Trucks may soon be crisscrossing wetlands in the Big Cypress National Preserve as part of a Texas company's bid to find underground oil and gas reserves in the vast South Florida swamp.
The National Park Service approved the plan last week, saying the effort would have "no significant impact" on wildlife and environment in the 70,000-acre exploration area.
The decision will open Big Cypress to oil exploration for the first time in 17 years -- and could potentially kick off a new period of litigation at a preserve whose conflicting mission seems to always lead it to court.
"I was actually very surprised and very sad that they moved forward on a major operation at this time," Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, said in a recent interview. "To jump right to the decision without the full [environmental impact statement]? This is 70,000 acres we're talking about."
As a preserve, Big Cypress tolerates activity not seen in national parks. Oil drilling already occurs in two locations, with more than a dozen active wells. The preserve also allows off-road vehicles and hunting -- all while hosting eight federally protected species and some of the cleanest water in South Florida (Greenwire, Oct. 9, 2014).
Now it plans to allow seismic tests in an area of the preserve that is largely untouched. Burnett Oil Co. could start seismic testing as soon as November, using vibrators on 30-ton "vibroseis" trucks to create 3-D maps.
In a statement to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Charles Nagel III, president of Burnett Oil Co., said NPS carefully considered his company's proposal.
"We appreciate the diligence and tremendous consideration given by the National Park Service to our plan for 3D seismic survey in the Big Cypress National Preserve," he told the Broward County newspaper. "Throughout this process the National Park Service has carefully considered every aspect of our plan. We look forward to beginning this process and continuing to work with our state and federal partners at every step of the way."
It will be the first time the trucks, which usually operate on open, treeless land, have ever been used exclusively off road in Florida.
In its environmental assessment, NPS reasons that vegetation will grow back and trucks will avoid sensitive habitat and endangered species with the help of NPS staff and field observers. The agency has laid out 47 "mitigation measures," including workers who will follow the trucks with shovels and rakes to prevent new trails and channels.
Big Cypress spokesman Bob DeGross emphasized that NPS is required to give Burnett "reasonable" access to the minerals below the surface, thanks to a 1974 compromise that made the preserve a reality. He contrasted the vibroseis method to the last seismic surveys used in Big Cypress in 1999, which involved drilling a hole and setting off explosives.
"The Park Service feels that we've reasonably analyzed the impacts," he said, adding that Big Cypress is familiar with how off-road vehicles affect the environment. "The vibroseis technology has been used in the areas around the preserve. It's been used in other National Park Service areas around the country."
But environmental groups have pounced on the decision as reckless and a potential violation of the National Environmental Policy Act. The agency, they say, should have at least conducted a more thorough environmental impact statement.
"The Park Service has tools in its power to force some more concessions and certainly more environment study here to ensure the impacts are minimized as much as possible," said Nicholas Lund, senior manager for the landscape conservation program at the National Parks Conservation Association. "We feel they didn't do that."
Asked whether his group would sue NPS, Lund said "all options are on the table." Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was more emphatic. NRDC, she said, is "definitely considering litigation."
"We're opposed to oil exploration in Big Cypress, so we will be involved in any further future development there," Mall said. "The implication that concerns us is that the Park Service is not conducting a full and thorough review under the National Environmental Policy Act. We certainly hope that's not a precedent that will govern activities in other national parks."
'Clearly a failure'
Last year, Burnett conducted a field test of its equipment for NPS, ostensibly to demonstrate that the trucks could safely navigate the jungles of Big Cypress without causing significant damage.
It didn't go well.
Park staff showed up on time, only to find that the operator had already begun the test run without them -- and gotten the truck stuck in a ditch. It took hours to free the buggy; when a beefy four-wheel-drive truck couldn't pull it out, a tractor with a backhoe and bucket was brought in to do the job.
The NPS observers noted that the rutting of the soil was "not significant," and later photographs show recovered vegetation. Though far heavier than the off-road vehicles used in other areas of the preserve, the trucks are outfitted with balloon tires designed to spread their weight and reduce ground pressure.
But the observers' notes raised questions about the equipment and the operator, calling the test "clearly a failure."
"The test only involved an extremely minute portion of the entire 110-square-mile proposed exploratory area," the observers wrote. "Extrapolating the impacts observed to multiple vehicles in a much larger area, suggests that the potential wetland impacts could be significant."
The NPS observers also question the operator's ability to follow procedures and highlight "their unfamiliarity with the wetland environment" at Big Cypress.
NPS refers to the test once in its "finding of no significant impact." While the agency acknowledges that the truck got stuck, it also notes that the "wetland habitat traversed by the buggy was minimally impacted and showed signs of recovery six months later."
DeGross said the truck's operator was unfamiliar with the landscape and "attempted to drive through an old canal."
But for the actual seismic testing, he said, all of Burnett's routes must first be approved by NPS. Field observers, who are vetted by NPS, will also accompany truck operators.
Environmentalists contend that NPS has not considered the full universe of possible impacts.
"We just think that's very strong evidence that this should not have been approved as proposed," Mall said. "That was just one test in one location."
Lund also questioned NPS's assertion that Burnett will need only "one-pass" surveys, where trucks traverse a given area only once to avoid impacting the soil. That may not be realistic, he said, when the company will also have to avoid swaths of protected habitat.
"These are 30-ton trucks driving through the wetlands and the forest," he said. "We really think the impacts of vehicles that heavy was really underestimated."
The plight of the endangered Florida panther is another sticking point. The seismic survey will take place in prime panther habitat, but the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the testing is "not likely to adversely affect" the species, whose population totals between 100 and 180.
In its environmental assessment, NPS wrote that the panthers' primary response to the seismic survey would be avoidance. The surveys will overlap part of the denning season -- in which females birth young in hard-to-find dens -- but NPS asserts that equipment won't enter such "impenetrable vegetation."
Burnett will have to work around the habitats of other protected species, such as red-cockaded woodpeckers, nesting wading birds and gopher tortoises.
NPS will also identify all adverse impacts to wetlands, requiring Burnett to replant native species if necessary. Other mitigation measures include the use of existing roads when possible and the cleaning of trucks to avoid bringing in invasive species.
Friday's decision only covers Burnett's first seismic survey. If the company wants to survey more land -- or actually drill -- it would have to undergo another environmental review under NEPA.
But environmental groups worry that Big Cypress is setting up a process that is too easy for oil companies. In Schwartz's view, the survey is "phase one of an operation that is going to cover the heart of the preserve."
"We expect they're going to find oil and the next step is going to be applying for a drilling application. They're going to have to build oil wells, roads, they're going to create pads. They're going to create industrial sites within the preserve," Schwartz said. "It's a whole operation inside the most biodiverse piece of land in the United States."
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