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Politics

Oil and Gas Keep Pumping Next Door to 'Pristine' Everglades

August 29, 2011 - 6:00pm

While environmentalists blasted GOP presidential candidate Michele Bachmann for broaching the subject of oil-drilling in the Everglades, petroleum is pumping right next door.

Since oil was discovered in eastern Collier County in 1943, Humble Oil Co. and its independent successors have been extracting oil from under the 729,000-acre Big Cypress federal wildlife preserve adjacent to the Everglades National Park.

With advances in horizontal and directional drilling, industry experts say reserves under the park could be tapped from outside.

"People called [Bachmann's] remarks outrageous. It's outrageous that we not give science consideration wherever the oil is," said Dave Mica of the Florida Petroleum Council.

In recent years, 10 wells tapping into the Sunniland Trend underneath the Big Cypress preserve have pulled up an average of 3,400 barrels a day.

"Given the new technologies, the area has some prospects geologically. Depending on oil prices, you might see some new activity," Mica said.

The Sunniland Trend is a well-defined hydrocarbon-bearing geological layer that stretches from Fort Myers to Miami. Located on the northeast flank of the South Florida Basin, it is the largest unexplored geological basin in the lower 48 states.

Over the past 68 years, 14 named discoveries have been made in the Trend and in excess of 118 million barrels of crude oil have been produced from eight commercial oil fields, according to Collier Resources Co.

Because of its relatively high sulfur content, Florida's "sour" crude isn't as desirable or marketable as "sweet" varieties. But independent jobbers continue to scratch out a living in theSouthwest Florida oil patch.

"Most of our jobs -- metalurgists, geologists, technical people -- are significant in terms of pay," Mica explained.

The biggest impediment to growth is politics, he says.

"We have a good track record in this state," says Mica, noting that the biggest local accident he can remember was an overturned tanker truck. "But the NIMBY problem is very substantial."

In 2002, the federal government, at the urging of President George W. Bush, bought back oil and gas drilling rights in the Everglades preserve for $120 million.

Going forward, Mica says it is crucial that exploration continues around, or even in, the 'Glades.

"For the last 20 years, decisions have been driven more by political will than by economics. It's hard enough to [extract oil] when we're allowed to do it. To shut it down arbitrarily is wrong," he said.

Not surprisingly, the Miami-based Everglades Foundation takes exception.

"Congresswoman Bachmann needs to undersand that oil and drinking water do not mix," foundation CEO Kirk Fordham said Monday.

Others, however, point out that the Everglades aren't as "pristine" as advertised or hoped for, and that oil exploration has not substantially contributed to the problem.

Despite billions of dollars expended on restoration projects, flows of phosphorous and other contaminants continue to pollute the famed River of Grass.

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Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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