Darkening Drillers’ Hopes in the Sunshine State

Florida's Big Cyprus National Preserve, where Burnett oil company is pushing for expanded oil and gas exploration.Florida’s Big Cyprus National Preserve, where Burnett oil company is pushing for expanded oil and gas exploration. (Photo: NPS)

The national fight to stop the frack attack has brought people together from California to Pennsylvania, New York to Texas, and Michigan to Maryland. Now, in the throes of a highly divisive presidential election, the national energy debate is raging like never before.

As a perennially contested swing state, Florida’s decision on whether to pursue more oil and gas development — or instead prioritize protection of land, water, air, and wildlife — is reverberating far and wide.

Florida only has about a dozen active oil and gas fields and ranks very low among oil and gas producing states. But drillers have set their sights on using new technologies to access more resources and develop new ones.

In response, activists have organized to call for drilling restrictions and a fracking ban. They scored a big victory on March 1, when Florida’s state legislators abandoned an effort to pass Senate Bill 318 that would have led to new regulations on hydraulic fracturing and possibly acidizing techniques. It would have opened the door to drilling statewide, even in the internationally significant Everglades National Park and other fragile and unique natural environments. It also would have effectively prohibited municipalities and counties from banning fracking (an attempt to follow the lead of Texas and Oklahoma).

In January, a coalition of environmental groups, including Earthworks, continued the fight against the Burnett oil company’s proposal to use seismic testing to explore for more oil and gas in Big Cypress National Preserve. Big Cypress is home to the endangered Florida panther and many other unique, at-risk animals and a critical water supply for the Everglades.

We submitted detailed, comprehensive comments demonstrating that the company had barely considered impacts on animals, plants, and water or provided sufficient, credible information to back up their “no risk” claims. This view was echoed by thousands of people across Florida and nationwide who told the National Park Service that a full environmental impact statement (EIS) is necessary. In late January, US Senator Bill Nelson of Florida also called on the Interior Department to conduct a full EIS.

Like everywhere else, fighting oil and gas in Florida increasingly means taking on big pipeline projects. The biggest and most hotly contested of all is the Sabal Trails Transmission Pipeline, proposed to run over 500 miles from Alabama through Georgia to Florida, and include at least five compressor stations along the way. The gas would be used to generate electricity and supply industries through two utility companies, Florida Power and Light and Duke Energy of Florida. The Sabal Trails Pipeline, which would cross numerous conservation areas, wetlands, rivers, and aquifers, has engendered strong resistance from watershed protection groups, environmental advocates, and residents along the proposed route.

Last fall, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) emphatically told the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that the project posed numerous environmental risks, including to drinking water supplies. But a few months later, the EPA reversed its position. The best guess reason for this change is intense political pressure and sidelining of EPA’s findings, including by Governor Rick Scott, a staunch advocate of the project who also happens to hold investments in the companies backing it.

This month, Sabal Trails Transmission, Inc. filed 160 eminent domain lawsuits in order to override private property rights and secure the land needed to build the pipeline. But Florida may get a little help from Georgia, where the state House voted down a resolution that would have granted easements for the Sabal Pipeline across state lands and waters.

Earthworks has long argued that there must always be No-Go Zones — places too unique, wild, and sacred to scar and pollute, or which are central sources of clean drinking water. This certainly includes Florida, with its extensive wetlands and swamps, vital wildlife protection areas, and threatened aquifers. It would also be pure folly to drill and dig more deeply and widely into the state’s porous and highly permeable bedrock and sinkhole-dotted landscape.

Florida is currently the only Gulf Coast state to have a ban on offshore drilling. This position has long been supported by governors of both parties, including GOP Governor Rick Scott and former executives Jeb Bush and Charlie Christ. The primary reason is the devastating risk of damage to Florida’s coastlines and lucrative fishing and tourism industries.

It’s high time for Florida’s leaders to step up and bring this same logic onshore — giving the Sunshine State the chance to achieve the brighter, sustainable energy future that many Americans want and deserve.