Broward County commissioners who oppose plans to drill for oil in western marshes believe they have found a way to thwart efforts by a Miami family to tap into Everglades crude: local zoning restrictions.
In a meeting Tuesday, county staff members told commissioners the land is zoned for conservation, which prohibits drilling.
“As long as the decision made is not arbitrary and capricious, it should withstand a legal challenge,” said deputy county attorney Maite Azcoitia.
The county’s authority to govern its land, staff said, trumps a deal struck by state water managers decades ago that allowed the state to use the land for water storage while letting the Kanter family hang on to rights to extract oil, gas and minerals. To drill, the family would have to win permission from the county to change the land use and obtain a lengthy list of permits.
“We have nine hurdles that they have to come through,” Commissioner Barbara Sharief said. “It’s much to do about nothing because it’s not going anywhere.”
Miami-based Kanter Real Estate did not respond to repeated requests for comment Tuesday.
But just in case, county commissioners agreed to ask state legislators to tighten the law governing drilling by including a provision that lets counties oppose drilling in the absence of zoning restrictions.
The Kanter family, which began buying marsh land in the 1950s, has said it wants to tap into the vast Sunniland Trend, a Florida oil field that has been drilled for decades in the Big Cypress National Preserve, but never so far east. While there has been some renewed interest in South Florida drilling — a Texas company has asked to expand sonic surveys in Big Cypress — falling oil prices have mostly cooled efforts.
The Kanter land is located in one of three conservation areas managed by the district, where more than 68,000 acres are still privately owned. In the 1950s, state water managers obtained easements to store water. The state agreed to pay all taxes, and owners retained the right to extract oil, gas and minerals. But up until now, only one well has been drilled in far western Broward County, which was capped within a year.
Critics have speculated that the family might be angling for leverage in a legal fight to force the state to buy the land.
Broward County’s objections join a growing chorus opposing the plans. A half-dozen Broward cities have joined environmental groups and passed resolutions against the request. At least two town hall-style meetings have been scheduled in Miramar and Pembroke Pines.
Last week, in its initial response, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection laid out a long list of items missing from the application, including data on whether oil is even likely to exist so far east.
State officials also said the application failed to address questions over what would happen after the initial drilling, how pollution from drilling would be handled, the location of water wells to pump up to 23 million gallons of water a year needed to drill, whether freshwater supplies would be affected and whether wildlife would be threatened.
The family has said the application, which also includes a request to mine for limestone, would be part of a larger effort to provide much-needed water storage.
But in their response, the South Florida Water Management District water said it has no details on those plans. The district also raised questions over how drilling would interfere with Everglades work and efforts to restore the natural sheet flow of water that once fed healthy marshes.
The district also worries that drilling could worsen water quality the state has been struggling for decades to improve by spreading phosphorus trapped in marshes and sending plumes of sediment that can kill aquatic life.
“Drilling in this region will put in jeopardy the drinking water supply for millions of South Floridians,” said Celeste De Palma, an Everglades policy associate for Audubon Florida. “Drilling is not compatible.”