Environmental groups that went to court to stop seismic testing for oil in the Big Cypress National Preserve are worried the work will start this week before a federal judge rules in the case.
Senior U.S. District Judge John Steele in Fort Myers rejected the groups' request for an expedited ruling on a preliminary injunction against Texas-based Burnett Oil Co.
Steele wrote in his April 3 order that he would instead issue a final ruling in the case "as expeditiously as possible."
In a court filing related to the case last month, Burnett reported that it intended to start the preliminary phase of the testing March 27 and begin the seismic tests "on or about April 19," which is Wednesday.
Work must be completed before the summer rainy season. Burnett's state permit expires July 15.
- Lawsuit filed to stop oil exploration in Big Cypress
- Conservationists consider legal options to fight seismic testing for oil in Big Cypress National Preserve
- U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson calls for more thorough review of oil company’s seismic testing plan in Big Cypress
- Crowd opposes plan to use seismic testing to find oil and gas in Big Cypress
Neither the National Park Service nor Burnett would comment on the company's timeline or on whether plans would be delayed by wildfires that have burned more than 47,000 acres this year in the preserve in eastern Collier County.
The Cowbell Fire has closed parts of the preserve that overlap with part of the 70,000-acre survey area north of Interstate 75, but most of the survey area lies south of I-75.
The Parliament Fire is about 95 percent contained north of U.S. 41 East and has not burned into the survey area, fire and survey maps show.
Environmental groups contend Burnett's plans did not get a thorough review into its impact on the landscape and wildlife.
Burnett points to a list of 47 conditions it must meet, including steering clear of wading bird colonies, using existing trails when possible and using monitors ahead of the survey trucks.
"We will be working closely with the National Park Service’s staff to ensure we follow their guidelines," Burnett President Charles Nagel III said in a written statement.
Last month the National Park Service gave Burnett the go-ahead to begin the survey after finding that conditions were dry enough to limit damage.
But South Florida Wildlands Association Executive Director Matthew Schwartz said there is the potential for harm to the preserve, even during dry conditions, unless the judge stops the work and it undergoes further reviews.
"It's an experiment," Schwartz said. "It's too much guessing. It's too much conjecture."
Besides the South Florida Wildlands Association, other groups suing over the testing are the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Conservancy of Southwest Florida and Earthworks.
Schwartz said he witnessed survey crews doing preliminary work March 27, using GPS to lay out the routes seismic testing trucks will take through the preserve. The work involves crews on foot and using small off-road vehicles.
In the testing phase, Burnett's plans call for driving 30-ton "thumper trucks" through roadless parts of the preserve and pressing vibrating steel plates against the ground to create seismic signals that would be analyzed for geologic formations that could hold oil or gas.