Wildcat Wells in Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve Bring New and Unstudied Risks

Regulatory agencies aren't carefully assessing the impact of ramped up oil and gas exploration in southwest Florida, say critics

When you think of oil drilling, South Florida probably doesn’t immediately come to mind. But rising oil prices are bringing increasing oil and gas exploration projects to southwest Florida, home of the Everglades, and they are already putting environment at risk.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently slapped a $25,000 fine on the Texas-based Dan A. Hughes Company for injecting unapproved acid into Florida’s vulnerable underground limestone formations in the middle of Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a major nesting site for wood storks. Yet the DEP recently approved another request by Dan Hughes to drill near another protected areas — the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge — despite vehement opposition from residents and environmental groups.

Big Cypress National PerservePhoto by Marcel HujserOf all the new drilling proposals, the one seeking to drill the federally protected Big Cypress Natioanl Perserve has created the most furor.

Though oil drilling seems at odds with South Florida, which is known for its wildlife parks and agricultural reserves, fact is, drilling has been going on in this region ever since Humble Oil bored its first well in Collier County in 1943. The US Geological Survey’s most recent estimates show that there are about 370 million barrels of undiscovered oil in South Florida. Energy companies are eager to get that oil out of the ground.

Most of the recent drilling applications have been for exploratory wells — “wildcats” in industry parlance. First, companies drill an exploratory well to see if there’s any oil. If there isn’t, they plug it up and move on. If there is, they drill another well to inject the wastewater, called brine, into the ground.

These injection wells are the main threats to the environment. From Ohio to Texas, they have a record of leaking. The US Environmental Protection Agency notes that brine from oil and gas extraction may contain “toxic metals and radioactive substances” and “can be very damaging to the environment and public health if it is discharged to surface water or the land surface.”

But Florida’s permeable geologic formations present new and unstudied risks as well. Because of the porous limestone that makes up the southwest Florida’s bedrock, it’s possible that the wastewater could migrate upward into the groundwater that millions of Floridians drink.

Given these concerns, you might assume the EPA and DEP would carefully study the environmental impacts before issuing a permits for such wells — especially in environmentally sensitive areas. But this is Florida (cue the chirping cicadas), where it seems, anything goes. . The Big Cypress National Preserve, incidentally, is already home to 11 wells.


photoname Photo courtesy Wikimedia CommonsThe preserve encompasses one of the last natural habitats of the Florida panther — the last
big cat in the eastern United States, of which there are fewer than 200 left.

Of all the drilling proposals in the state, Dan Hughes’ plan to drill in a federally protected wetland like the Big Cypress has created the most furor. The preserve encompasses one of the last natural habitats of the Florida panther — the last big cat in the eastern United States, of which there are fewer than 200 left. The Florida Panther Reserve is less than a mile from the l Dan Hughes’ drilling site.

The Big Cypress National Preserve is also the source of the freshwater that flows through the Everglades. Even before the preserve existed, this land was Collier land. The Collier family, after which the county is named, leased the land near Naples in 1943 where Humble Oil struck black gold. While wells on their lands haven’t been huge producers, the Colliers have proven adept at squeezing money from it. In 1974, they threatened to build what would have been the largest airport the world at that time and would have had a “catastrophic effect on wetlands in Southwest Florida.” To keep that from happening, the federal government bought the land and created Big Cypress National Preserve.

In 2002, the Colliers agreed to sell the land’s mineral rights to the Department of the Interior. When the deal was announced at the White House, President George Bush called it an “important step in preserving some of our nation’s most beautiful natural treasures.” Then-Interior Secretary Gale Norton said, “In this case, the amount of oil available was relatively small compared to the nation’s overall energy needs, and the impact of development could be significant.”

“For the citizens of Florida, the deal will ensure long-term conservation of the Everglades,” Norton added at the time.

But, after an investigation into the land’s value, Congress refused to fund the plan, finding the wildly inflated price had been arrived at through an “illicit process.” (Deal or no deal, it was a win for Jeb Bush, who was reelected governor of Florida that fall.)

Currently, Collier Resources owns the mineral rights to about 800,000 acres of land in southwest Florida. They’ve leased 115,000 acres, which include land within the Big Cypress National Preserve, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Picayune Strand State Forest, Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park, and the Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed, to the Dan A. Hughes Company. Six of the 14 drilling permit applicationsin Collier and Hendry counties listed on the DEP website are from Dan Hughes, more than any other company.

The site near the panther refuge where the company has received permission to drill an exploratory well is also near a housing development called Golden Gate Estates. Dan Hughes is now seeking state and federal permission to set up an injection well to dump the millions of gallons of toxic brine produced in the drilling process. Without the injection well, it can’t begin drilling.

That anyone is paying attention to the Golden Gate well is thanks in large part to Matt Schwartz of South Florida Wildlands Association, Paul Mosher of Preserve Our Paradise, and other environmental and residents’ groups, who are making Florida’s apathetic regulatory agencies sit up and take notice.

