/stories/2019/02/looking-for-texas-tea-in-the-river-of-grass

Looking for Texas Tea in the River of Grass

A Great Blue Heron in Florida’s Everglades. Environmentalists are concerned about the effect oil drilling will have on wildlife in the River of Grass. Photo credit: Everglades National Park Service

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

A Great Blue Heron in Florida’s Everglades. Environmentalists are concerned about the effect oil drilling will have on wildlife in the River of Grass. Photo credit: Everglades National Park Service

Looking for Texas Tea in the River of Grass

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
UM experts weigh in on the impacts of drilling for oil in the Everglades.

The fight isn’t over.

That’s the attitude environmentalists, Broward County Commissioners, and state legislators are taking after a Tallahassee appeals court last week ordered the state to issue a permit to Kanter Real Estate for an exploratory oil well in the Everglades, just west of the Broward County suburbs.

“The idea of an oil well in the Everglades is equal parts absurd and horrifying. I look forward to this being refuted in court,” State Sen. Lauren Book, a University of Miami alumna whose district includes the site of the proposed well, said in a statement released by the Broward Legislative Delegation.

Book and other officials concerned about the drilling may very well get their day in court. Last week, Broward County Attorney Andrew Meyers said the county will take legal action to stop the project.

The proposed site is on a 20-mile-wide, 150-mile-long stretch of shale between Miami and Fort Myers, near the city of Miramar. A Texas oil company has already tapped into the western portion of that stretch, called the Sunniland Trend. Kanter Real Estate believes the eastern part contains oil, and it wants to drill an exploratory well 11,800 feet below the surface to find it.

The company had applied for a permit to drill the well in 2015, but the Florida Department of Environmental Protection denied the application. But last week, the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee reversed that decision, ruling that DEP engaged in an “abuse of discretion.”

If oil is discovered at the 5-acre site, the well could yield about 180,000 to 10 million barrels, according to Kanter’s expert testimony.

While there are several oil wells in Florida (In all, 87 wells, most of them exhausted and plugged), the proposed well would be the first of its kind east of several smaller drilling sites in the Big Cypress Preserve.

News@theU asked a group of University of Miami experts, some of whom have conducted wildlife and archaeological research in the Everglades, to weigh in on the impacts of oil drilling in protected areas like the River of Grass. Here’s what they had to say:

What’s the nature of the research that you have conducted in the Everglades?

On biological diversity inventories for Florida Bay. I worked between the National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, and UM to document marine species in Florida Bay.

—Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences

I have collaborated with Everglades National Park on two occasions to teach an archaeological field school at prehistoric sites at risk within the park. Everglades National Park has more than 250 archaeological sites, and they have been very appreciative of our help with assessing these sites. I can’t disclose the exact locations, but both were within the park boundaries toward the eastern edge of the Everglades. In both cases we were excavating the remains of living sites that were occupied by indigenous people around 1000 CE. In addition, there are hundreds of archaeological sites scattered through the eastern Everglades, near where the permit was granted.

—Traci Ardren, professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences

What potential threats does oil drilling pose to the environment and wildlife in protected areas like the Everglades?

Oil drilling produces both short- and long-term impacts on wetlands. Often, the regulatory system addresses the short-term impacts but not the long-term impacts. For example, the drilling process proposed will go through an initial environmental impact assessment (EIA) but very little follow up and monitoring. We are seeing now the impact of fracking in the Western U.S. from little oversight of the waste ponds near oil and gas facilities. These open disposal ponds kill thousands of migratory birds yet take years to mitigate. The Everglades is in the midst of the largest and most expensive wetland restoration ever, yet we are considering oil exploration in the midst of a very sensitive environment. This is a potential disaster for South Florida wildlife, and there are no safeguards in place.

—Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences

The biggest threat is that there will be an oil spill, which will have devastating effects on wildlife. Crude oil and its chemical derivatives are toxic to many species. For example, larval fish exposed to field-collected oil samples after the Deepwater Horizon spill suffered developmental abnormalities, including defects in cardiac function such as pericardial edema and arrhythmia. Similarly, bottlenose dolphins from areas affected by the Deepwater Horizon spill had frequencies of moderate or severe lung disease that are 10 times higher than dolphins in non-exposed populations. We would not want to expose wildlife in the Everglades to potential health risks such as these.

Another issue is all of the infrastructure that comes along with oil and gas development. Roads and fences fragment habitat, preventing animals from following their natural migration routes. For example, the pronghorn antelope in Wyoming naturally undertake the second longest mammalian migration in the Western Hemisphere, but this has been interrupted by fencing associated with the Jonah oil and gas field. This led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to create the first federally designated wildlife corridor to protect their migration. Many species in the Everglades need to make seasonal migrations to follow the water as it expands and contracts from the wet to dry season, so there is serious concern that similar migration routes could be interrupted in the Everglades.

Both of those issues are ones that I discuss with UM undergrads in my Conservation Biology course. Other problems with oil and gas development are habitat destruction where the well pads are constructed, erosion, introduction of invasive weeds, light pollution, and of course emission of greenhouse gases.

—Christopher Searcy, assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences

Would drilling pose any dangers to archaeological sites in the Everglades?

I am confident that prior to any oil exploration the company would have to do a thorough assessment of the archaeological resources within their 5 acres. However, even with such an assessment, unique archaeological and historic information will be lost. No assessment captures 100 percent of all archaeological information. When we loose these kinds of sites, we loose the opportunity to learn from the past, including the lessons Native people learned from earlier climate change and resource management challenges.

—Traci Ardren, professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences

What do past studies teach us about the environmental impacts of oil drilling?

There are hundreds of studies, and much of the follow-up work on the impacts of the Exxon Valdez or Deep Water Horizon spills illustrates the long-term destruction that occurs. Oil spills are part of oil exploration, and there is not a reasonable response plan for addressing a spill in the Everglades.

—Kathleen Sullivan Sealey, associate professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences