Burnett Oil pulls drilling application for Big Cypress site, says it will submit new permit soon

Chad Gillis
Marco Eagle

A Texas oil company has withdrawn permit applications for exploratory oil operations in the Big Cypress National Preserve, but a letter to the state suggests Burnett Oil will return to the project in the future. 

Burnett Oil has worked for years to secure the necessary permitting to drill down 12,000 feet for oil in the heart of some of the most ecologically sensitive lands in Florida. 

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection in December wrote a letter to Burnett, informing the company that proposed changes to the original permit posed a problem to DEP's review process. 

"The ongoing changes in project design and mitigation proposals presents a significant challenge to (DEP's) ability to review and assess the permitting criteria," wrote DEP attorney Megan Mills, who oversees DEP's permitting program, in a Dec. 20 letter to Burnett. "If reasonable assurances that the permitting criteria have been adequately addressed to support the issuance of a permit are not provided in the next response, your application may be denied." 

Vanessa Garcia Cuevas of Tampa carries the AIM flag in a hike on Saturday, April 10, 2021, in Big Cypress National Preserve to a location where Burnett Oil Company is planning an oil pad.

Instead of making changes to its application and supplying the requested information by the Feb. 22 deadline, Burnett chose to pull the application and start the process again. 

The National Park Service, or NPS, also decided last year to conduct a more stringent environmental review of the project, something Burnett officials say they need more time to process. 

"Since the (FDEP) has indicated that it does not want significant changes to Burnett’s application in the review process, and the new NPS decision increases the chance that such changes might occur in the coming months, we believe that withdrawing the applications to the (FDEP), in order to allow the NPS’s review to progress further, is an appropriate measure that ultimately should streamline the review for the (FDEP) when the applications are resubmitted," the Burnett Oil letter reads. 

Burnett Oil officials could not be reached for comment. 

Burnett conducted seismic testing in the preserve, and critics say the company did not comply with mitigation plans for that part of the drilling process. 

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Amber Crooks, with the Conservancy for Southwest Florida, said she expects the company to submit another application, but that any delay in the drilling is a good thing. 

"We'll take any reprieve we can get from Burnett," Crooks said. "They have not even fully restored and mitigated the damage done from the seismic work. That took place years ago and we need to not lose focus on seeing that through. We thought it was premature for Burnett to be inhouse with these applications because they've demonstrated that they're not a good actor. It may only be a matter of time before they resubmit." 

Other groups hailed the permit withdrawal as well. 

“Drilling for oil in this wild and beautiful wilderness will always be a terrible idea with unacceptable risks to endangered panthers and the greater Everglades,” said Jaclyn Lopez, with the Center for Biological Diversity, in an email. “Big Cypress is vital to ensuring clean water in the Everglades. It deserves perpetual preservation, not dangerous industrialization that will further contribute to the climate emergency.”

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.