Victory for Panther Habitat as Oil Driller Leaves Florida
Environmentalists working with the Sierra Club's Florida Panther campaign won a year-long battle Friday to stop oil drilling in southwest Florida after a Texas-based oil drilling company announced it will terminate its lease holdings on 115,000 acres.
Numerous environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, the Stonecrab Alliance, Preserve our Paradise, and South Florida Wildlands Association, led the fight against drilling in the environmentally sensitive areas of the Everglades and Big Cypress Watersheds.
The fight began in April 2013 when the Dan Hughes oil company mailed a letter informing residents of a Naples suburb they were living in a "hydrogen sulfide evacuation zone" for an exploratory well. The well, which would be 1,000 feet from residences and less than one mile from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, sparked public protests, meetings with elected officials, and hearings to assess the environmental impacts from the company's oil wells in the western Everglades. The county was so concerned about the impacts it challenged a consent order between the drilling company and the state.
Earlier this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency held a public forum to address the public's concerns. Sierra Club generated over 167,000 comments calling for the exploratory permit to be revoked. Also, in March, the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee, meeting for the first time in five years, reversed their initial decision to allow the permit after hearing public testimony. In a 4-1 vote, they recommended denial of the permit.
The concerns with drilling in the western Everglades are numerous - ranging from water quality and hydrology to habitat fragmentation and increased panther mortality. For Florida panthers, whose numbers range from 100 to 180, these wells would have destroyed primary habitat and fragmented areas that are used for hunting, denning, and traveling. Increased traffic on the roads in Golden Gate Estates (large trucks on isolated, small roads) would have increased the chances of a panther being hit - the leading cause of panther deaths. Perhaps most importantly, there have been no studies conducted that show how oil drilling impacts panthers or other wildlife.
The tide turned several weeks ago when the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which had supported drilling, issued a press release that the driller had used illegal extraction techniques that mirrored fracking.
Senator Bill Nelson has also been keeping a close eye on the drilling developments in southwest Florida. "We've spent billions of dollars to restore the Everglades... I want to make sure what goes on does not mess that up," Nelson said at a press conference with Sierra Club and others on Monday. Nelson has expressed concerns over public safety, water quality, and impacts to Everglades restoration.
On Tuesday, the oil company announced it was stopping work on another well in the area minutes before the Florida DEP announced it would file suit.
This is a great victory for all the dedicated activists and citizens of southwest Florida. While we have won this battle, the war on oil drilling is far from over. Two other companies, Tocala and Burnett, are proposing to do seismic testing (a precursor to exploratory drilling) on over 200,000 acres in the Big Cypress area. With millions of dollars invested in the restoration of the Everglades, these companies pose a salient threat that could undermine the efforts of so many to protect one of the most unique ecosystems in the world.
-- Alexis Meyer, Sierra Club Florida