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Tom Henning
Tom Henning

Immokalee Regional Airport is on tap to be the next exploratory drilling site in Collier County, as the furor continues over a proposal to drill for oil near the community of Golden Gate Estates and the border of the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge.

Chris Curry, executive director of the Collier County Airport Authority, said Friday the issue could come before Collier County commissioners as early as September.

The reason is to earn more revenue to run the three airports he is in charge of: Immokalee, Marco Island Executive Airport and Everglades Airpark, and eventually make them self-sufficient, Curry said. The county provides about $500,000 for airport operations, he said. The Naples Municipal Airport is run by the city of Naples.

Drilling discussions started about nine months ago, long before the Dan A. Hughes Petroleum Geological Co., of Beeville, Texas, applied for a permit in May to drill for oil near Golden Gate, Curry said. He has been talking to one or two firms interested in drilling, but declined to name them. However, he said none are the Hughes company; Collier Resources, which owns thousands of acres of mineral rights in the drilling area, or Breitburn Energy, which leases the majority of Collier’s mineral rights for drilling.

The county would have to put out a request for proposal, to give all interested parties a fair chance to bid, he said. “We’re interested in seeing what price the market will bear.”

Immokalee Airport, with two, 5,000-foot runways, was originally a World War II bomber-training base. There are about 1,400 acres that could be explored for oil or gas, Curry said.

“We’re currently conducting an underground title search to see what percentage of the land is exactly owned by the airport and what is owned by others,” Curry said. “We think that we can get, at a minimum, $35 per acre for a prepaid lease amount.” That equates to about $45,000 paid up front, he said. “If anything is discovered, I think we will set a minimum royalty percentage of 20 percent. That will be the baseline for the proposal and certainly if there are higher bids, then that would be more attractive for us.”

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The news the Hughes company is seeking permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection to drill for oil less than a mile from residents’ homes in Golden Gate prompted formation of a group called “Preserve Our Paradise,” and creation of a petition in opposition that has accumulated nearly 2,500 signatures in one week.

Joe Mule, an organizer of the Paradise group, called the Immokalee Airport proposal: “Horrific. There’s no other way to describe it.”

Curry said the nearest resident to the airport probably lives about two miles away. He doesn’t consider the drilling environmentally risky. Nor does he believe the turmoil over the Golden Gate drilling will have a backlash on the airport proposal.

“It is certainly not a new process. It is going on all around eastern Collier County,” Curry said. “It is just one of the many ways proposed to the board to make the airport more self-sufficient.”

Curry said he’s contacted several colleagues at airports in Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas and Colorado that follow the same practice.

Collier County Commission Vice Chairman Tom Henning believes the practice has promise and favors following it up. But he couldn’t say if the measure would pass if it comes before the board. More than 300 wells have been drilled in the county since the 1940s, he said.

The county has a better chance to control the drilling process when it happens at is own airport, he said.

Something must be done to bring in more revenue, Henning said. “He (Curry) needs to right-size the airports.” Other rural airports, such as in Hendry County, do the job with a lot fewer employees, Henning said.

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