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The Everglades in Florida, best known for sawgrass, cypress trees, alligators, may soon add oil wells to that list. A Texas company wants to use seismic testing to look for oil in the Big Cypress National Preserve, a protected area next to Everglades National Park. Environmental groups worry the testing could harm endangered plants and animals and as NPR's Greg Allen reports, open sensitive areas to drilling and fracking.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Betty Osceola has lived her whole life in the Everglades. She's a member of the Miccosukee tribe. During the Seminole Wars of the 19th century, her ancestors hid from federal troops in the Everglades swamps and cypress forests.
BETTY OSCEOLA: This land, the Everglades, they protected us in our time of need. She provided us shelter. She provided us food. She provided us water. As indigenous people, it's our turn to take up and speak for her.
ALLEN: The Everglades covers thousands of square miles in Florida and extends far beyond the boundaries of the national park. Osceola was part of a group protesting plans for a seismic testing on 70,000 acres in a key part of the ecosystem, Big Cypress National Preserve. While oil drilling isn't allowed in the national park, it is allowed in neighboring Big Cypress. Don Hargrove is the Preserve's minerals management specialist.
DON HARGROVE: Oil drilling and oil fields were here when Big Cypress was created. As a condition of the establishment of the Preserve, oil and gas will still continue.
ALLEN: Hargrove says there are over a dozen active wells in Big Cypress now, but that number may increase. The Burnett Oil Company wants to look for oil by crisscrossing the Preserve with large 60,000 pound trucks. The trucks generate a seismic signal by vibrating large plates against the ground. The first phase of the survey would take about eight weeks. In an environmental assessment, the National Park Service says it believes the activity would likely have just a minor impact on endangered wildlife. As the trucks come through, the Park Service says animals like the Florida panther will move. Matthew Schwartz with the South Florida Wildlands Association isn't so sure.
MATTHEW SCHWARTZ: They have no idea when they're going through an area if there's a denning panther, maybe a female panther with kittens in an area, and that panther might abandon a den when it hears the intrusion.
ALLEN: The staff at Big Cypress National Preserve held a public meeting this week to answer questions about the seismic testing. They played a video of one of the large thumper trucks in action. Where's the bang? One audience member asked. Dave Wisniewski, who conducts the seismic surveys for Burnett, says that's a common misconception.
DAVE WISNIEWSKI: But it's an engine noise is all you hear. And when it's shaking, you can hear it actually shake up a little different pitch, but there's no boom.
ALLEN: For environmental groups and others who live near Big Cypress, there's a bigger concern - it's what the survey may find. With new techniques like horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, fracking, oil companies have begun to take a new look for reserves in Florida. They're particularly interested in a geological area called the Sunniland Trend. Wisniewski says that's where the seismic survey comes in.
WISNIEWSKI: So this'll identify, hopefully, reserves for Burnett, and then minimize the amount of drilling they have to actually do.
ALLEN: Matthew Schwartz of the South Florida Wildlands Association says Burnett Oil Company has rights to look for oil on more than half of the Preserve's 730,000 acres.
SCHWARTZ: They're probably going to find oil 'cause this is smack in the middle of the Sunniland Trend. And then comes - what? - new access roads, oil pads, drill rigs, fracking? I mean, all of that is on the horizon for the most bio diverse piece of federal land, public land in the continental United States.
ALLEN: Before it approves the survey and possibly more drilling, Schwartz is calling on the National Park Service to prepare a full environmental impact statement. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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