Conservancy joins suit to stop oil & gas exploration in Big Cypress
A lawsuit filed July 27 by a coalition of local and national environmental groups would prevent extensive seismic exploration for oil and gas in the Big Cypress National Preserve, which is home to endangered species like the iconic Florida Panther and recharges an important source of drinking water for many South Floridians. The preserve also serves as a major watershed for Everglades National Park to the south.
“Oil and gas companies have no place in our national parks and preserves,” said Alison Kelly, Staff Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Oil exploration and development in Big Cypress could push the rare Florida panther toward the brink of extinction, threaten wetlands and safe drinking water for thousands of people, and damage a popular destination for outdoor lovers. The federal government should protect Big Cypress for the American people and not allow a dirty energy company to transform it into an industrial zone.”
The Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Earthworks, and South Florida Wildlands Association filed suit against the National Park Service for violating the National Environmental Policy Act earlier this year when it approved the Texas-based Burnett Oil Company’s proposal to explore for oil and gas in more than 110 square miles (70,000 acres) of the preserve — an area five times the size of Manhattan — without adequately considering the environmental impacts. While the surface of this land is owned by the federal government, much of the minerals underground are privately owned.
“The impacts to wetlands, wildlife and cypress trees caused by these colossal trucks pounding the ground are unacceptable,” said Jaclyn Lopez, Florida director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “And if they eventually end up drilling for oil or gas, this last remaining intact habitat for rare and threatened wildlife will be put at tremendous risk.”
The groups filed their lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida. Last week, the groups also sent a notice of intent to sue the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service over the impacts the oil and gas exploration would have on endangered and threatened animal species in the preserve.
Burnett Oil’s exploration plans include driving enormous “thumper trucks” — weighing more than 60,000 pounds each — through roadless parts of the preserve, more than 80 percent of which are wetlands. The trucks would flatten everything in their path and press large vibrating steel plates onto the ground to create seismic signals. The company would also use other intrusive off-road vehicles and low-flying helicopters to survey the preserve.
The preserve provides some of the last intact habitat for imperiled species like the Florida panther, which is the most endangered mammal in the eastern United States, with fewer than 180 remaining in the wild. It is also home to other threatened species, including the Florida bonneted bat, the eastern indigo snake, wood storks, red-cockaded woodpeckers and more.
“The Big Cypress National Preserve is one of the most biodiverse pieces of public land in North America,” said Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “Not only is the preserve ground zero for the highly endangered Florida panther, but it provides habitat for hundreds of other native plants and animals — many federally or state protected — in a rapidly growing part of Florida. It is unconscionable for the National Park Service to have approved 70,000 acres of seismic testing without a full Environmental Impact Statement. We are hoping that this legal action will lead directly to that required review — and to a new approach from the service which puts resource protection first.”
The extreme noise and disturbance from seismic survey activities in the area could be catastrophic for the panther and other native wildlife — threatening increased displacement, mortality, reproductive failure, and stress levels. A healthy Big Cypress ecosystem is essential to the health of nearby coastal estuaries, which are home to endangered manatees, sea turtles and countless fish.
Big Cypress provides nearly half of the water that flows into Everglades National Park, and recharges important underground drinking water sources. This includes portions of the Biscayne Aquifer, which provides most of the fresh water for homes and agriculture in southeast Florida.
“The Big Cypress National Preserve is an environmentally sensitive and important part of the Western Everglades,” said Jennifer Hecker, Director of Natural Resource Policy for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. “Expanding oil and gas activities in this area, especially in light of the onset of fracking in Florida, poses enormous risks to water resources and threatens to undermine the substantial public investment being made to protect and restore a national treasure — the Everglades — which depends on sufficient amounts of clean freshwater.”
Additionally, the preserve is an economic generator for the state and a popular destination for outdoor recreation, from hiking, to bird-watching, kayaking, and camping. Nearly 1.2 million people visited Big Cypress last year and spent nearly $90 million in and around the surrounding communities.
The seismic activity approved in May is only the beginning. Burnett’s broader plan includes three additional phases of exploration. The first, approved phase alone rivals the largest seismic testing operations ever to occur in a national park unit. If all four phases are approved, the area affected would ultimately encompass about one-third of the preserve (366 square miles or 234,000 acres), an area larger than many national parks, including Shenandoah, Acadia, Crater Lake, Biscayne, and Zion.
On top of that, seismic exploration could be just the first step in destructive oil development in the area. If Burnett finds oil or gas in the preserve, it will likely lead to harmful oil or gas development such as drilling, fracking, or acidizing — and the roads, pipelines and more that go with it, bringing even greater disturbance and risks to wildlife, habitat, and water supplies.
“The National Park Service has failed to uphold its fundamental duties to protect one of America’s prized national park units and its endangered wildlife,” said Nick Lund, senior manager for conservation programs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “Instead, they’ve greenlighted a project that would have massive physical impacts to the preserve with minimal environmental review. Once exploration of this magnitude begins, the landscape and native wildlife will forever be changed.”
“The Park Service must keep our lands and resources in trust for us and future generations,” said Aaron Mintzes, Policy Advocate at Earthworks. “Allowing oil and gas development is fundamentally incompatible for a place we call a preserve.”