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Oil drilling on conservation land being disputed in Southwest Florida

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Tomorrow, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will hear from the public regarding the Sunniland Oil Field in Collier County, Florida. The issue is mired in confusion as residents try to parse out the subtle difference between property ownership and mineral rights ownership. Residents have been talking about the drilling recently as there is a public meeting scheduled for Tuesday, March 11, 2014 in Naples, Florida. Much of what the public does not realize is that millions of acres of land reserved for conservation is not the same the mineral rights below the land above. Those mineral rights can, and are, leased to oil and gas companies to extract those minerals with heavy safeguards for the environment above.

From 4 to 6 p.m. tomorrow an informational meeting will take place at the Golden Gate Community Center Auditorium, 4701 Golden Gate Parkway in Naples, Florida on a Class II injection well for waste water disposal - to be built if and when the proposed oil well goes from exploration to production (meaning a commercially viable amount of oil has been found). The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has already approved this well and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved it in draft form. The purpose of this part of the meeting is to provide information to the public on Class II injection wells, the laws and regulations which govern them, and the permitting process.

At the same time in a separate room a meeting of the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee will take place. This is the new kid on the block and needs a bit of explanation. Florida Statute 377.42 provides the following rationale for this committee: "To ensure compliance with all requirements for obtaining a permit to explore for hydrocarbons in the Big Cypress Swamp area, each application for such permit shall be reviewed by the Big Cypress Swamp Advisory Committee." The statute goes on to explain how the committee will function: "If site-specific conditions require, the committee may recommend that additional procedures, safeguards, or conditions which are necessary to protect the integrity of the Big Cypress area be required as a condition to the issuance of a permit to drill and produce."

Oil drilling has been done successfully on conservation land for decades. The Audubon Society has a long history of allowing oil and gas drilling on their conservation areas they manage and it has been done well, without harm to the environment. The Audubon then takes the profits from the oil companies to purchase more land to conserve. Many see the arrangement as a win-win, although the Audubon does its best to walk a fine line between supporting oil drilling and appeasing many of their alarmist environmental supporters. One of the areas of controversy being discussed today is the Audubon Society managed Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary near Naples, Florida.

Some environmental activists are concerned for the general environment and the Florida Panther Habitat and residents are concerned about retaining property rights while keeping and bringing high paying jobs to the area. And those with a strong commitment to the environment are not aligned in their concerns. Some are saying the environmentalists are being alarmists, like Conservation Collier Manager Alexandra Sulecki, who says there has been no threat to the Florida Panther Habitat and there is none expected. She also has stated, “From our perspective these oil pads and oil wells aren’t the biggest threat. It’s loss of habitat.” Nancy Payton, with the Florida Wildlife Federation, said oil drilling isn’t a big concern for the big cats. Matt Schwartz, Executive Director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, is very concerned about the drilling stating in an email, "With our core interest in protecting habitat for the Florida panther and the many other species which share its domain, South Florida Wildlands Association (SFWA) quickly jumped in to the fight. We joined local residents unhappy at the prospect of an oil well so close to rural homes and irreplaceable habitat for our state animal and other wildlife. In spite of a strong effort, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) approved the new well." Schwartz is mobilizing his supporters to attend the upcoming EPA public meeting on March 11th.

Libertarian Party of Collier County chairman Jared Grifoni weighed in on the issue saying, "The Libertarian Party of Collier County believes that this is another clear example of the unintended consequences of government intervention into our private lives and private property. Environmental regulation is best left to private property owners and individuals themselves. Rather than relying on a government "solution," which usually turns out to be anything but, social pressure and environmental watchdogs should be looked to in order to solve these types of problems in the future. Contamination and pollution ultimately are violations of the property rights of others and should be actionable. Individuals and businesses need to be held responsible for the consequences of their own actions when they violate the rights of others."

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