There's a new plan to end decades of drilling in Big Cypress
Under a bright South Florida morning sky, Dawn Kilberg and her 23-year-old daughter hiked along the remotest part of the Florida Trail, happily splashing through knee-deep waters as clear as a mountain stream in the Big Cypress National Preserve.
The 30-mile hike had led them across sawgrass prairies and deep into black-water swamp.
“We thought they were lying when they said there was land at the other end,” she joked as the pair neared their stopping point at Alligator Alley.
The exhausting three-day trek, Kilberg said, had been stunningly beautiful, winding under cypress cathedrals and now here, through Mullet Slough.
But if a Texas oil company has its way, the slough could one day be a short walk from something entirely different: a new road carrying tankers and other equipment to an oil drilling pad as big as five football fields.
The new operations would mark the first expansion of oil drilling since the preserve was created a half century ago in the midst of the 1970s oil crisis. At the time, the government could afford to buy the surface rights from the Collier family, but not the mineral rights. That pitted protecting the land against exploiting it and created decades of conflict. The proposed expansion has also reignited talks to end drilling once and for all by having the federal government finally buy the mineral rights.
“The best way to solve this issue is for the refuge system and the park system… to control their destiny. And to do so, they have to own all their rights,” said David Houghton, director of WildLandscapes International, a nonprofit land conservation group negotiating a deal.
A bitter fight has already erupted over damage caused by early survey work conducted by Burnett Oil in 2017 and 2018. Thumper trucks weighing 33-tons and using low-frequency vibrations to look for oil left deep ruts and plowed over 200 year-old dwarf cypress trees.
The damage prompted the National Park Service to order an expanded environmental study, temporarily pausing the work.
Whether the mineral rights deal goes through, environmental advocates say that as this latest application drags on, it could serve a test case on two fronts.
First, to see how the Biden administration balances its promise to end drilling on public land after approving an infrastructure law that expands drilling to more than 62 million acres on federal lands and in the Gulf of Mexico.
They'll also be watching how Florida handles its new authority to permit building on wetlands, a move granted in the final days of the Trump administration and now being challenged in court. Burnett Oil needs a state permit to build over wetlands.
“This is wild swamp Florida,” said Jaclyn Lopez, a Stetson University assistant law professor and former Florida Director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “So that's what you have on the one hand. And on the other hand, you have oil extraction for the benefit of a company.”
Purchasing the rights, she said, is a reasonable solution.
“It's certainly not just allowable, it's called for by the law," she said. “Congress said, if you have this use that you're trying to do, that's detrimental to the purposes of the preserve, the next step is for the federal government to buy out your mineral rights."
WildLandscapes International quietly negotiated a commitment from the family last year to sell the right, Houghton said, and hopes to persuade the U.S. Department of Interior to sign a letter of intent allowing the group to move forward.
Using government guidelines, the group will determine the current value of the rights across nearly 320,000 acres in Big Cypress and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. Part of the beauty of the deal, Houghton said, is how the rights will paid for _ with money from a land and water conservation trust funded by the oil industry. In 2020, Congress authorized permanent funding of $900 million a year in fees from the industry.
Support for purchasing mineral rights
So far the idea is drawing support from South Florida Democrats, who wrote the Interior Department last year endorsing it. Backers say they are also drawing positive reactions when they've made the rounds in Washington.
Another powerful ally has also been lobbying for support: the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida, which considers the swamp its homeland.
“The tribe would not exist without the Everglades, which Big Cypress National Preserve sits on,” said tribe chairman Talbert Cypress. “We used it for survival. We used it to keep our traditions alive and our culture still going to this day. So that's why it means so much to us.”
During the Seminole Wars, the tribe used the formidable wilderness to escape U.S. forces. In modern times, it’s waged a successful battle to clean up water flowing into the Everglades, establishing water quality standards that it has repeatedly sued to enforce.
In September, Cypress and his chief of staff, Curtis Osceola, visited Washington, hoping have to persuade lawmakers and federal officials that buying the mineral rights would complete the original goal of the preserve.
“We're talking about closing the circle and finishing what we started so long ago,” Osceola said. "We've identified a single step that needs to be taken, which is to draft that letter of intent and to have it signed by the appropriate official in Interior. And with that, WildLandscapes, all the wheels start turning for them. "
WildLandscapes typically focuses on thorny land conservation projects, Houghton said, and has a small but diverse portfolio, from Alaska and New Hampshire to India and Africa. The Big Cypress drilling perfectly fit that mission, he said.
“Big Cypress is where Everglades National Park gets 40 percent of its water, so whatever happens in Big Cypress will affect both Everglades National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and then on to Florida Bay,” he said.
New lateral drilling practices also raise the stakes for drilling in the preserve, said Houghton, a biologist and former president of the National Wildlife Refuge Association, worry
“This is not like some field where all of that impact goes away tomorrow," he said. "This will last and last because these are ancient wetlands systems."
A complicated history
But the proposal could be complicated by the government’s history with the Collier family. Two decades ago, the government struck a deal to purchase the rights for $120 million. The high price drew sharp criticism and a U.S. Inspector General report that concluded the government failed to listen to its own experts in calculating the price.
In their agreement with the Collier family, WildLandscapes need to show some progress in the plan to secure another five years to complete it, Houghton said.
The family has set a minimum purchase price, which Houghton declined to disclose. He also didn’t want to guess on what the final amount might be, he said.
“It's important that we're not ball-parking or guessing. That's where it went wrong in the past,” he said.
WildLandscapes is paying for the valuation work based on the government’s specifications, Houghton said. The family has also agreed to spread out payments over several years, he said, "so that it isn't this, 'Oh my gosh, we have to come up with all this money now.'"
Burnett Oil can continue seeking the permits it needs to drill, Houghton said, but if the U.S. government determines it wants to buy the mineral rights, then it can step in and begin the purchase process.
Slightly higher than the Everglades with a peak elevation of 22 feet above sea level, the Big Cypress sits atop a bumpier bedrock that gives the preserve more dramatic elevations, from deeper sloughs to tree islands. It's also got a menagerie of plants and animals, from panthers to pig frogs.
The oil is contained in a 20-mile wide ribbon called the Sunniland Trend that stretches from Fort Myers to Miami. About 6 percent of the trend sits under the preserve, according to park reports and has been drilled continuously since the 1940s. Two sites, at Bear Island in the northeast corner and Raccoon Point, in the center of the preserve, have produced a steady, if very small, flow of oil totalling to about 120 million barrels.
Burnett initially wanted to widen its latest search across 400 miles in phases, but scaled it back to 110-square miles after the park service raised concerns.
Of all the issues that divide the preserve, retired resource manager Tony Pernas said oil drilling has been the only one to draw united opposition.
“Every other issue that we have, there's usually one group that's in one camp,” or the other, he said. “They like hunting or they don't like hunting. But the universal issue that I found so far is oil and gas exploration. Every user group does not want this one.”