Big Cypress oil permits again raise concerns from environmental groups

Karl Schneider
Naples Daily News

A Texas-based oil company's applications to build roads and oil pads in Big Cypress National Preserve through Florida’s newly assumed wetland permitting program has rekindled opposition from environmental groups.

Burnett Oil Co. filed four applications with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection on Jan. 22 to begin constructing the pads in the nation’s first national preserve. The company previously undertook seismic exploration projects in the preserve in 2017 prompting a legal battle the oil company ultimately won.

“The purpose of the applications is to request access to privately-owned mineral prospects by way of a small limestone pad accessed by single-lane limestone road,” Burnett spokesperson Alia Faraj wrote in an email to the Naples Daily News.

An off-road trail in Big Cypress National Preserve, photographed on Wednesday, October 28, 2020.

Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, said there are numerous negative effects from building these projects out. From burying wetlands and interrupting sheet flow to imperiling the area's plant and animal biodiversity.

"Building a gigantic road capable of carrying massive trucks and equipment is just bonkers," he said. "It's hard for me to find language to describe this." 

Previously:Army Corps reverses decision on oil exploration in Big Cypress National Preserve

From the archives:Florida DEP renews oil exploration permit in Big Cypress National Preserve

Burnett is leasing from the Collier Resources Co., which owns the mineral rights.

DEP has 30 days to determine whether Burnett’s applications are complete and ask for additional information if needed, agency spokeswoman Weesam Khoury wrote in an email to the Naples Daily News.

“With projects of this scale and scope, it is not uncommon for there to be at least one, if not multiple requests for additional information in order for the department to have all of the information it needs to evaluate alternatives for the proposed projects, avoidance and minimization requirements, and wildlife, water quality and wetland resource protections,” Khoury wrote. “Each of these responses may take up to 90 days or more.”

An image taken from Burnett Oil Company's permit application with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection shows the potential location of the access road and oil pad named Tamiami Prospect.

DEP will ask various state and federal agencies to comment on the permits to determine completeness, she wrote.

Florida recently took control of a federal dredge-and-fill permit process, known as Section 404, and Burnett’s permit applications mark some of the first to go through the state.

Nikki Fried, the state's commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, wrote in a news release that she strongly opposed the state taking over that permitting process.

“Now, we’re already beginning to see exactly what we hoped to avoid – potential giveaways of our pristine environment to the fossil fuel industry," she wrote. "I called earlier this week to permanently prohibit oil drilling off Florida’s coasts, and we don’t need drilling in our wetlands, either. These folks can look for oil somewhere else – keep your drilling in Texas, and don’t mess with Florida.”

Environmental groups remain opposed to Burnett’s operations in the national preserve, and a letter sent to DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein stresses repeated concerns about the degradation of the ecosystem. The letter is signed by a contingent of environmental groups including the Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Parks Conservation Association.

An image taken from Burnett Oil Company's permit application with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection shows the potential location of the access road and oil pad named Nobles Grade Prospect.

Melissa Abdo, the regional director for the National Park Conservation Association in Florida, said Burnett’s proposal would impede state and federal efforts to restore the greater Everglades ecosystem. She said taxpayers have already footed nearly $1 billion in restoration efforts.

“It does not make economic sense to permit one company’s private gain to be had at the cost of all the public investment in restoring the Everglades,” she said.

There’s also an important link between Everglades restoration and climate change, Abdo said. Habitats like those found in Big Cypress are “extremely effective” at capturing and storing carbon, a gas that contributes to the climate crisis.

“The Everglades are one of our region’s biggest tools toward climate resilience, and so, to have something that poses a threat that would run counter to our very efforts to restore the Everglades doesn’t make sense. It’s exacerbating the climate problem, “ she said.

More:Texas oil company to restart seismic testing in Big Cypress Preserve

From the archives: NPS says no harm in seismic testing

Burnett’s efforts in minimizing and mitigating its impacts will create a net-zero impact on wetlands within the preserve, Faraj wrote.

