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South Florida Family Wins Right to Drill for Oil in Everglades

The Florida Everglades sure seem like a place where oil rigs don't belong. The unique habitat contains tons of endangered species — and humans have demonstrably corrupted it enough already.

But today, Florida's First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled that an investment company in Broward County — Kanter Real Estate — can build an oil well in a section of the Glades just west of Miramar, near the Broward/Miami-Dade County line. Kanter's land sits in a state conservation area above a shale deposit called the Sunniland Trend. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection had previously denied Kanter's request to drill there. But three Florida appellate judges reversed that decision. All three were appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott.

"We hold that the Secretary improperly rejected" Kanter's application, the judges wrote. They then directed "the Department to grant Appellant’s permit application." The Kanter family has owned this 20,000-acre plot for a half-century.

The fight, however, is not over. Kanter still needs to win some permitting fights with Broward. The county has been actively hostile toward Kanter's efforts until now. But because of the court order, Broward's options might be limited.

Though a few oil rigs exist in the Glades, the Miami Herald reported this afternoon that Kanter's will be the first new one in the Everglades in 50 years. There have been signs that Florida's courts were leaning toward opening portions of the Glades to drilling. In 2017, the Texas-based Burnett Oil Company secured court approval to conduct "seismic testing" in Big Cypress National Preserve, which is also part of the Everglades. Since then, New Times has obtained photos and videos of massive Burnett trucks flattening, churning over, and ruining Glades land.

Burnett Oil's court win in 2017 was a powerful blow to environmentalists. Today's Kanter ruling was crushing.

Local environmentalists and Broward lawmakers have battled Kanter since the company filed its application in 2015. Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam has long opposed the company's plan to build an oil-drilling complex so close to his town. But the court today said those concerns did not matter. In the 14-page ruling, three appellate judges ruled that Florida's former DEP secretary, Noah Valenstein, had "improperly" cast facts to reach his own "desired outcome." Instead, the court ruled Kanter's stretch of land was already so polluted it would not matter if an oil rig were placed there. The court also suggested the area is "hydrologically isolated" enough to prevent pollutants from contaminating the rest of the Glades:

Appellant presented evidence that the project site lies in an area called “the pocket,” notable for its degraded natural habitat and lessened environmental values. Appellant also presented the environmental resource permit that was granted by the Department in acknowledgment of Appellant satisfying all necessary environmental precautions. Appellant also introduced evidence that the Department had allowed other oil wells in the Everglades, including one approximately twenty-four miles west of Appellant’s project site that began operation in the late 1970s.

Appellant’s expert testified that there was a 23% chance of discovering oil at the project site, and that in the oil exploration industry, a 23% chance of discovering oil constitutes a very good prospect. The expert further testified that Appellant’s well would be commercially self-supporting at $50 per barrel of oil if only 100,000 barrels were discovered, and opined that the proposed well would generate between 180,000 to  10,000,000 barrels of oil if oil were discovered.

Of course that argument is absurd. The Florida Legislature in 2017 finally approved a plan designed to help the Everglades' "River of Grass" to flow southward again. The plan would reverse nearly a hundred years of human meddling with the Glades. Long ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sucked water out of huge portions of the swamp to make way for white northern settlers. (Since 2017, lawmakers have done little to help fix the ecosystem.)

In perhaps the most insane portion of the ruling, the judges noted that the 1994 Everglades Forever Act, a landmark piece of federal legislation that was designed to fix the Glades, does not explicitly ban oil drilling. So, in their view, it should be legal.

"Although the Secretary commented that the Everglades Forever Act demonstrates a legislative dedication to long-term Everglades restoration," the ruling states, "the Everglades Forever Act does not prohibit exploratory oil drilling." 

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