Oil Company Builds Drilling Platform at Florida Floodplain Despite Environmental Warnings

A Texas-based petroleum company has started constructing two exploratory oil and gas drilling platforms in Florida's Apalachicola River floodplain, despite environmental groups and local residents warning of "significant" ecological risks from the finished project.

In December 2019, Florida's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) granted Cholla Petroleum permits to dig six exploratory wells 13,600 feet to 14,200 feet deep in a floodplain between Dead Lakes and the Apalachicola River in Calhoun County, around 15 miles south of the city of Blountstown, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

The wells will punch into the Floridan aquifer—the primary source of drinking water for much of central and northern Florida, as well as parts of Georgia.

Apalachicola Riverkeeper, an environmental group dedicated to the protection and restoration of the river and Apalachicola Bay, said in a blog post that it remained "strongly opposed to these exploratory oil & gas wells as they pose significant ecological along with economic risk to the region.

"We will continue to monitor the permit activities and address concerns with residents, local and state officials."

State environmental officials told Newsweek that the initial permits do not authorize commercial production and that the project had met all requirements under state laws.

Apalachicola Riverkeeper said the drilling pads were located close to flowing river waters during normal high flows. At these times, around 95 percent of the floodplain is connected aquatic habitat.

The group added that the drilling pads would be surrounded by flowing water during major floods. Exploratory drilling could release harmful chemicals into the surrounding wetlands and rivers, it claimed.

Florida's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission said in 2018, when Cholla applied for the drilling permits, that major floods had occurred five times over the previous 15 years and were expected to become more frequent.

"The accidental release of fuel, crude oil, chemicals, drilling fluids and hazardous materials could impact fish and wildlife resources in the floodplain," the commission said, although it added that an accident was likely of "limited possibility" during the project's exploratory phase.

Nevertheless, Apalachicola Riverkeeper said a period of heavy rain "could be disastrous" if it carried toxins into the river system. The river basin has the highest diversity of amphibians and reptiles in the U.S. and Canada, and contains 1,300 plant species—103 of which are threatened or endangered.

There are also concerns over the potential impact on drinking water supplies, particularly for Port St. Joe, a community of about 3,500 people. Its water supply comes off an intake canal from the Chipola River—a tributary of the Apalachicola.

In addition, environmentalists are worried that if the exploratory drilling leads to the development of a commercial field, a hydrogen sulfide processing plant may be constructed. Apalachicola Riverkeeper said this could affect downstream communities.

"The risk of damage to water quality, biologic and geologic integrity of the ecosystem from oil drilling far exceeds any benefits that a small number of property owners and an oil company will gain. These wells are not in the public interest for those that use and care for the Apalachicola River and Bay," the group said.

"Both surface and groundwater serve as primary sources of water to Apalachicola Bay and the Gulf of Mexico in our region. Protection of these water sources is of tremendous importance to the human health, wellbeing, culture and economy of the Apalachicola River region.

"The development of oil and gas in this area threatens the basic quality of life due to the high risk of pollution of the surface and groundwater, subsidence of coastal plain, air quality, and community character."

The Calhoun County Commission has expressed support for the project despite concerns from residents of Blountstown and other areas, the Tallahassee Democrat reported.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection has said the permits only allow the company to drill and test the wells—they do not authorize hydraulic fracking or commercial production, which would require a separate process of approval. Issuance of these permits do not guarantee that future permits or modifications will be granted by the department, the DEP said.

"The department's top priority is always protection of the environment and public health," a DEP spokesperson told Newsweek. "The permit applications were carefully evaluated to ensure the project met all requirements under Florida law and all aspects of the operation are protective of the environment and human health and safety. They were also subject to extensive peer review from agency partners," which include the FWC, Calhoun County and other organizations.

"DEP's oil and gas regulations require that the applicant's plans and technical specifications are protective of our natural resources and meet the requirements for protecting both surface and ground water quality. More specifically, the project design includes spill prevention plans and stringent well casing designs," the spokesperson said.

The DEP said additional protections include the construction of containment berms with elevations that are to be built above the elevation of the 100-year flood to protect water resources in the event of "extreme rainfall conditions and flooding."

"Further, the department will have inspectors on-site to oversee both construction activities and subsequent drilling activities to ensure compliance with all permit conditions."

Update 3/22/21, 10:55 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include a statement from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

Sunrise over the Apalachicola River, Florida
Sunrise over the Apalachicola River, Florida. iStock