist, a person’s footprint is an impact. Generators, vehicles, that’s a big impact,’’ he said. “But overall, the oil industry itself has very small footprint in the Big Cypress.”

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