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Florida's onshore oil drilling industry began 75 years ago

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Offshore oil drilling is off the table for Florida for now, but many people might not know that the Sunshine State has produced oil from wells in Southwest Florida and the Panhandle for decades.

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Susan Salisbury
, Cox Newspapers

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Offshore oil drilling is off the table for Florida for now, but many people might not know that the Sunshine State has produced oil from wells in Southwest Florida and the Panhandle for decades.

That too has been controversial and the subject of lawsuits as environmental groups have fought against the ongoing drilling for oil and natural gas in some of the state's most pristine natural areas, the Big Cypress National Preserve in Collier County and the Apalachicola River basin in Calhoun and Gulf counties.

Florida is exempt from the Trump administration's new offshore drilling plans, after Gov. Rick Scott said last week that the state's coastal tourism industry would be at risk.

It's perplexing, some say, that while the state and federal governments scramble to restore the Everglades with a $16 billion project approved in 2000, onshore drilling continues in the Big Cypress National Preserve, where it has occurred for 75 years.

"The problem is that you are spending billions on Everglades restoration. The Big Cypress feeds clean water to Everglades National Park," said Alison Kelly, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There are aquifers under the preserve. We are going to jeopardize that water if they start turning it into an industrial zone."

The drilling and seismic exploration for more oil onshore jeopardizes tourism at the Big Cypress, visited by more than 1 million tourists a year, Kelly said.

In 2016, Florida produced less than 0.5 percent of the total amount of oil that was produced by Gulf Coast states, Florida Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller said.

The peak oil production level in Florida of 47.5 million barrels of oil per year came in 1978. More recently, annual production has remained fairly steady, around 2 million barrels of oil per year over the past 10 years, Miller said.

"The Florida Department of Environmental Protection aggressively enforces Florida's laws to protect our environment, including the state's laws regarding drilling, which are set by the Florida Legislature. This includes the denial of Kanter Real Estate's application in November 2017," Miller said, referring to a project that was proposed for the western Everglades in Broward County.

"There have been no new oil well fields established since 1988, with no plans to establish new fields on the table. The limited activity that does take place is heavily regulated, and we hold anyone not following the law accountable. In fact, over 2,400 inspections were conducted by DEP staff during 2017."

David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, said the no-drilling decision was premature. Instead, the proposal should have gone through the Interior Department's normal 12- to 18-month planning and shareholder input process.

"Offshore operations are much safer than ever. There is an awful lot of new technology, tons of new safety standards and regulations to protect workers, the environment and marine life," Mica said.

Offshore drilling has long been opposed by politicians and environmentalists. Oil drilling within 125 miles of the Florida coast has been banned since 2006, and the moratorium is set to expire in 2022.

The Deepwater Horizon spill of 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico, the largest oil disaster in American history, was a nightmare Floridians have not forgotten. An oil rig exploded, killing 11 workers, and spewing 200 million gallons of crude oil. The oil spread to beaches from Texas to Florida, caused billions in damage, devastated wildlife and destroyed Panhandle tourism for at least a year.

While the oil industry points to 100 new standards implemented since 2010 and says Florida's onshore oil industry has never had a disaster, environmentalists say it's wrong that drilling is allowed in some of the state's most remote and beautiful upland and wetland natural areas.

Under Gov. Rick Scott's administration there have been major approvals of oil-related activities, such as Fort Worth, Texas-based Burnett Oil's permit to conduct seismic exploration on 70,000 acres of the most pristine land in the state, the Big Cypress National Preserve, said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association.

Spooner Petroleum of Ridgeland, Mississippi, received a permit in December to drill an exploratory well, but not to produce oil, in the Apalachicola River Basin in Gulf and Calhoun counties in the Panhandle.

The Big Cypress National Preserve is a watershed that is key to the survival of Everglades National Park and the integrity of the South Florida ecosystem, the National Park Service says. More than 200 wells in 14 fields (eight of which are still active) have been drilled along the Sunniland trend.

The Sunniland Oil Trend, largely located in the Big Cypress National Preserve, is a well-defined, onshore oil reserve stretching from Fort Myers to Miami, according to Collier Resources Co. Collier leases the mineral rights to companies such as Burnett Oil.

Collier Resources Co. manages more than 800,000 acres of minerals throughout Collier, Lee and Hendry counties, leasing mineral rights and monitoring oil exploration, development and production at three oil fields -- Raccoon Point, Bear Island and Sunniland Field.

In 2017, a federal judge ruled against environmental groups that had brought a lawsuit over the National Park Service's approval of Burnett's plans to conduct seismic testing to search for more oil and natural gas deposits in 110 square miles of Big Cypress Preserve.

Through the park service, the Natural Resources Defense Council obtained photos of Burnett's activities as it began seismic testing last year. The company brings in 33-ton trucks known as Vibroseis trucks with seismic imaging equipment. Vibrations are sent underground and used to generate data to locate geological formations likely to contain gas or oil.

"They are cutting down cypress trees, literally running over them," Kelly said, referring to what is shown in the park service photos. "Some of the trucks are getting stuck, as we knew they would. The soils are saturated, even in the dry season."

The activity disturbs wildlife, hikers and damages soil and vegetation, she said.

"If the governor is so concerned about offshore drilling, shouldn't he also be concerned about drilling in the Everglades?" Kelly asked.

Kelly said the companies drilling for oil are from out of state.

Breitburn Energy Partners, headquartered in Los Angeles, produces oil in the Sunniland Trend in Southwest Florida and in Jay in the Panhandle.

"Breitburn also produces from the Raccoon Point, West Felda and Lehigh Park fields located throughout the Cretaceous Sunniland Trend in the South Florida Basin, which was discovered in the 1940s. In total, we have interests in 92 productive wells in Florida," the company states on its website.

South Florida Wildlands' Schwartz said DEP issues permits to companies that meet all the codes and regulations. His organization will continue to do whatever it can to stop the drilling and exploration.

Ridgeland, Mississippi-based Tocala LLC is another company awaiting a permit to explore for oil just outside the Big Cypress. It plans to use explosives. Like other oil projects, the proposed area is in the midst of hundreds of thousands of remote acreage.

"In remote areas, not as much attention is being paid," Schwartz said.

The appeal of drilling for investors boils down to the fact that drilling is a tax shelter that allows for write-offs of virtually all the expenses, Schwartz said.

Those who lease their mineral rights, such as the Collier family in Collier County, make money as well.

"It's almost the best shelter there is. High rollers invest in these speculative oil wells," Schwartz said. "If they lose, it is a complete write-off. If they win, they can get money coming in for decades from a single well."

Susan Salisbury writes for The Palm Beach Post. Email: ssalisbury(at)

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