Park Service Approves Oil Drilling in Florida Preserve

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - The National Park Service has given its initial approval to a proposal to drill thousands of holes and detonate thousands of underground explosions in a search for oil beneath Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida.

But Interior Secretary Gale Norton said Wednesday that her agency is seeking the funds to buy the mineral rights to the preserve and end all current and future oil drilling in the area, which hosts endangered species including the Florida panther and the red cockaded woodpecker.

Big Cypress

Big Cypress National Preserve is a wilderness of mangrove swamps and forests of slash pines and its namesake cypresses (Photo courtesy National Park Conservation Association)
On Monday, the Park Service released its environmental assessment of plans by Collier Resources Company, which owns the mineral rights to Big Cypress National Preserve, to use buried explosives to search for more oil in the preserve. Collier Resources, which already produces 100,000 gallons of oil a day from beneath the preserve, plans to conduct exploratory drilling throughout a 41 square mile tract.

The Park Service recommended approving the proposed drilling, though the agency also prescribed a long list of provisions aimed at protecting the preserve's natural resources, including building protecting berms around drilling pads and setting speed limits for access roads to the drilling sites.

The agency also requires that the company set aside buffer zones around the nests of bald eagles and endangered red cockaded woodpeckers.

When the preserve was created in 1974, the heirs of early Florida settler Barron Collier retained mineral rights to 400,000 of the preserve's 729,000 acres. The family now extracts about 730,000 barrels of oil a year from two fields within the preserve.


A handful of endangered panthers find refuge in Big Cypress National Preserve (Photo courtesy Everglades Area Chamber of Commerce)
The Colliers suspect that as much as 25 million barrels of oil may lie beneath the preserve, in areas not tapped by existing wells. The family has developed plans for 26 exploration projects throughout the preserve and in nearby Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, including the one approved Monday.

The Park Service has given its initial blessing to the project, but final approval is on hold to allow the public to comment on the agency's recommendation. Written comments may be submitted to the Big Cypress National Preserve, HCR 61, Box 110, Ochopee, Florida, 34141, until February 23.

If the Park Service gives its final approval, the Colliers will still need permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and several other agencies.

And the company now faces opposition from the Interior Department. During a visit to southern Florida on Wednesday, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said the agency began talks a few months ago with the Collier family regarding purchasing the family's mineral rights to Big Cypress.

The talks are still at a preliminary stage, and the Interior Department is not sure how much it is willing to spend on the Collier rights, Norton said.

"We have a lot of needs to cover and limited appropriations," Norton told reporters.


Slash pines in Big Cypress provide homes for the highly endangered red-cockaded woodpecker (Photo courtesy USFWS)
Environmental groups have been battling energy exploration on Florida's public lands for years. Unbroken tracts like Big Cypress National Preserve provide the state's last havens for the endangered Florida panther and red cockaded woodpecker, black bears, bald eagles, Florida alligators and dozens of other protected species.

Water flows through the preserve on its way to the Florida Everglades, which is the target of a $7.8 billion restoration effort. Critics of the Collier drilling plans warn that access roads, culverts, drilling pads and pipelines could alter water flows, and send polluted water streaming into the Everglades.

The Florida chapters of the Sierra Club and the National Park Conservation Association say they will submit comments opposing the proposed oil exploration, and would consider going to court to block the plans.