The residents of Golden Gate Estates, some of who live only a thousand feet from the well site, first heard about it when they got a notice from a company called Total Safety about evacuation procedures in the event of a hydrogen sulfide leak. Local media called Schwartz for comment. Schwartz looked into the plans and found that the well would be drilled less than a mile from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.

“It got my attention,” Schwartz says. “I started spending a lot of time in the area digging into not only this oil well, but the entire project of leasing out all the Collier mineral holdings in southwest Florida for oil exploration.” In his quest for answers, Schwartz raised his concerns with the DEP, the local water management district, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

Despite his efforts, the Florida DEP approved the permit last September. “After it was approved, it was a problem, because I didn’t have the funds for a lawyer, I didn’t have the backing from other environmental groups. I was sort of in a dilemma about what to do,” he says. “Finally at the last minute, I thought, ‘I’ve got so much invested in this.’” So with the help of some attorneys, Schwartz filed a pro se legal petition for an administrative hearing, as did Preserve Our Paradise’s Paul Mosher. They succeeded in getting a three-day hearing in front of Judge DR Alexander in Fort Myers in April.


photonamePhoto by Karen HoffmanHouses in Golden Gate Estates along Faka Union Canal Weir No. 4, near the proposed well
inside the Big Cypress Swamp.

As one of the lawyers helping Schwartz was poring over state statutes, he noticed something. “Wait a minute,” he told Schwartz. “It says that the DEP must convene the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee before it approves a permit to drill in the preserve.”

The committee — which is composed of a botanist, an oil industry representative, an ecologist, a geologist, a hydrogeologist, and a DEP oil and gas expert — hadn’t met in 25 years, though the DEP has been approving permits for the past several decades. Clearly, the oil and gas industry and Florida DEP had settled into a cozy arrangement that circumvented the law.

Schwartz and Preserve Our Paradise drafted a motion into their petition asking that the committee meet. The judge allowed the motion, and the DEP scheduled a committee meeting in Naples, FL, on March 11.

When the committee met, they were already at a disadvantage — the botanist was missing — and the crowd they were facing was hostile. But the local residents’ anger was understandable enough. As the committee head, geologist Jon Arthur, said at the meeting’s start, “This permit would authorize the closest drilling to a residential area in Southwest Florida in decades.”

One of the first committee members to ask a question was hydrogeologist Paula Sessions: “What more can we do to protect panthers in this area? she asked, “I haven’t seen a response from the [Florida] Fish and Wildlife [Commission].”

The Florida panther is the last wild big cat in the eastern United States. Sightings of mountain lions in the northeast are western migrants (Learn more about that in the Journal’s current cover story, “Cat Fight”). The Florida panther’s range used to extend through the mountains of North Georgia (see this GIF), but has gradually shrunk for the same reason all the other cougar species in the eastern US were declared extinct in 2011: habitat loss.

In response to Sessions’ question, Ed Garrett, DEP Oil & Gas Section Administrator, said, “FWC did respond regarding the panther — they responded with ‘no comment.’ In their written response with regard to all rare and endangered species, they came back with ‘no comment and no objection.’”

(Behind me, a member of the Seminole Native American tribe interjected: “Even the Seminole? We’re in danger! My habitat is getting smaller and smaller.”)

Darrell Land, a panther specialist with the FWC, came up to speak. “There is very small habitat disruption. Panthers have learned to coexist with all kinds of…” he began, but the rest of his words were drowned out by an uproar from the crowd. “I was saying that Florida panthers have learned how to live around these kinds of disruptions…”

“Liar!” shouted the crowd. “Liar!”

Land soldiered on. “Those impacts are not really cutting into habitat of panthers,” he said. “There are 45 mph panther speed zones on State Road 29, 30 mph on side streets. If there’s an issue with speed limit enforcement, that can be handled by law enforcement.”

“They’re crossing the road ‘cause you got an oil well in their habitat,” somebody from the crowd shouted.

Bobbie Lee Davenport of the Environmental Coalition of SW Florida, said she lives seven minutes from the proposed well site. “Let me tell you about the speed limits,” she said. “People go 65 mph in 30 mph zones. Police can’t monitor the place 24/7. The vibration from this site, the noise, the dust, the light will drive these panthers out. They only have one place to go that’s not heavily populated, and that’s south, toward I-75. Not only will they be killed on the road but there will be disputes over other panthers’ habitat,” she said, to applause.

David Mica, executive director of the Florida Petroleum Council, defended the proposed well saying it was necessary to ensure the US’ energy security. “A permit has been obtained. It is agricultural land. While it was [once] wetlands, it does not meet that description anymore,” he said. “I’ve served on this committee for 29 years and my industry has been a good steward.” Mica said he didn’t take his industry’s responsibility lightly. “Our state uses 26 million gallons of my product every day,” he said. “It’s my industry’s responsibility to try and provide that with American resources in our backyard, to provide energy security.”