“ … Burnett is committed to utilizing the least impactful methods for extracting the private minerals underlying the Preserve,” she wrote. “In addition to minimizing impacts, we are working closely with the National Park Service and Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection to formulate a compensatory mitigation plan with the goal of compensating for the wetland impacts associated with the project …"

As well as requesting comments from government agencies, DEP will seek responses from federally recognized tribes in the area, one of which is the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.

An off-road trail in Big Cypress National Preserve, photographed on Wednesday, October 28, 2020.

Kevin Donaldson, with the tribe's real estate services, issued a formal statement regarding Burnett's applications.

"The area Burnett Oil is seeking to explore is within Indian Country in Big Cypress National Preserve which is very close to the Miccosukee Federal Reservation," he wrote in an email. "This area is replete with known cultural sites which cannot be impacted.  The Tribe is looking at this application closely to fully evaluate the request and ensure that Miccosukee interests are protected and preserved for future generations."

Tribe elder Betty Osceola said the southernmost portion of Burnett’s operations borders the edge of the tribe’s federal reservation and the company could inadvertently access oil on tribal lands.

“You don’t know how far that deposit goes,” Osceola said. “In addition to that, there are numerous sites of significant importance to the Miccosukee Tribe. There are a lot of archeological and cultural sites and those proposed pads are very near to those sites and I believe even in the footprint of some.”

Osceola also brought up previous Everglades restoration efforts and said the dredging and filling needed to build the pads and roads could cause adverse effects.

“What is concerning here are the large amounts of money spent on Everglades restoration, and now there are efforts to work on western Everglades restoration, yet they’re now trying to allow more roads into sensitive areas. They need to build a road, so what kind of impact will that have on the environment?” she asked.

DEP’s Khoury said the project can not proceed without all required authorizations from other local, state and federal agencies looking into the project.

“It is also important to note, that as required in our State 404 program rules, during our processing these applications, the department will analyze and review the effects of the entire project, including the use of the roads and pads for oil and gas drilling activities,” she wrote.

Burnett’s Faraj said the permit applications are undergoing a “rigorous technical review consistent with NEPA regulations.

“The environmental specialists engaged in the project do not foresee an adverse effect on the ecosystem or wildlife in the Preserve, but we await formal consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for a final determination,” she wrote.

An off-road trail in Big Cypress National Preserve, photographed on Wednesday, October 28, 2020.

Burnett's application permits are for two “proposed drilling and production operations.” 

One location, called the Tamiami Prospect, will have a “small limestone pad accessed by a single-lane limestone road” off an existing Burnett operation on the eastern boundary of the preserve, known as Racoon Point, according to documents filed with DEP.

The other, called the Nobles Grade Prospect, will have similar infrastructure, but will not be on existing operations. The permit’s location map shows a southwestern road leading to the pad emanating from mile marker 63 off Interstate 75.

Schwartz said the operation will have negative effects on protected wildlife in the area.

“For animals like panthers and black bears, they will move away, but a lot of others can’t,” Schwartz said. The eastern indigo snake will burrow and could get buried. There are bonneted bats there and we don’t know how they will respond. So many different species are there and each response will be different, but not positive,” he said.

Schwartz said he spoke with Collier Resources Co., the group that owns the mineral rights under the preserve, to explain that oil drilling is not a compatible use of the land.

Tina Matte, a spokeswoman for the company, wrote in an email that Burnett must follow federal and state regulations as well as the requirements of CRC’s lease.

“It is important to note that oil exploration and production has occurred within the borders of the Big Cypress National Preserve since before the preserve’s creation,” she wrote. “Part of the reason it was designated by the U.S. Congress as the country’s first national preserve – and not a national park – was due to that history and the underlying mineral rights.”

DEP’s Khoury said public comments are an important part of the agency’s permitting process.

“Once the applications are deemed complete, these applications will be publicly noticed, which will start a 30-day public comment period,” she wrote.

Karl Schneider is an environment reporter. Send tips and comments to kschneider@gannett.com. Follow on Twitter @karlstartswithk