(News-Press.com) - Drilling for oil and gas in state parks and other conservation lands would be on the table for the first time if companion bills proposed in the state House and Senate meet with the Legislature's approval.
That means areas such as the 70,000-acre Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park could eventually be home to oil wells as well as endangered orchids and other species such as the endangered Florida panther, and drilling in the 23,000 Corkscrew Regional Ecosystem Watershed could be allowed as well as hiking.
House Bill 695, "Development of Oil and Gas Resources," sponsored by Rep. Clay Ford, R-Pensacola, is in the House Appropriations Committee. Senate Bill 1158, sponsored by Sen Greg Evers, R-Baker, is on today's agenda for the Senate Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee.
The bills would allow state land management agencies to enter into public-private partnerships with a business entity to develop oil and gas resources on onshore state lands, under specified conditions. One is that the deal would have to provide near-term revenue to the state.
The state has more than 150 state parks, but many would not be eligible. The bills pertain only to exploration and drilling in uplands, which include pine flatwoods, dry prairies, Florida scrub habitats and others. Wetlands are exempt. A site such as the Fakahatchee Strand contains both uplands and wetlands, and is known to have oil reserves.
"What we're trying to do is get something going to identify the reserves in state-owned land," Ford said last week. Some companies are willing to do the seismographic studies to find out, but without some kind of agreement in place, the companies are reluctant to spend the $2 million to $3 million needed to conduct such studies.
"They would not do anything to cause detriment to the land on the front end," Ford said. "All they're doing is securing their first right of refusal."
Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of the Southwest Florida Conservancy, said the bills leave him almost speechless.
"What are they thinking?" McElwaine asked. "It's absolutely unacceptable."
The land management agencies that could entertain such business proposals fall under the state Department of Environmental Protection's Division of Public lands. They range from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to the Division of Recreation and Parks to the various water management districts in the state.
A land management agency would not be under any obligation to entertain a proposal from a business wanting to explore for oil and gas, and if such an agreement did go to the governor and Cabinet and failed to be ratified, the issue would be dead, Ford said.
Negotiations would determine what the state revenue split for the state and private entity and would be. If some oil or gas deposits are found, they would have to go to the governor and Cabinet for final permission to drill. The process would be open and include a public hearing before a decision is made, Ford said.
The state Department of Environmental Protection did not have an input in creating the bill, Nicole Garcia, a department spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
"Also, DEP remains neutral on pending legislation," Garcia said.
The Florida Petroleum Council has said repeatedly that it backs any new drilling in Florida because it will create jobs, bring revenue to the state and help reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Florida has long had oil production in parts of Southwest Florida and in the northwest Panhandle. The first field was discovered about 12 miles south of Immokalee in 1943.
A House staff analysis said the Panhandle fields produced about 1 million barrels of oil in 2010, while the Southwest Florida fields produced about 775,000 barrels.
There are an estimated 370 million more barrels of undiscovered oil in South Florida, according to the most recent United States Geological Survey oil reserve estimate.
Collier Resources of Naples owns 800,000 acres of private mineral rights across Lee, Collier and Hendry counties, making it the largest private mineral owner in Florida. The company has drilled in the Big Cypress National Preserve, where it has 400,000 acres of mineral rights, for decades.
Collier Resources is already expanding its drilling in the federal preserve and plans to continue expansion. But this is the first time that exploration and drilling would be allowed in state parks and other state-owned land.
A company spokeswoman declined comment.
The Sierra Club's legislative lobbyist has spoken with both Ford and Evers on proposed amendments to the bills meant to ensure protection of environmentally sensitive lands, said Frank Jackalone, head of the Florida Sierra Club. The amendments aren't satisfactory and the bills are not in the public interest, he said.
"It is promoting the exploration for and extraction of fossil fuels, this at a time when the Legislature has refused to consider any action of promoting or allowing the development of a real marketplace for renewable energy," Jackalone said.
Mary Wozniak, News-Press.com