The opening of previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves in Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania is almost daily news. The environmental, climate, and local impacts of this domestic fossil fuel renaissance are also frequently reported, if not necessarily acted upon. Now Florida may be the next subject of this state of boom. Florida is ecologically more unique and more at risk than many other fossil fuel-rich locales, and a recent spate of industry and political attention has brought the Everglades, a tropical wetlands and World Heritage Site, to the center of the stories’ attention.
At least a half dozen oil companies have spent upwards of $10 million on plans to expand operations across Southwest Florida in the last few years, according to reporting from the Miami Herald last year. With oil prices remaining high, previously uneconomic reserves in places like Big Cypress National Preserve, the first national preserve in the U.S. National Park System, are retaining new interest. Big Cypress National Preserve borders the Everglades to the northwest.
“We feel like this is going to open up the floodgates to Everglades drilling, this particular drill site,” Karen Dwyer of Naples, who’s protested drilling plans in the state, told the Orlando Sentinel. “We want to stop the problem before it starts.”
Florida residents are not the only ones voicing concern. Earlier this week state Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, sent a letter to Florida Department of Environmental Regulation Secretary Herschel Vinyard cautioning against any further oil exploration or fracking in the Everglades without further review of the risks.
Vinyard responded in somewhat scathing fashion, saying “there has been no energy exploration in the Everglades,” and that “the Department’s sole focus is on protecting the environment … the Administration’s commitment to the Everglades is unrivaled and we are anxious to continue this pace-setting work to improve our Everglades.”
The letter states that there are 162 oil and gas wells operating in six counties in Florida, and that there has never been a single permit issued for any oil and gas exploration in the Everglades.
In an analysis of the bureaucratic back-and-forth, Mary Ellen Klas at the Tampa Bay Times writes that “Soto may have been trapped in a bit of semantics:”
“The permits appear to be issued on the edge of the Everglades not within the actual Everglades National Park as we know it … Vinyard may be technically right but his letter did not explain why there are investors hoping to search for oil on the western edge of the Everglades in Naples and in the Big Cypress National Preserve.”
Klas points out that the crossfire between Soto and Vinyard fails to address what would seem an ominous indicator — two state bills proposed by state Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, HB 71 and HB 157, that would “set state guidelines for reporting on the chemicals used in oil and gas hydraulic fracturing and offer companies a public records exemption for trade secrets.”
The bills are opposed by environmental groups and have been speculated as being modeled on legislation from the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a national right-wing organization known recently for its state-level war on renewable energy.
Florida has provided less than one percent of the county’s oil production recently, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. In 2011, renewable energy accounted for 2.2 percent of the state’s total net electricity generation, making it third in the country for net solar electricity generation. However, the Sunshine State’s sunshine is not of concern to companies based in nearby states like Texas and Mississippi that are on a quest to find out how much crude oil lies beneath the surface — and then how much of it they can extract. These companies have obtained leases for seismic testing along a large area of the southern Florida peninsula, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
In 2011, Florida’s Republican Governor Rick Scott acknowledged that a small amount of drilling has been going on in the Everglades for a while, and that a large amount could be possible in the future.
“We already have oil wells in the Everglades, there’s a road in Naples that’s called ‘Oil Well Road,” Scott said. “It’s my understanding at least, we haven’t had any problems in the Everglades to date,” Scott said.
According to an October analysis by Politifact, Gov. Scott broke his 2010 campaign promise to explore expansion of drilling in a safe, environmentally sound way. While the statement was focused primarily on offshore drilling after the devastating impacts of the nearby Deepwater Horizon explosion, not much has been done to ensure safety measures inland either.
Last year, Gov. Scott did sign into law HB 999, a bill detested by a number of environmental groups that, among other things, speeds up the permitting for natural gas pipelines originating in other states.