Big Oil moves against Florida panther habitat
— submitted by Matt Schwartz
Executive Director, South Florida Wildlands Association
[We are proud to present this article by Executive Director Matt Schwartz of the South Florida Wildlands Association. It outlines corporate plans for the destruction of some of our most precious wildlife habitats, and offers ways that you can fight back against those plans. Note that the organization Preserve Our Paradise (whose Vice President Dr. Don Loritz is a leading Green in Collier County) has engaged legal counsel and scientific experts in the fight to preserve people’s homes and their very health in the targeted area. Both organizations are up against the same corporate powerhouses, Collier Resources and the Dan A. Hughes Company. The fight for the people of Southwest Florida and the fight for the Florida panther is the same fight. — JR, Managing Editor]
Many on this list are aware that an oil boom is rapidly taking shape in the southwest corner of Florida. Media attention began with a surprise notice sent to residents in May of 2013, advising them of an evacuation plan in the event of a hydrogen sulfide gas release. The source for that gas would be a proposed oil well located approximately three-quarters of a mile west of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
With our core interest in protecting habitat for the Florida panther and the many other species which share its domain, the South Florida Wildlands Association (SFWA) quickly jumped into the fight. We joined local residents unhappy at the prospect of an oil well so close to rural homes and irreplaceable habitat for our state animal and other wildlife. In spite of a strong effort, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approved the new well.
But only recently have we learned the full extent of the problem. As it turns out, the well next to the panther refuge is just a tiny part of the approximately 115,000 acres of mineral rights the Dan A. Hughes Company of Beeville, Texas, has leased from Collier Resources, the actual owners of over 800,000 acres of mineral rights in southwest Florida. We’re sad to announce that the Hughes lease includes large portions of the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, Picayune Strand State Forest, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed (CREW Lands), and even the famous Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary with some of the last old-growth cypress in our state. The lease runs for five years and can be extended.
And while we were trying to wrap our heads around that shocking news — things got even worse. Collier Resources issued two more leases for massive seismic testing operations to identify more locations for drilling. Tocala LLC of Ridgeland, Mississippi, has acquired a lease (103,000 acres) which has only recently been approved (SFWA has applied for an extension of time to challenge it). It covers a major portion of the land just north of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and the Big Cypress National Preserve – and includes part of the Dinner Island Wildlife Management Area. It also includes a section of State Road 29 which is almost synonymous with panther roadkill.
The second lease, held by the Burnett Oil Company of Ft. Worth, Texas, has not yet been permitted. If approved, it will be conducted in four phases, eventually covering 234,510 acres of land inside the Big Cypress National Preserve – the most important chunk of contiguous habitat remaining in the western Everglades and the bulk of the habitat for the Florida panther. Both these operations will involve driving off road vehicles through wetlands and other habitat types, drilling thousands of holes, setting off dynamite charges, and “listening” to what’s down there with vast arrays of “geophones.” This is not geological research. These leases are going to oil drilling companies who have every intent of setting up roads, wells and extraction operations once deposits have been located.
Obviously, this is a monumental challenge for those concerned about protecting the small amount of habitat panthers and other local critters have left. Solutions are not going to be easy. Mineral rights do convey certain rights to an owner or leaseholder, but there are also limitations specified by law which seek to protect habitat and wildlife from these large-scale industrial operations. When the Department of Environmental Protection asked our state wildlife agency – the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) – for their consultation on the oil well next to the refuge, this is the actual response they received:
“We have reviewed drilling permit application number 1353. We do not have any comments on this application.”
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) provided a similar official response (claiming that since there were no “jurisdictional wetlands” on site — i.e. wetlands requiring a federal permit — they had no dog in this fight). We should note that several FWS employees did voice concerns in internal documents SFWA received through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. One staff person discussed the “noise, light, and access disturbance associated with the rig” — and advised the service to consider the fact that this is a 115,000 acre lease with cumulative impacts far beyond those for a single well. Another discussed possible impacts to the hydrology of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge due to nearby wells necessary to producing the millions of gallons of water which will be used in the production of drilling fluids.
I wish I could wave a magic wand and this nightmare would simply disappear. Florida panthers have enough to deal with without massive new drilling and seismic testing operations moving in to their habitat — not to mention the insanity of degrading some of the most beautiful and biodiverse public lands in our nation simply for oil. Unfortunately, there is no magic wand and this is not a bad dream — these folks coming in to southwest Florida through leases obtained from Collier Resources definitely mean business.
Here are a couple of things you might want to do. First, please consider a donation to the South Florida Wildlands Association to enable us to continue this fight. In my own capacity, I have filed an administrative petition (pro se) challenging the Hughes permit to drill next to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. That petition will be heard later this month in Ft. Myers. If you’ve ever tried being your own attorney, you will understand why I now say that will never happen again. Any future legal work the South Florida Wildlands Association carries out in this area will only be carried out by an experienced environmental lawyer. Unfortunately, good lawyers do not grow on trees — and they are not free. Expert consultation will also be needed in surface and underground hydrology and geology, pollution, and of course, wildlife biology and ecology.
Our donation page can be found here. South Florida Wildlands is fully certified as a 501(c)3 organization and donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law.
Second – there is an important public meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Naples, Florida, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will take public comments. This involves a permit for a Class II injection well for waste water removed from the oil well next to the refuge. The focus will be on possible impacts to the local drinking water supply. Details are available here in this post set up by local community organizers. A strong showing at this meeting will send the right message — not only to the EPA who will be doing the permitting, but to all federal and state agencies which are reviewing (or should be reviewing with a “hard look”) these many oil and seismic testing operations. If you want to actually speak at the meeting, please send an email to: McManus.Fred@EPA.gov
Thanks for your support. The current situation is both complex and dangerous, so please feel free to pass this on to others. And as always, feel free to contact me with any questions or comments.
South Florida Wildlands Association
P.O. Box 30211
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33303
P.S. For more background on this topic, see some of the following links.
You can download my current legal petition to the Division of Administrative Hearings on the oil well next to the panther refuge here:
Miami Herald story from May of 2013 covered the oil boom from the beginning – and contains quotes from South Florida Wildlands.
DEP page with links to all recent oil and gas applications described in the above email. Use the “Public Oculus Login” button to download an application or permit.
Recent article from Truth-out covers the possibility of fracking coming to southwest Florida (as if things weren’t bad enough already). Contains several quotes from South Florida Wildlands.
And if you haven’t already done so, please “Like” our Facebook page to keep up with the latest developments in this and many other fights to protect wildlife habitat in south Florida.