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By Chris Marr
July 28 — A team of environmental groups sued to block oil and gas exploration near the Everglades, where they say the use of heavy “thumper trucks” to conduct seismic testing in wetlands would harm endangered wildlife and water resources ( National Resources Defense Council v. National Park Service, M.D. Fla., No. 2:16-cv-00585, 7/27/16 ).
The Natural Resources Defense Council led five other advocacy groups in suing the National Park Service July 27 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, accusing the service of failing to adequately evaluate environmental impacts of seismic testing in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The park service issued a finding of no significant impact for the testing on May 6.
Although this isn’t the first oil and gas activity inside the preserve—which sits atop the Sunniland oil and gas trend—the plaintiffs said the scale of the plan and testing techniques will lead to more serious ecological harm. The park service gave approval for the Burnett Oil Co. of Texas to conduct testing in a 110-square-mile area of the preserve, including driving 60,000-pound trucks through roadless areas to press vibrating steel plates onto the ground to create seismic waves.
“Oil and gas companies have no place in our national parks and preserves,” said Alison Kelly, a staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a written statement announcing the lawsuit. “Oil exploration and development in Big Cypress could push the rare Florida panther toward the brink of extinction, threaten wetlands and safe drinking water for thousands of people, and damage a popular destination for outdoor lovers.”
The preserve serves as a key recharge point for the aquifer that provides drinking water for South Florida. The preserve also provides nearly half of the water flowing into the Everglades National Park to the south, according to the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs say the park service’s approval of the seismic testing was “arbitrary and capricious” and violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the park service’s own regulations.
The park service conducted a 20-month review process before approving Burnett’s plan to use Vibroseis 3-D technology to survey for potential oil and gas reserves in a north-central section of the preserve, according to the park service’s May 6 finding. The service also required mitigation efforts.
This means of seismic testing is a more advanced technology than the traditional method of drilling “shot holes” to place small explosive blasts underground and measuring the sound waves with receivers at the surface, said Ron Clark, chief of natural resources at Big Cypress.
“In our environmental analysis, we concluded this proposed technique was less intrusive than drilling those shot holes, sometimes in the hundreds, sometimes in the thousands, depending on the size of the survey,” Clark told Bloomberg BNA on July 28.
Ray Russo, a geophysics professor at the University of Florida, agreed the Vibroseis testing is preferable to using explosives, partly because explosives can leave chemical residue that affects groundwater. Nevertheless, he said Burnett’s testing plan will require driving lots of large trucks through the preserve, likely in a dense grid to gather an adequate data sample.
“The seismic part is not the problem. It’s driving the truck to get to all of those nodes,” Russo told Bloomberg BNA on July 28. “In my opinion that would be pretty disruptive.”
In reviewing Burnett’s plan, the park service considered not just ecological factors but also property rights, Clark said. When the preserve was established, the federal government bought the surface rights but left mineral rights under private ownership.
“That was a consideration for us too,” Clark said. “How do we allow private property owners to exercise their property rights, and how do we preserve and conserve and protect the natural resources at the same time?”
The park service required a number of mitigation measures in approving the seismic testing, including making certain parts of the 110-square-mile area off limits, requiring protection of vegetation, and requiring that park service staff, an archaeologist and an ecologist be in the field during all testing.
The trucks to be used for testing are equipped with tread-less, balloon-like tires that minimize damage to soil, according to the park service's finding.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit—the NRDC, Center for Biological Diversity, National Park Conservation Association, Conservancy of Southwest Florida, Earthworks and South Florida Wildlands Association—said the park service should have completed a full environmental impact statement for the seismic testing proposal.
Instead, the park service completed a less-stringent environmental assessment that resulted in its finding of no significant impact, according to the complaint.
In addition to the July 27 lawsuit, the plaintiffs also have served a notice of intent to sue the park service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the plaintiffs announced. That case would focus on potential impacts of the seismic testing on endangered and threatened species.
Oil companies have been producing oil within the current territory of the Big Cypress preserve since the 1960s, before it was designated as a national preserve, Clark said.
Companies currently operate 16 wells in two oil fields within the preserve, producing about 30,000 barrels of oil per month, he said. The planned testing would be Burnett’s first venture into the preserve.
Burnett Oil declined to comment on the litigation, according to spokesman Ryan Duffy.
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