When I spoke with Schwartz later, he told me he was “amazed” that Darrell Land got up there and repeated the same comment of “no impact.” “They know there’s going to be impact. Darrell Land, he’s not being completely forthcoming. When an oil well scales back from exploratory well to production, and the machinery’s gone, and it’s just a pump, there is some coexistence of panthers. But when you move into an area like this one, right adjacent to wetlands that’s never had any construction or industrial activity and you start laying roads, miles of pipe, generators — they’re going to create a massive industrial operation there. There’s no evidence that anybody’s presented that says panthers will not leave the area.”

By the end of the emotionally charged evening, the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee hadn’t reached a decision on whether to approve the permit. After meeting again on March 31, it recommended that the DEP deny the Dan A. Hughes Company the permit to drill. But last week, the DEP ignored the committee’s recommendation and ruled that the company could proceed with the well.

Then, on April 18, the DEP made a surprise announcement that it was punishing the Dan Hughes Company for unauthorized acid injection.

Last December, the company had launched a “workover operation” at their well on an island surrounded by the Audobon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, where they have had a drilling permit since 2012. They injected acid 11,000 feet underground to create fractures and get more oil out. The first acid treatment, which the DEP allowed, didn’t work. So they applied to do another one, with the addition of a “proppant” – a mix of sand and chemicals that “props” the fractures open to help get the oil out.

According to the DEP, this had never before been done in Florida. They asked Hughes not to move forward “until additional review could be performed.” But Dan Hughes went ahead anyway. DEP issued a Cease and Desist Order, and on April 8, they fined Hughes $25,000 for violating its permit. The DEP also ordered Dan Hughes to install four monitoring wells to check for the spread of pollution, and hire independent experts to monitor the wells.

Also on April 18, the hearing in front of the administrative judge continued, where activists testified by conference call. Groups including the Conservancy of SWFL, Preserve our Paradise, and South Florida Wildlands Association pushed the judge to consider Hughes’ behavior at the other well. However, Judge Alexander ruled not to accept the violation it into evidence. The judge’s decision is pending, although the DEP has the final say in any case.

Meanwhile, Collier County commissioners have voted to ask the DEP to revoke Dan Hughes permit in the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. “If the company didn’t outright lie then it was certainly deceptive in the way it presented its intentions with the well,” Commissioner Tim Nance, said, according to the Naples News. “My intent with this is to gain back control over a vendor conducting business here that is being less than forthright with this board and the public at large.”


photoname Photo by Karen HoffmanLocal residents opposed to drilling packed the hall at the March 11 meeting of the Big Cypress
Swamp Advisory Committee.

The fate of the proposed well near the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge, however, is now in the hands of the EPA, which can still block the permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act if it is convinced that the well could contaminate local drinking water sources.

More than 90 percent of Florida’s 17 million residents rely on the Floridian and Biscayne aquifers for their water. Dan Hughes’ planned well within the Big Cypress is located within 1,000 feet of Golden Gate Estates residents’ private water wells and within just a mile of the principal Naples-Collier County municipal water well field.

“Our well water comes from that aquifer. That’s hundreds of people’s drinking water,” activist Bobbie Lee Davenport of Environmental Coalition said during the

EPA’s hearing on proposed injection well (which was held on the same day and at the same venue as the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee meeting).

“Drilling fluids are loaded with fly ash, acid, chemicals, and rock filings. The innocuous ‘brine’ is nothing to soak your turkey in,” added Dr John Dwyer of Stone Crab Alliance. As the EPA itself recognizes, brine wastewater may contain potentially hazardous materials such as benzene, toluene, lead, arsenic, and uranium.

The draft permit for the injection well calls for the water to be injected at a depth of 2,200 feet underground, in a cavernous, cold, saltwater area known to drillers as the “Boulder Zone” because pieces of rock break off the cave ceilings when drilled into.

The main concern for drinking water pollution is that the wastewater injected into the Boulder Zone wouldn’t be as safely stored as Hughes claims it would be. Florida’s ‘Swiss cheese’ geology —honeycombs of caves, crevices, and underground passages in carbonate rock called “karst” — makes it difficult to discern exactly where the wastewater goes when it’s injected underground.

In New York, environmental scientists have asked the state Department of Environmental Protection to ban drilling on karst terrain. “Karst aquifers are the most environmentally vulnerable aquifers on earth,” Paul Rubin, a hydrogeologist at the environmental consulting firm HydroQuest, wrote in a report on the Hughes injection well that he prepared for Preserve Our Paradise. “To knowingly and intentionally inject any kind of wastewater into a karst aquifer system without 100 percent treatment would not be prudent. It is difficult to imagine any rationale that could justify the injection of wastes into a regionally known, used, and vulnerable karst aquifer,” he wrote.

A Florida Geological Survey report, edited by Jon Arthur, chair of the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee, found drinking water sources in Florida to be “extremely vulnerable to pollution due to the shallow and unconfined nature of many of the aquifers in the state.”

The EPA’s public comment period on the well ended March 31. Its final decision is pending.

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