Florida fights plans to drill for oil in Everglades

Local governments in Florida are getting a helping hand from the state in an effort to stop a new oil well from being drilled near the Everglades.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) has requested a rehearing with the First District Court of Appeal after that panel ordered the state to issue an exploratory oil-drilling permit to Kanter Real Estate LLC. The well would be in Broward County, a few miles west of the city of Miramar and near the Everglades.

“Protection of the Everglades is of exceptional public importance because it affects residents of the State of Florida as a whole,” the department said in its motion. “The restoration of the Everglades is a matter of heightened public interest, and public interest alone should be deemed sufficient to demonstrate that it affects large numbers of persons throughout the State of Florida.”

Litigation to preserve the Everglades

The battle over the Kanter well dates back to 2015, when the company first applied for the permit. The company represents the estate of banker Joseph Kanter, and owns 20,000 acres (8,094 hectares) of undeveloped land in the Everglades. Its well would drill some 11,800 feet (3,600 meters) deep, sitting on 5 acres (2 hectares) of land near a section of Interstate Highway 75 known as Alligator Alley, or Everglades Parkway, since it passes through the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve.

The FDEP denied the permit, and Kanter took that decision to court, first to an administrative law court. The judge determined the land to be environmentally degraded and isolated enough from water sources for drilling to proceed, and ordered the permit to be issued. The First District Court of Appeal concurred with that ruling, even using the judge’s determination about the land as “factual findings.”

The FDEP said its denial of the permit was based on protecting the Everglades, regardless of whether the proposed site is degraded. “It looked beyond the vicinity of the well pad and concluded that the broader region, in this case the Everglades as [a] whole, was environmentally sensitive and should be protected,” the department said in its filing, as reported by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

An aerial view of the Alligator Alley section of Interstate Highway 75 The proposed Kanter well is located near Interstate 75, a section of which (pictured) is also known as Alligator Alley for its proximity to the Everglades. (Photo: Felix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock)

Meanwhile, Broward County and Miramar are in part arguing the court did not let them address the impact of a ballot measure, Amendment 6, which passed last November. The amendment removed a requirement for courts to defer to agencies’ interpretations of laws and regulations, and Broward and Miramar contend this amendment should not retroactively apply to older cases, like the drilling permit.

Late on Feb. 20, the FDEP announced it would request the rehearing and provide assistance to the Broward and Miramar case.

“The Department filed a Motion for Rehearing and a Request to Certify the case to the Florida Supreme Court regarding the recent opinion reversing the Department’s decision to deny the Kanter Real Estate exploratory oil drilling permit,” the agency said in a statement. “The Department is committed to the protection and restoration of Florida’s Everglades and will work with Broward County and local municipalities to provide technical assistance as they pursue their own action regarding this matter. We will also monitor any federal regulatory actions related to this issue.”

Oil and water in the Everglades

A waterfowl stands in the Everglades among some alligators The Everglades features delicate ecosystems that not only support a wide range of wildlife, but also many nearby human communities. (Photo: Alan Sandercock/Flickr)

Florida is not exactly a major oil producer. According to reporting by CityLab, Florida has more than 1,000 active wells, but no new wells have opened since 1988. The state produces fewer than 2 million barrels a year. Texas, by comparison, has more than 180,000 wells and produces between 4 million and 5.6 million barrels a day.

The state’s lack of recent experience has made critics nervous about new wells, since they argue it increases the likelihood of spills and seeping. “Florida has very little infrastructure, very little oversight of oil and gas activities, compared to other states,” Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, tells CityLab.

And any spill near the Everglades could be a serious problem for the environment, including wildlife as well as people. CityLab recounts a 2003 U.S. Geological Survey test in which scientists drilled a small hole into a wall protecting the water supply in a protected area, then injected a harmless dye known as rhodamine into the hole. They expected the dye to slowly work through the water supply; instead, dye appeared in Miami taps and washing machines before the day was even over.

The test illustrated how sensitive and interconnected Florida’s water systems can be. Miami receives most of its drinking water from the Biscayne Aquifer, where porous limestone holds a large mass of groundwater close to the surface. This makes it an easy candidate for contamination.

“If something goes wrong [with the Kanter well], you have the potential to foul drinking water,” Jackson says.

There’s also the issue of where Kanter wants to drill. The site is in the eastern portion of Water Protection Area 3A, which “is by many accounts the best-conserved part of the Everglades,” Matthew Cohen, a professor of forest water resources and watershed systems at the University of Florida, tells CityLab. “It’s the part of the Everglades that probably looks closest to how the Everglades used to look.”

Florida fights plans to drill for oil in Everglades

Plans to drill for oil near Miami have raised concerns about environmental and health risks.

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