A Texas oil company hoping to hunt for crude in the Big Cypress National Preserve has applied for a permit for a seismic survey of 110 square miles of wilderness.
On Wednesday, the National Park Service posted a plan from Burnett Oil that proposes using massive “thumper” trucks to send vibrations deep into the earth to detect oil and gas. The park service is seeking public comment on the request through July 17 and will use responses in crafting a study on the environmental impacts of the operation.
The latest request from Burnett Oil covers less then a third of an earlier one, which sought to search 366 square miles during the dry season over four years — an application that raised objections from Big Cypress managers and environmentalists. The new application, though significantly downsized, also immediately raised concern from conservation groups fighting expanded drilling and exploration in the Southwest Florida preserve.
“It’s an industrial operation,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “This is the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve. It’s the most important ground for panthers and 30 other species and plants go off the scale.”
Drilling for oil in the preserve, a refuge for endangered panthers, wood storks and other disappearing wildlife, has been going on for decades. When the preserve was created in 1974, the park service agreed to let the Collier family, which owned much of the land, continue operating existing drilling leases at Bear Island, just north of Alligator Alley and east of what is now the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
Four years later, oil was discovered to the southeast, at Raccoon Point, said Don Hargrove, the preserve’s environmental specialist. New wells went in but on existing pads and no new land has been opened up for drilling. Today the family owns rights on about 800,000 acres and continues to pump oil from the two locations.
Environmentalists grudgingly accept existing operations that include acres of concrete pads and miles of pipe but have fought repeated expansion efforts over the years.
“It’s not as though Congress has decided that it’s an incongruous use, however the scope of the project is a little troubling,” said Jaclyn Lopez, an attorney and Florida director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The Collier family sought surveys in 2001 and 2006, but never submitted formal requests, Hargrove said. The last survey done was in 1999, but covered just a small area near Raccoon Point, where the new wells were added in 2010. The land targeted for the survey sits between the existing drilling sites.
At Raccoon Point, five concrete pads, some the size of several football fields, are filled with equipment and machinery needed to extract oil. Pipes from the wells run across the preserve to a truck depot off Alligator Alley. Environmentalists say even surveying, which requires heavy trucks to go off-road in a grid pattern, can damage fragile wetlands and open pathways for invasive species like Brazilian pepper.
Environmentalists see the survey request as a first step toward opening up sensitive land to further drilling. Drilling in Southwest Florida picked up in 2013 as oil prices escalated. Companies quietly spent between $10 million and $20 million to purchase mineral rights. But efforts seemed to fade as the price of gas plummeted. Outcry over fracking, a process deployed out west on tough shale to flush oil using high-powered water guns, has also intensified. But fracking has never been tried in South Florida’s brittle limestone.
The last time a major exploration was suggested more than a decade ago, the park service considered buying the mineral rights from the family, said preserve spokesman Bob DeGross. But disputes over the value of the rights caused the deal to fall apart.
Public comment on the proposal will close in 30 days if no extensions are granted. If the park service’s environmental study finds no significant damage to wildlife and the surveys are approved, the surveys would commence. For this survey, no explosives will be used. Instead, vibrations created by plates attached to the bottom of thumper trucks will move along a grid, sending seismic acoustical signals. The vibrations, DeGross said, will not cause ground disturbances.
If the surveys show oil, Burnett would then submit a drilling program to the park service, which would go through another round of public comment.
“We’d go through the same process again,” said Hargrove, who expects the environmental study to be completed sometime in August or early September.