Florida to Buy Everglades Land to Prevent Family From Drilling for Oil

A waterfowl stands in the Everglades among some alligators
The Everglades is a vast but delicate ecosystem that supports plants, wildlife and the humans who live near it. Alan Sandercock [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The state of Florida says it will purchase a section of land in the Everglades, effectively ending one prominent family's plans to drill for oil in an ecosystem unlike any other on the planet. If all goes as planned, it will be the state's largest land acquisition in a decade and a peaceful settlement of a dispute that had gone on for years.

The state has until June 30 to buy the 20,000-acre tract and prevent the threat of drilling on protected lands in Broward County, according to The Miami Herald. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was a key negotiator in the agreement, which says the state will pay $16.5 million by June 30 or $18 million if it misses that deadline.

In February 2019, a state court ordered Florida to issue an exploratory oil-drilling permit to Kanter Real Estate LLC. The well would have been in Broward County, a few miles west of the city of Miramar and near the Everglades.

"This will permanently save the land from oil production," DeSantis said at a news conference this week. "With this acquisition, there will be nearly 600,000 acres of wetlands in Water Conservation Area Three that will be protected by public ownership for recreation and restoration."

Litigation to preserve the Everglades

An aerial view of the Alligator Alley section of Interstate Highway 75
The proposed Kanter well would have been located near Interstate 75, a section of which (pictured) is also known as Alligator Alley for its proximity to the Everglades. Felix Mizioznikov/Shutterstock

The battle over the Kanter well dates back to 2015, when the company first applied for the permit, according to NBCMiami. The company represents the estate of banker Joseph Kanter, which has owned the 20,000 acres of undeveloped land in the Everglades for decades. At one point, according to The Herald, they had planned to build a new city in the Everglades. More recently, they planned to drill some 11,800 feet (3,600 meters) deep, sitting on 5 acres (2 hectares) of land near a section of Interstate Highway 75 known as Alligator Alley, or Everglades Parkway, since it passes through the Everglades and Big Cypress National Preserve.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection or FDEP denied the permit, and Kanter took that decision to court, first to an administrative law court. The judge determined the land to be environmentally degraded and isolated enough from water sources for drilling to proceed, and ordered the permit to be issued. The First District Court of Appeal concurred with that ruling, even using the judge's determination about the land as "factual findings."

The FDEP said its denial of the permit was based on protecting the Everglades, regardless of whether the proposed site is degraded. "It looked beyond the vicinity of the well pad and concluded that the broader region, in this case the Everglades as [a] whole, was environmentally sensitive and should be protected," the department said in its filing, as reported by the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Meanwhile, Broward County and Miramar argued that the court didn't let them address the impact of a ballot measure, Amendment 6, which passed in November 2018. The amendment removed a requirement for courts to defer to agencies' interpretations of laws and regulations, and Broward and Miramar contend this amendment should not retroactively apply to older cases, like the drilling permit.

In February 2019, the FDEP announced it would request the rehearing and provide assistance to the Broward and Miramar case.

The history of oil and water in the Everglades

The Everglades on a partially cloudy day as plants grow up through the water along a swampy bank
The vibrant landscape of the Florida Everglades has been described as a 'river of grass,' which refers to the sawgrass marshes and a name the Seminole Tribe gave the large body of water: Okeechobee. Kao Akana [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Florida isn't a major oil producer. According to CityLab, Florida has more than 1,000 active wells, but no new wells have opened since 1988. The state produces fewer than 2 million barrels a year. Texas, by comparison, has more than 180,000 wells and produces between 4 million and 5.6 million barrels a day.

The state's lack of recent experience has made critics nervous about new wells, since they argue it increases the likelihood of spills and seeping. "Florida has very little infrastructure, very little oversight of oil and gas activities, compared to other states," Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, tells CityLab.

And any spill near the Everglades could be a serious problem for the environment, not to mention wildlife and people. CityLab recounts a 2003 U.S. Geological Survey test in which scientists drilled a small hole into a wall protecting the water supply in a protected area, then injected a harmless dye known as rhodamine into the hole. They expected the dye to slowly work its way through the water supply; instead, dye appeared in Miami taps and washing machines before the day was even over.

The test illustrated how sensitive and interconnected Florida's water systems can be. Miami receives most of its drinking water from the Biscayne Aquifer, where porous limestone holds a large mass of groundwater close to the surface. This makes it an easy candidate for contamination.

"If something goes wrong [with the Kanter well], you have the potential to foul drinking water," Jackson says.

There's also the issue of where Kanter wanted to drill. The site is in the eastern portion of Water Protection Area 3A, which "is by many accounts the best-conserved part of the Everglades," Matthew Cohen, a professor of forest water resources and watershed systems at the University of Florida, tells CityLab. "It's the part of the Everglades that probably looks closest to how the Everglades used to look."