Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Opposition to Oil Drilling Heats Up in South Florida

(c) Alexis Meyer
Sierra Club’s Florida Panther Critical Habitat Campaign is partnering with Preserve our Paradise to stop an exploratory oil well in Golden Gate Estates in Naples. The proposed well site is on 5 acres of agricultural land but is located within 1,000 feet of residences, and one mile from the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge. The Texas-based drilling company, the Dan A. Hughes corporation, has leased an additional 115,000 acres of land, with the potential for more exploratory wells, though no permit requests have been submitted.

(c) Alexis Meyer
Collier County residents have been fighting hard to prevent the permitting of this well. More than 100 people recently participated in a protest at the Naples Pier erecting a symbolic oil well in front of Governor Rick Scott's beachfront home. 

We have also petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a public hearing on the matter. We are awaiting a response.

The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) held an "open house" style meeting last week for concerned citizens.  The meeting was poorly executed, however - no one able to hear questions or answers, crowding around tables, officials unable to answer questions - leaving citizens feeling ignored and frustrated. As a result of this meeting, DEP said they will not make a decision on whether to approve the permit or not by the original September 30th deadline. However, they will issue a "notice of intent" to issue or deny the permit, which will open up another round of public comments with a deadline of 21 days after the notice of intent. 

 The proposed oil wells are located in panther primary habitat –land essential for the panther’s continued existence. Numerous panthers have been sighted within Golden Gate Estates, and the project site is within 1 mile of the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge and north of Picayune Strand State Forest and Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, considered the “Amazon” of Florida. 

Oil pad location site. The orange dots are panther 
telemetry data. (c) FWC
No biological opinions or environmental assessments have been done for this project. Since this project would impact a federally protected endangered species, there is a concern that these companies are not following proper regulations. Specifically, for any project that impacts an endangered species or its habitat, a Section 7 consultation under the Endangered Species Act must be considered.

The greatest concern with any development in the area, other than additional loss of habitat for North American’s most endangered mammal, is the impact from roads. Vehicles are the greatest threat to panthers, and 2012 had the highest vehicle mortality on record. Any increase in traffic will pose a significant threat to the species.  Fencing and wildlife underpasses work very well when put to use, but without them, there will be increased mortalities from this project.

(c) Alexis Meyer
At a recent meeting, the Dan A. Hughes Company stated that they are implementing measures to reduce impacts to wildlife and plants but have not been forthcoming as to what these measures are. They have also not shared any documents with the public concerning potential environmental impacts. Their lack of transparency is troubling, and the Sierra Club questions whose interest they are upholding. Collier County boasts some of the most unique environmental assets in the state, if not the country. Projects like this set a precedent for destroying those vital assets, and threatening the future of Collier County's, and Florida’s, recreational and economic draw. 

This oil well is only the tip of the iceberg for southwest Florida. Opening up this site to drilling endangers Florida panthers, the watershed, our aquifers, and violates environmental justice of residents. It sets a precedent to open more land for drilling at a time when we should be looking toward clean, sustainable energy alternatives such as wind and solar.