Judge Approves Oil and Gas Exploration in Florida Preserve

(CN) – A federal judge has approved a plan to let oil companies look for deposits of oil and gas in a South Florida preserve declaring that it does not pose a “concrete harm” to the natural resources or wildlife of the park.

Big Cypress National Preserve is a United States National Preserve located in southern Florida, about 45 miles west of Miami. Along with orchids, alligators and Florida panther, among other species, the preserve is home to federally listed endangered species including the eastern indigo snake and the Florida sandhill crane.

U.S. District Judge John Steele’s ruling denied a request for injunctive relief made by the National Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups for lack of constitutional standing.

The plaintiffs wanted to block the National Park Service’s approval of a plan proposed by Burnett Oil Co. Inc. and the Collier companies to “conduct a three-dimensional seismic geophysical survey using vibroseis technology to identify whether there are commercially feasible deposits of oil and gas within the Big Cypress National Preserve in South Florida” stating that National Park Services approved the plan without doing a complete “environmental review.”

The majority of the preserve’s mineral estate is owned by the Collier companies, but the exploration of oil, gas and other minerals held within it is regulated by the National Park Service.

“Park Service regulations require all proposed oil and gas plans of operations to include, as appropriate, a description of all reasonable technologically feasible alternative methods of operations, their costs, and their environmental effects,” Judge Steele writes in the April 24 opinion.

The order explains that the Collier companies are proposing the use of Seismic surveys, which “generate an energy that bounces off underground oil and gas deposits back to small, strategically positioned sensors on the surface called geophones.”

According to the order, in 1999 the National Park Service conducted tests for a 3-D seismic survey in the Big Cypress National preserve, and a follow up confirmed that it had no long-lasting effects.

In November 2013, agents from the Collier and Burnett oil companies told the park service they wanted to conduct a seismic survey of Collier’s private oil and gas resources in the preserve.

Then in August 2014, Burnett Oil provided the NPS with a revised draft for the plan of operations for a 3-D seismic survey following the regulations for non-federal oil and gas activities on its lands with the requested adjustments and changes.

One year later, in June 2015, the park service completed the plan and informed the Burnett and Collier oil companies that it would begin its formal public review process to evaluate it.

The order claims that the proposed plan had some public opposition, but the agency said the proposed method would not have a “lasting impact” in the park.

In November 2014, the park service presented a revised biological assessment that concluded “that the planned survey is not likely to adversely affect Endangered Species Act-listed species …”

The agency issued a “Finding of No Significant Impact” on May 6, 2016, and approved the plan.

“The FONSI concluded that with standard operating procedures, best management practices, and mandatory minimization and mitigation measures, the selected action will not significantly affect the quality of the human environment,” the order says.

The plaintiffs objected to the finding, arguing that in crafting it the parks service violated the Administrative Procedures Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

In the amended complaint, plaintiffs claim that the NPS failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement for Burnett Oil’s Plan of Operations, failed to take a “hard look” at the effectiveness of the mitigation measures and the adverse impacts, and failed to consider all reasonable and less damaging alternatives to Burnett Oil’s Plan of Operation.

Judge Steele found that line of argument unavailing.

“There must be some concrete harm separate from their statutorily-granted right to sue,” the judge wrote.

He also said that plaintiffs failed to show the park service had a legal obligation to reinitiate a consultation process on its preserve management plans.

Representatives of the parties did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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