Commentary: In the Everglades, oil and water don't mix

South Florida oil wells, those that don’t come up dry (most do), tend to yield a low-grade, sour crude and an ever sourer politics.

Chants of “Shell, Shell, drill in hell!” drowned out the public hearing held the last time an oil company proposed punching an exploratory hole beyond the Everglades dike in western Broward County. The opposition in the early 1990s was loud and angry, and echoed through county halls and Congress and the governor’s office.

The public fury that made a lasting impression on politicians hereabouts. Which made Michele Bachmann’s drill-in-the-Glades-baby-drill pronouncement last week so surprising. And when Gov. Rick Scott seemed to go along with Bachmann, it was downright startling. (His office quickly issued a “clarification,” warning his constituents to pay no attention to the governor’s inscrutable mutterings.)

Two dozen wells?

To be fair, neither Bachmann nor Scott had been around when all hell broke loose over Shell Oil’s plans to invade the Everglades. But in 1989, Shell struck a deal with the Miccosukee tribe to lease the mineral rights on tribal lands in western Broward. In 1991, the company applied for federal permission to dig an 18,850-foot-deep well in a cow pasture just north of Interstate 75, about three miles east of the Collier County line. If their geologists struck oil, Shell planned to dig two dozen more wells.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management held a public hearing in January 1991, and the crowd turned nearly riotous in its opposition to drilling in the fragile ecosystem. About 250 crammed into the meeting room, some dressed as Everglades animals or, draped in black plastic sheets, as oil spills. Nearly every speaker not employed by Shell voiced opposition. Subsequent hearings were just as furious. At a meeting in 1992, when the feds tried to impose order, someone shouted, “Polite people get poisoned.”

Official opposition

It wasn’t just rowdy environmentalists opposed to the Shell project. First Gov. Bob Martinez, then Gov. Lawton Chiles fought the proposal (though state government has limited jurisdiction over tribal lands). The Broward County Commission objected. Both Florida’s U.S. senators and 14 U.S. representatives signed a letter urging a ban on such drilling.

Even if Shell managed to strike oil, the South Florida Water Management District warned it would never allow the construction of a pipeline out of the Glades.

By the time Shell finally won federal approval to drill the wells, the oil company had had enough of Florida’s anti-oil politics. In 1994, Shell walked away from its Miccosukee lease and four years of work.

Joe Browder, a founding coordinator of the Everglades Coalition and a veteran of Florida’s environmental wars, doubts another oil company would seriously contemplate the hassles of drilling for the limited deposits of gooky, low-quality oil in such environmentally sensitive areas. It makes for lousy economics.

And, as Bachmann and Scott learned last week, except when they’re among the wild-eyed hard right, drilling in the Glades makes for very sour politics.

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