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Exclusive: Oil drilling in preserve? It's not new

Big Cypress wells were first erected in 1943; new rigs started up in 2010

Oct. 9, 2011
A worker sits on an oil rig in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The federal government says there is a “significant potential” for increased drilling in the area.
A worker sits on an oil rig in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The federal government says there is a “significant potential” for increased drilling in the area. / ANDREW WEST/
A rig in the Big Cypress National Preserve, where there may be millions of barrels of undiscovered oil. / ANDREW WEST/

Endangered, threatened species in Big Cypress National Preserve

• Florida panther
• Wood stork
• West Indian manatee
• Red-cockaded woodpecker
• Everglades snail kite
• Cape sable seaside sparrow
• Least tern
• Everglades mink

• Big Cypress fox squirrel
• Eastern indigo snake
• Florida sandhill crane
• Bald eagle
• American alligator
• Florida black bear


Oil exploration in South Florida is along the Sunniland Trend, a well-defined oil reserve about 150 miles long and 20 miles wide.
The trend stretches from Fort Myers to Miami, and includes a swath across the Big Cypress.
More than 200 wells have been drilled in the history of oil production along the Sunniland Trend, according to the 2008 Big Cypress National Preserve Geologic Resource Evaluation Report by the National Park Service.
More than 118 million barrels of crude oil have been produced from the trend since 1943. As a comparison, Texas produced 42.2 million barrels in May. Saudi Arabia produced about 10 million barrels a day in July.
The trend has 14 oil fields, with five dotted across the Big Cypress.
They are: Raccoon Point, Baxter Island, Forty Mile Bend, Pepper Hammock and Bear Island (which is partially in the Big Cypress)
Only 18 wells out of 38 wells in the Sunniland Trend are producing, according to 2010 statistics from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The wells at the Baxter Island, Forty Mile Bend and Pepper Hammock fields are either plugged or abandoned.
Besides BreitBurn Energy Partners, Newport Oil Corp. and U.S. Capital Energy extract oil from fields in the trend.

— Mary Wozniak

An alligator wades next to an oil drilling pad at Big Cypress National Preserve. Drilling is not new to the preserve. / ANDREW WEST/


A dirt road twists and turns to the future of oil drilling deep in the heart of the Big Cypress National Preserve.

It ends at Raccoon Point, a remote area in the 729,000-acre preserve, where a rotating pipe from a derrick towering about 100 feet grinds its bit slowly, inexorably, more than 2 miles into the earth.

This new oil well began operating about two weeks ago, and it’s one of five that have been drilled at Raccoon Point since February 2010.

More are to come.

The fact new drilling has been going on for more than a year makes Gov. Rick Scott’s recent comments about proceeding cautiously with future drilling in the Everglades less than prophetic, and more of a heads-up that the battle between environmentalists and drilling interests is reigniting.

Florida has produced more than 600 million barrels of oil since oil was discovered in Sunniland Field, about 12 miles south of Immokalee, in 1943, according to state Department of Environmental Protection statistics.

In South Florida, more than 107 million barrels have been produced.

“That’s not a drop in the bucket,” said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council. At $50 a barrel, it would be over $30 billion, he said.

A fee to state

The oil industry provided $10 million in royalty fees to the state last year, just in production, Mica said. The fee is like a tax on the quantity of oil produced.

There are an estimated 370 million more barrels of undiscovered oil in South Florida, according to the most recent United States Geological Survey oil reserve estimate.

A 2008 federal Department of the Interior study forecasting oil and gas exploration over the next 10 years says:

“It can be expected that there is a significant potential for new drilling and development in the state of Florida. It can further be expected that new drilling will be located near existing oil and gas fields.”

The Big Cypress is the western end of the Everglades ecosystem. Drilling has been going on there for decades. The first well was discovered by Barron Collier, land baron and founder of Collier County, 68 years ago.

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But new drilling had been dormant for at least 10 years.

The recent expansion is courtesy of Collier Resources, run by descendants of Barron Collier. The company owns 400,000 acres of mineral rights in the Big Cypress.

Company officials declined to be interviewed, but the expansion is trumpeted on the company website.

“We believe there are significant new oil and gas resources within the Big Cypress National Preserve and we are committed to locating and developing them to help meet America’s energy needs,” it reads.

The production from Raccoon Point and Bear Island, another Collier oil field in the preserve, will continue until they are no longer profitable, the website states.

The oil field at Raccoon Point includes 13 wells, eight producing, said Don Hargrove, environmental protection specialist for the Big Cypress.

Hargrove randomly visits the site to check the operations, as do state inspectors.

“The Florida oil and gas industry is one that is kind of low-key, out of sight, out of mind,” Hargrove said. “But it is happening.”

What critics think

Environmentalists decry drilling in the preserve, which:

• Provides 42 percent of the water flowing into Everglades National Park.

• Is the recharge area for the aquifers that supply Floridians and the agriculture industry with potable water.

