Meeting Tomorrow on Fracking in Big Cypress

You might think that a national preserve would, y'know, preserve some natural land and protected species. Naw, that would be crazy! Parks and preserves are for extracting resources, silly!  

Tomorrow night is an important meeting to determine the fate of oil exploration in the Big Cypress National Preserve. 

Big Cypress is public land that was set aside in 1974 to provide critical habitat for threatened and endangered species such as the American alligator, bobcats, wood storks, black bears, and the endangered Florida panther. The land also safeguards crucial watersheds and filters water into an underground aquifer that provides drinking water for Naples.  

But while the Collier family sold its surface land to the National Park Service to create the preserve, it maintained its right to underground oil and mineral exploration.

The area had been explored for oil since the 1940s, and Exxon reportedly has 40 drills in the preserve, but no thorough testing has been done since 1999. Technology has improved since then, with hydraulic fracture drilling, also called “fracking,” letting companies find and extract more oil and gas than they could previously. Fracking, however, has been said to cause earthquakes and contaminate groundwater.

Texas-based Burnett Oil Co. has submitted both a plan of operation and environmental assessment to the National Park Service to conduct a seismic survey of 110 square miles (70,454 acres) in Big Cypress National Preserve to determine if there might be reservoirs of oil under the surface. If resources are found, the company would likely pursue fracking. 

To do the testing, the company would use vibroseis trucks — also called "thumper trucks" — heavy trucks with hydraulic pumps that pound metal plates on the ground. Sensors analyze the sound vibrations and can determine whether there are hollow areas with oil or gas deposits underground. 

The testing would necessitate the building of access roads, staging areas, and helicopter pads — and hence, environmentalists say, the removal of trees and other vegetation that the preserve’s wildlife relies on for survival. Noise and pollution from vehicles, helicopters, generators, and other equipment is also a given. Animal life, they fear, would be disrupted. 

Rob Hilliard, regulation manager for Burnett, played down the disturbance when he told the Naples News that the testing would be done during the dry season over four years. The newspaper likened the sound to a vacuum cleaner or garbage disposal. 

But, says environmentalist JohnBob Carlos, "Why risk abandoned nests or collapsed burrows of smaller creatures such as the eastern indigo and gopher turtle? ... Why risk fractures and fissures created by vibroseis trucks degrading the wetlands, shallow limestone strata, and base rock?"

Last year, citizens' groups fought when the Dan A. Hughes Co. was exploring for oil and committed permit violations that could put drinking water at risk. That resulted in the state Department of Environmental Protection revoking the permit. 

Tuesday from 5:30 to 7 p.m., a public meeting will be held. Park service staff will answer question, and the public can submit written comments.

Carlos says, "It’s taken us two years and two rounds of public comment to secure this meeting."

The park service has three options: deny the testing, permit the testing using the trucks, or permit testing using dynamite — a potentially more destructive option. 

Environmentalists hope the service will either deny the testing altogether or call for a more thorough review called an Environmental Impact Statement, which would also provide more opportunity for public comment, before proceeding. 

The meeting is at Big Cypress Welcome Center, 33000 Tamiami Trail East, Ochopee, Florida 34941.

People may also comment online until December 20.

A change.org petition opposing the project can be found here. 

Meanwhile, you might also keep an eye on bills in the Legislature that would let fracking companies keep secret the chemicals they pump into the ground in the course of exploration, and watch out for the governor's effort to permit hunting, logging and more in state parks so that they generate revenue.