ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
As oil production goes, Florida isn't much of a player. But the revolution in oil drilling technology is coming to the state, and that has people there asking a lot of questions about what it could mean for them and the environment. As NPR's Greg Allen reports from Miami, one of the areas drillers are targeting is the Everglades.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Jaime Duran is a retired engineer, who, a few years ago, found a quiet spot in southwest Florida with his wife, Pamela. It's a cottage on five acres where they garden and raise chickens. Last year, Duran says he and his wife were surprised when a man came by with information about a plot of land just 1,300 feet from their house.
JAIME DURAN: He said he wasn't supposed to tell us a lot of things, but he says, basically, they're putting an oil well there.
ALLEN: The man was from a company hired by the driller. He delivered a letter that warned residents that they were in an evacuation zone, and of the possibility of a release of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas. Duran says he and his wife began doing research and asking questions. Standing outside his home across the street from the well site, he said the more they learned, the more alarmed they became.
DURAN: Our biggest concern is not the hydrogen sulfide. Our biggest concern is the brine, the produced waters. Every gallon of oil that they extract, they will get 20 gallons of saltwater. And that saltwater is toxic.
ALLEN: Dan A. Hughes, a company from Texas, has already received permission from the state to drill an exploratory well on the land. It's now seeking permission for an injection well that would accommodate the millions of gallons of toxic brine produced in the drilling process. But they're facing strong opposition from residents and environmental groups.
KAREN DWYER: We're calling on the EPA to deny this class 2 injection well and the DED to reverse their decision and deny the exploratory well.
ALLEN: Outside a community center in Naples this week, activist Karen Dwyer(ph) rallied a couple of hundred people. State and federal officials held hearings there to take public comments on the proposed well. A residents' group called Preserve Our Paradise has already filed a legal challenge. With just one road serving a large community, the group says the current evacuation plan would not be adequate if there's an explosion, spill or toxic gas release.
Matthew Schwartz, the director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, says there are also environmental concerns. The well would be in the heart of the western Everglades, he says, an area next to Everglades National Park.
MATTHEW SCHWARTZ: It's actually a lot more bio diverse. It's not just the marsh. It's not just saw grass. It's got this tremendous diversity. But it is the last place. It is the last holdout for the Florida panther.
ALLEN: The Florida panther is the state animal. It is one of the most endangered species in America, with no more than 160 still left in the wild. Schwartz worries mounting a major industrial operation will drive them out of the area. Florida's fish and wildlife commission, however, disagrees. At the hearing, Darrell Land, a state panther specialist, said he saw no reason why the drilling would pose a problem, an opinion unpopular with those in the audience.
DARREL LAND: Panthers have utilized areas where active oil extraction is going on, and they've been doing that for 30 to 40 years. We also know that panthers have learned to coexist with all kinds of disruption.
ALLEN: So far, state and federal officials haven't indicated they see anything to stop the permit applications from being approved. With new drilling technology, even long-neglected oil fields, like those here in Florida, can now be made productive. The head of the Florida Petroleum Council, David Mica, says with new techniques of directional drilling, companies can search for oil in sensitive areas with a minimum of surface disturbances.
DAVID MICA: So it's really the sort of thing that those that are concerned about our environment should be cheering for in the extraction of American resources.
ALLEN: Dan A. Hughes, the company applying for the permits, says it has no plans at this point to use fracking in Florida. Skeptical drilling opponents, though, say if the company changes its mind, Florida's rules do allow it to begin fracking in the Everglades after notifying state regulators. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.