• Is home to about 30 species federally listed as endangered or threatened or listed by the state as species of special concern, including the Florida panther and wood stork.

And 100 plant species are listed in need of protection by the state.

There are thousands more animal and plant species.

“The richness of species in the Big Cypress is second to none in the continental United States,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.

“Certainly the potential exists for damaged wildlife habitat from exploration,” said Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. The National Park Service also has documented some damage to water resources, he said.

(Page 3 of 5)

Oil business interests say opponents need to realize and accept drilling is a legal and economic reality, a land use supported by the law that created the preserve in 1974.

Mica has served on the Big Cypress Advisory Committee that assisted in the siting of oil exploration. The amount produced by Florida wells may pale in comparison to the U.S. oil appetite — 20 million barrels a day — but any oil that isn’t produced here has to come from overseas, he said.

“The production of oil brings us jobs, brings money to government and brings us American oil and gas resources that, regardless of how small they may be, help reduce our dependence on foreign sources,” he said.

The National Park Service does a balancing act, charged with protecting the preserve’s resources while respecting the legal rights of the companies that drill here.

“Our efforts are not focused on trying to stop the operation,” said Pedro Ramos, preserve superintendent.

Less than 1 percent of preserve acreage is affected by oil and gas operations, Ramos said.

“We are very pleased and believe the ecosystem here is thriving,” he said.

The Everglades Foundation recognizes the Collier family retains those mineral rights “and the idea of blocking any additional exploration may be challenging,” said Kirk Fordham, foundation CEO.

Any future permit applications will be scrutinized, he said.

“Our goal will be to work with the Colliers to direct them in their exploration efforts, to minimize impacts on wildlife habitat and the people’s water supply,” Fordham said.

The federal and state departments of environmental protection regulations for oil permitting and drilling are exhaustive. Monitoring is required, as is reclaiming the land after an oil well is abandoned.

There have been no significant problems at the preserve, said Ron Clark, chief of the resource management division at Big Cypress.

“I would characterize it as, if the operation complies with all the regulations in place then it can be conducted without a detrimental impact to the environment,” he said.

(Page 4 of 5)

The primary issue is the disturbance of the surface of the land, not the actual drilling, Clark said.

“In order to drill for oil and gas in this ecosystem you have to create a suitable area to stage all the equipment,” he said. That means bringing in fill material to create drilling pads, building access roads, using pipelines and trucks to transport the oil.

“Human presence is a concern,” he said. “Noise is a concern.”

Drilling and production activities in Big Cypress have created a large environmental footprint, according to the 2008 Big Cypress National Preserve Geologic Resource Evaluation Report by the National Park Service.

“The pads and roads left behind when a well is plugged and abandoned leave a large scar on the landscape and affect the hydrologic system at Big Cypress,” the report said.

The National Park Service website says there are 37 abandoned oil and gas sites scattered across the preserve.

Collier owns the majority of mineral rights in the Big Cypress, but the original preserve boundaries had about 40,000 private property owners, Clark said.

“Just about all of them had mineral rights and they still do,” he said.

However, the acreage is so tiny the only way it would be economically feasible to explore for oil is for all the owners to collaborate on a single operation, he said.

Collier Resources owns 800,000 acres of private mineral rights across Lee, Collier and Hendry counties, making it the largest private mineral owner in Florida.

Some of the acreage is in the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Hargrove said.

“They may own the rights but then they have to get access to them,” McElwaine said. “That’s a tall order. Certainly there would be one heck of a fight.”

Scott’s comments

There also are private mineral rights owned in Everglades National Park, Hargrove said, but he doesn’t know how much acreage or who the owners are.

The observation tower at the national park’s Shark Valley Visitor Center is a former oil derrick, Clark said.

(Page 5 of 5)

No drilling is being done in the park, or in either wildlife refuge.

Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the federal Department of the Interior, said in an email: “We are not aware of any other privately held mineral rights within Department of the Interior lands in the Everglades region where oil and gas development would be viable.” There are mineral rights, but it is not economically practical to drill on them.

After Scott made his comments about possible drilling, his office hastily backpedaled.

“Gov. Scott has not called for an expansion of drilling in the Everglades, said spokeswoman Amy Graham. “That discussion is not on the table.”

Nothing has changed, Brian Burgess, the governor’s chief spokesman, said this week.

“That’s doesn’t fit within the governor’s economic agenda, ”Burgess said. “It’s just not part of his game plan. He’s got a vision of how to create private-sector jobs, and that’s not part of it.

Mica believes more drilling in the Everglades should be on the table.

“I think if you put the same kind of safeguards as we have in the Big Cypress toward Everglades National Park and our other national parks, yes, our domestic resource can be extracted in an environmentally sensitive manner,” Mica said.

The opposite view?

“My comment on that would be, if there ever surfaces an attempt to drill for oil in Everglades National Park, it would essentially open up a battle that would make the Crusades look like patty-cake,” Fordham said.

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