Burnett Oil takes steps toward oil drilling in Everglades
by Vickie Machado
The weather was warm though not sweltering in the Everglades on the afternoon of Saturday, April 10. The region was dry, about a month away from the daily afternoon thunderstorms that are a mainstay of South Florida summers. White billowing clouds hovered over 50 to 60 demonstrators gathered along the grassy shoulder of Alligator Alley, near the Collier County rest-stop in the upper-reaches of the Big Cypress Swamp.
The crowd and the signs they carried were hard to miss on the interstate stretch connecting Fort Lauderdale to Naples. Carefully painted capitalized black lettering on the yellow, blue, and lime green fabric of banners proclaimed: “SPEAK UP FOR NATURE’S RIGHTS,” “RESPETE LOS EVERGLADES,” and, announcing the central sentiment of the protest, “DEFEND THE SACRED.” A range of other signs of various shapes, sizes, and colors read: “Speak up for Nature,” “Say NO to Burnett Oil,” “Oil and Water Don’t Mix.” South Floridians from both coasts and between converged in the middle of Big Cypress for Signs Across the Alley, a rally to protect the glades from oil drilling.
Rev. Houston Cypress, a member of the Miccosukee Otter Clan and co-founder of Love the Everglades Movement, led the protest along with Panther Clan grandmother Betty Osceola.
Similar to January’s Defend the Sacred Prayer Walk, which opposed the federal government’s efforts to transfer Section 404 of the Clean Water Act to the state, the conveners took time to educate the public on the impact of oil drilling starting with a hike that ventured deep into the muck.
Lasting nearly all day, the hike’s purpose was to introduce participants to the environment of the planned oil-drilling site and connect them to the land in an effort to recognize the sacredness of creation. For local tribes and longtime residents alike, the land is to be respected. It is something to revere, cherish, and honor as one part of the circle of life and the ecosystem that sustains livelihoods. When it is threatened, people turn out.
While oil drilling in the glades has come and gone since the early 20th century, the looming climate crisis, sea level rise, rapid development, and public sentiment are turning oil and gas into obsolete energy sources. Oil drilling in the Glades has rarely been profitable, transforming projects like Burnett Oil’s from a dried up pipe-dream into a frightening nightmare.
Floridians are increasingly turning their attention to Teslas and solar panels, which begs the question: why bother with dated energy that continues to perpetuate an already volatile situation? Why disrupt the lands that Cypress, Osceola, and so many others hold integral to their identity and history? While the nonsensical nature of this business venture and cultural disrespect it imparts infuriates locals, the state continues to affirm such endeavors.
The trouble arose in 2017 and 2018 when Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection granted Texas-based Burnett Oil permission to conducted seismic testing in the search for oil (https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1929). The scars from the test and the thirty-ton machines running them are still etched into the land.
Cutting the land like a knife, environmentalists said, wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. Technically, the land itself is protected in Big Cypress National Preserve; however, the mineral rights are not. The resources beneath the surface are owned by a range of private owners, among which is the politically connected Collier family, the area’s largest deed holder. Based on the actions of Burnett Oil, every ounce seems for sale.
Recently, the federal government granted the state authority to regulate and manage development, water resources, infrastructure and mining projects, giving Florida control of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act (https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1212). Burnett Oil was the first to take advantage of this transition. Currently, being challenged in court, the transfer of power is a big blow for Floridians, given the state’s poor track record in recent decades in the protection of natural areas.
According to the Alison Kelly with the Natural Resource Defense Council, Burnett Oil wants to lock in additional fossil-fuel infrastructure in the Everglades for 30 plus years.
Drilling in the glades could pose several threats to animals, natural habitats, surface water, and the aquifer, which supports all life, including that of south Floridians. Such projects also jeopardize the ancestral lands that Cypress, Osceola, and other native peoples hold so close to their heart—land that is already feeling the weight of climate change.
“It’s not appropriate,” said Kelly, “to be locking in new fossil fuels for decades to come while we’re already combating damage.”
Along the way, companies like Burnett Oil put a strain on other existing resources. Kelly explained that Burnett Oil recently applied for a permit to extract one million gallons per day for the operation of each well.
Does the phrase “one million gallons” sound familiar? It should. In late February, after citizens in north central Florida, including many from Gainesville, voiced their opposition in demonstrations and petitions to protect the springs, the Suwannee River Water Management District Governing Board granted permission to Nestlē to bottle nearly one million gallons of water a day from Ginnie Springs (https://tinyurl.com/Iguana1213).
The organized efforts to say No to Nestlē and the collective opposition to Burnett Oil are just two of the latest actions by Floridians to combat extractive industries looking to exploit the public commons.
These cases show more than the state’s water management districts’ disregard of precious natural endowments that belong to all Floridians. It shows that the state has ignored the views of local communities that oppose such projects and furthermore that government officials continue to view water purely as a resource to be used for corporate gain and profit.
It’s hard to find a silver lining in these situations, where water is being stripped from its natural cycle for the profit of a select few. Still, there are those highly dedicated few who refuse to give up hope and continue to fight for the sacred.