Statements on oil drilling in Everglades spark heated debate

“I [am] shocked to hear a presidential hopeful, U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, suggest that drilling in the Everglades might be a good idea,” Environment Florida State Director Aliki Moncrief said to members of the environmentalist cause in a Sept. 9 e-mail newsletter. “Please take a minute to sign our petition to Gov. [Rick] Scott and tell him there’s no place for drilling in Florida.”

Though the debate over oil drilling in and off the coast of Florida has been an active topic of discussion amongst legislators, lobbyists and the like for quite some time now, Bachmann’s provocative comments in an interview with the Associated Press several weeks ago have fanned the flame of controversy to new life, particularly amongst activist and conservationist groups.

“The United States needs to be less dependent on foreign sources of energy and more dependent on American resourcefulness,” Bachmann said. “Whether that is in the Everglades or whether that is in the Eastern Gulf region or whether that is in North Dakota, we need to go where the energy is.”

Bachmann conceded that any exploration or energy access in the Everglades would have to be done “responsibly.”

Scott entered the fray as well at a conference in Tallahassee on Tuesday, Sept. 6, expressing his own support for oil drilling in the region.

“You know we already have drilling in the Everglades,” he said. “We already have oil wells in the Everglades.”

According to the St. Petersburg Times, oil drilling has indeed been an active, if relatively lesser-known, enterprise in the western Everglades – technically located outside of the Everglades National Park boundaries – since 1943, occupying a small patch of land known as the Sunniland Trend. The Times acknowledged the operation’s under-the-radar status, referring to it as “the unlikeliest oil patch in the South.”

“It’s a mom-and-pop operation few people know about,” Professor of Political Science Frank Alcock told the Catalyst. He estimated that the drilling effort sustains approximately 50 jobs.

Scott later clarified that, while he supported the current drilling operation in Sunniland, he did not necessarily support the idea of expanding it, at least not without caution for the local environment and wildlife.

“I think we have to be very cautious on any oil drilling, whether it’s already in the state or on our beaches or in the Gulf, because we aren’t going to ruin our environment,” he said.

Despite these concessions, the comments have inspired heated responses from Moncrief and other leading environmentalist figures in Florida.

“Can [drilling] be done safely?” Florida Audubon director Eric Draper asked. “Probably. Is there a risk? Absolutely.”

“If there is any thought being given to expanding oil drilling into the Everglades, my suggestion to the Governor is quite simple: Don’t go there,” Everglades Foundation CEO Kirk Fordham said in a statement released on Tuesday, Sept. 6. “Unless Governor Scott wants to unleash a firestorm of opposition from hunters, fishermen, conservationists and millions of Floridians who depend on the Everglades for their water supply, he should abandon any notion of encouraging drilling in this sacred place.”

Despite the environmental concerns inherent to drilling and the vehement opposition of pro-conservation lobbyists, supporters of expanded oil drilling grow ever more vocal about championing their cause, especially in light of rising gas prices, unemployment and dwindling natural resources in recent years.

“There’s oil there and we’ve been producing it,” Florida Petroleum Council Executive Director David Mica said. “With new technologies, there might be a lot more.”

Mica emphasized that the state of Florida has been safely producing oil from its current drilling operations for several decades – since the operation’s inception, Florida has produced 25 billion barrels’ worth “without a major disaster.”

Though the debate has gained a renewed sense of relevance in light of Bachmann’s comment, Alcock assured the Catalyst that, while the issue of oil drilling in Florida on the whole is a critical concern in state politics, the notion of expansion in the Everglades is almost certainly purely-provocative discourse.

“In my opinion, it’s hype,” he said. “This discussion of drilling [in the Everglades] is much ado about nothing.”

As far as oil drilling interests off the Atlantic coast and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico are concerned, however, Alcock stated in confidence that the issue “will come back forcefully” and “remain on the agenda.”

“This issue of drilling is going to be big – but not in the Everglades,” he said.

Information used in this article retrieved from thinkprogress.org, the Sun Sentinel, the St. Petersburg Times, the Florida Times-Union, audubonoffloridanews.org and stpetersblog.com.

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