Oil drilling quietly expands in western Everglades after decades of exploration

Republican politicians caught flak recently for suggesting oil exploration in the Everglades, but it's actually been going on there for decades.

In fact, in the past year oil drilling in the western Everglades has quietly expanded.

BreitBurn Energy Partners, a Los Angeles company that has acquired leases on three South Florida oil fields, drilled five new wells in 2010 and 2011 on the eastern edge of Big Cypress National Preserve, a rugged wilderness inhabited by panthers, black bears and more than two dozen other protected species.

The expansion raised the number of wells at Big Cypress from seven to 12 and proceeded without notice to the public, despite the sensitivity of oil drilling in the national park system.

"There should have been some sort of public hearing or some public notice about it," said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, who has led hikes of Big Cypress. "This is public land and I think people have a right to know what's going on on it. This place is a biological treasure house. You've got 30 protected animal species, and the impact on all the wildlife of industrial operations is unknown."

Pedro Ramos, superintendent of Big Cypress, said the additional wells went in on drilling pads previously approved after a 1993 environmental review that generated more than 5,000 public comments. And there have been no environmental problems, he said.

"We have not had any significant issues from their operations," he said.

Throughout the South Florida oil fields, which extend into Lee County, there have been no major spills in 40 years, said Jennifer Diaz, press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, in an email.

"There have been a number of relatively small spills at the south Florida oil fields that are generally related to isolated mechanical, plumbing, or similar incidents," she said. "Based on the follow-up activities that were done for these spills, there are no measurable environmental impacts at this time."

Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, during an Aug. 28 campaign event in Sarasota, told The Associated Press that she supported additional oil drilling in the United States, including the Everglades, if it could be done "responsibly."

Gov. Rick Scott gave cautious support to the idea, and their comments led to denunciations by environmental groups and newspaper editorial boards. But depending on your definition of the Everglades — and for some it's restricted to the sawgrass marshes east of Big Cypress, for others it includes Big Cypress — drilling is already taking place.

Oil extraction has long been a part of the South Florida landscape. Humble Oil and Refining Co., the predecessor of ExxonMobil, struck the first holdings in 1943 in a field near Immokalee called Sunniland. The company constructed a 16-mile road through the Everglades to look for oil, and that road now serves as a popular bike and tram route through the Shark Valley section of Everglades National Park.

Today, 17 active wells — from the outskirts of Fort Myers to the forested intersection of Broward, Miami-Dade and Collier counties — pump oil from the ground, in extraction operations run by BreitBurn Energy Partners, Newport Oil Corp. and U.S. Capital Energy, according to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

South Florida's oil patch bears little resemblance to its counterparts in Texas and Oklahoma. It is not a land of smoke-belching refineries, wildcatters and billionaires in Stetson hats. BreitBurn's operation, for example, employs about 50 workers either directly or through contractors, and extracts about 2,300 barrels a day, according to the company. Florida ranks 24th in the United States in crude oil production, according to the Department of Energy.

BreitBurn leases the fields from Collier Resources Co., which represents the descendants of southwest Florida pioneer Barron Collier. The family retained the mineral rights when the preserve was created in 1974.

Oil from Raccoon Point, the largest of the company's three fields, is sent through a pipeline under western Broward County to the Devil's Garden Truck Loading Facility on Snake Road, loaded onto trucks, driven to Port Everglades and taken by ship to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.

Greg Brown, BreitBurn's executive vice president, said strict safeguards are in place to prevent environmental damage.

Trucks haul drilling rigs up 11-Mile Road from Tamiami Trail, calling in to Big Cypress headquarters at designated intervals to ensure they don't speed.

The new wells are drilled at angles, allowing the company to extract oil over a wide area without setting up drills outside its pads. There is no risk of a blowout, Brown said, because the oil is not under pressure, so it needs to be pumped to the surface. Even if all the equipment were removed from a well, he said, the oil would remain underground.

"The impact is so minimal," he said. "The pads are very carefully monitored.

Drilling rigs are brought in by truck and raised up into position and not allowed to extend beyond the pad."

A permit for another well at Raccoon Point is pending with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Superintendent Ramos said that at no time can oil drilling take place over more than 10 percent of the preserve, and it currently takes place on 117 acres, or .02 percent of the preserve's land area.

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