An intense search for black gold at the western edge of the Everglades is raising hopes and fears of an emerging oil boom.
Energy companies are preparing to use new drilling and testing techniques to explore vast deposits that happen to lie beneath some of South Florida's most cherished environmental treasures.
A Texas company is planning to drill an exploratory well next to the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge east of Naples. And other companies are seeking approval to conduct testing on tens of thousands of acres beneath the Big Cypress National Preserve.
These plans could dramatically expand the state's oil production, boosting jobs and energy supplies. But some environmental activists fear that drilling in this delicate ecosystem not only threatens endangered wildlife but poses a hazard to drinking water in underground aquifers.
Low-volume drilling has taken place in the Everglades since 1943 without a major spill or extensive damage. New techniques have raised the stakes by allowing deeper exploration across a wider area surrounded by ecological landmarks, including the Picayune Strand State Forest and Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.
"People who enjoy nature — including all those people on the East Coast with their 'Protect the Panther' license plates — know and love these wild and beautiful places. For many of us, it's a big reason why we live here, to have this vast wilderness in our backyards with millions of acres of habitat to explore," said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. "To sacrifice it for oil drilling, that's just wrong."
He and other opponents see the drilling plans as a precedent for exploiting environmentally sensitive places.
"We feel like this is going to open up the floodgates to Everglades drilling, this particular drill site," said Karen Dwyer of Naples, who led a bus caravan of environmental activists to Tallahassee last week to protest the drilling plans and other water concerns. "We want to stop the problem before it starts."
These fears were heightened when neighbors near the Panther Refuge were notified of forthcoming evacuation plans in case of an explosion, gas leak or drilling disaster.
But with oil prices climbing above $100 a barrel, energy companies are eager to tap domestic deposits, saying it would make the U.S. less dependent on foreign supplies. They say the new technology — employing "directional," or horizontal, drilling — will make it possible to suck up more oil over wider underground areas without relying on a field of vertical wells.
"It's part of what some call a serious renaissance in oil and gas production in the United States," said David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, an industry group. "Obviously, Americans want it, because it creates energy security.
"If you did a map of the areas that have been drilled and did a flyover, I don't think you would recognize the fact that we've been there. We've been good environmental stewards, and I hope we can be in the future as well."
Oil production in Florida already generates about 286,800 jobs, according to industry estimates. The state in recent years has provided less than 1 percent of the nation's oil production, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Nobody knows how much crude lies below the state's soil and waters, but companies in Texas and Mississippi are determined to find out.
They have obtained leases — some awaiting final approval from the state — to conduct seismic tests of the Sunniland Trend, a swath of underground oil deposits about 20 miles wide and nearly 150 miles long across the southern Florida peninsula.
Collier Resources Co. of Naples, with roots dating back to the county's founder, owns the mineral rights on about 800,000 acres, including lands the Collier family donated to form the Big Cypress Preserve and the Panther Refuge.
The company has leased mineral rights to the Dan A. Hughes Co. of Beeville, Texas, for exploratory drilling, including the site near the Panther Refuge, and to other companies to conduct seismic testing to determine how much oil is down there and whether it's worth extracting.
The leases reflect a burst of interest in Florida's oil deposits. State officials say they have granted 37 drilling permits over the past five years, concentrated in Collier, Hendry, Lee, Miami-Dade, Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Companies now hold active permits for 29 horizontal wells.
The state Department of Environmental Protection says that drilling in those counties since 1943 has produced 611 million barrels of crude oil and 689 billion cubic feet of natural gas without major accidents, spills or blowouts.
State and federal agencies have raised no objections, though communications within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicate some qualms about the Hughes Co.'s drill site.
"I don't know anything about this, but there are panthers in that area, even if it is a farm field; and there is noise, light and access disturbance associated with the rig," Kim Dryden, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, wrote in an email to a fellow scientist at the agency.
The public will have a chance to sound off on one key part of these plans at a meeting in Naples on March 11 hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Because of intense controversy over the Hughes Co. plans, the EPA scheduled the public hearing before issuing a permit for construction of an "injection well" designed to dispose of toxic wastewater generated by the drilling.
Spokesmen for Collier Resources and the Hughes Co. did not respond last week to requests for comment.
State Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Democrat who represents parts of Miami-Dade and Collier counties, says DEP is too quick to approve drilling plans and should toughen the permitting process "to place greater emphasis on the environment and less emphasis on the money from Big Oil."
"Most Floridians do not want to see areas adjacent to the Everglades impacted by oil drilling," Bullard said last week.
But some energy and water experts see little reason to worry about plans to strike black gold in South Florida.
Thomas Missimer, a geologist in Fort Myers and a consultant on energy and water matters, said "accidents can happen" but modern drilling methods pose little likelihood of contamination. "If it's done properly and managed properly, it could be a great source of revenue for Florida.
"I think there may be a lot of oil down there. It would be silly not to do exploration to answer that question."
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