Oil & Gas News

New Oil Drilling Plans Spark Outcry in Florida Basin

Florida, Oil, Drilling

The latest pursuit of oil exploration in the ecologically delicate Apalachicola River basin has ignited a renewed wave of opposition, as environmentalists and community members rally against the potential environmental repercussions. Clearwater Land & Minerals Fla, a company with roots in Shreveport, Louisiana, has recently applied for a permit to drill exploratory wells in Calhoun County, a region nestled between the mighty Apalachicola River—the largest river by volume in Florida—and the Chipola River just north of the Dead Lakes.

This new endeavor to tap into potential oil reserves comes after Cholla Petroleum, a Dallas-based firm, abandoned its own exploratory projects at the same site in 2021, just as they were poised to commence drilling. Cholla’s withdrawal was precipitated by the sudden death of a key investor, following years of preparatory seismic testing. This abrupt exit left behind the well, fully prepped but unused, prompting Clearwater to step in with renewed hopes bolstered by geological data suggesting a promising oil presence beneath the surface.

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Local opposition has been swift and substantial, with over 200 written objections submitted to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is currently reviewing Clearwater’s application. Community fears are concentrated on the potential hazards that drilling could pose to the environment, particularly the risk of toxic chemical releases into the rivers, wetlands, and wildlife habitats during natural disasters such as floods or hurricanes. Moreover, there are concerns about the possible contamination of the Floridan Aquifer, an essential source of drinking water for the area.

Residents like Jack and Joanne Harmon of Franklin County have voiced their apprehensions, stating, “This is still a pristine part of Florida. There is always a spill and it would totally ruin the economy of this area.” Similarly, Ann Johnson, a local historian from Wewahitchka, has raised alarms about the detrimental effects on the community’s drinking water and the local fishing industry, which significantly contributes to tourism.

Allison Goodson, a regulatory attorney based in Tallahassee, underscored the potential environmental costs of such an enterprise. She highlighted the considerable water consumption that oil and gas wells require, which could exacerbate the already impaired water flows to the Apalachicola River, its floodplain, and the bay. Her concerns are echoed by the ongoing efforts to restore the Apalachicola Bay, particularly after the collapse of its oyster fisheries, stressing that any exploratory or operational wells would inevitably lead to the release of harmful substances into the surrounding wetlands and rivers.

Mineral RightsDespite these significant environmental and community concerns, proponents of the drilling project argue that it could bring much-needed economic relief to Calhoun County, one of Florida’s poorest regions. The local timber industry, which was devastated by Hurricane Michael, has left the community in dire economic straits. Proponents, including Calhoun County Commissioner Gene Bailey, believe that the potential oil revenue could be transformative, comparing it to the prosperous days of the Jay Field, which significantly boosted Florida’s oil output half a century ago.

This debate has even found its way into the political arena, as the issue has surfaced on the 2024 campaign trail. Democrat Daryl Parks, running for a state Senate seat, has expressed his opposition to drilling in the region, aligning himself with the environmental preservationists and concerned citizens.

In their defense, Clearwater remains optimistic about the site’s oil potential, drawing comparisons to productive oil fields in south Alabama. They argue that their geological assessments, informed by Cholla’s previous seismic tests, validate their high expectations of finding oil and gas reserves. The company’s commitment to the exploratory phase was further emphasized by DEP press secretary Brian Miller, who noted that the agency is requesting additional information from Clearwater as part of their thorough review process, a common practice in ensuring compliance with Florida’s stringent environmental laws.

However, the environmental stakes are high, as emphasized by Apalachicola Riverkeeper Cameron Baxley. The proposed drilling site, according to Baxley, lies in one of the most sensitive parts of the state’s floodplain ecosystem, recognized legally as an Outstanding Florida Water. The risk of a major flood event surrounding the drilling pad with flowing water could lead to catastrophic outcomes for the local habitat, especially given the historical 100% failure rate of previous wells in the region. Baxley’s advocacy highlights a profound concern: the irreversible environmental impact that could arise from even a single mishap during the oil exploration process.

As the DEP prepares to announce its decision, the community remains on edge, awaiting to see whether the pursuit of economic benefit will outweigh the potential costs to their environment and way of life. The resolution of this issue will not only determine the fate of the Apalachicola River basin but also set a precedent for how Florida balances economic development with environmental conservation in the years to come.

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