South Florida family wins court battle to drill for oil in Everglades

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. After nearly four years of legal battles, a Miami family that made its fortune in real estate will now be able to drill an exploratory oil well in the Everglades, just west of the Broward County suburbs.

A Tallahassee appeals court reversed a decision by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection on Tuesday, ultimately granting Kanter Real Estate the authority to drill.

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The land Kanter Real Estate President John Kanter is interested in drilling is on a 20-mile-wide, 150-mile-long stretch of shale between Miami and Fort Myers dubbed the Sunniland Trend. The western part of that stretch has been tapped into by a Texas oil company, but the Kanter family argues that it has found the potential for oil on the eastern part.

The land sits in one of the South Florida Water Management District’s three conservation areas.

Miami-based Kanter Real Estate did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

The panel of judges decided that DEP couldn’t reject a 2017 order that the permit to drill should be approved.

"It was an abuse of discretion to reject, modify, or substitute the (administrative judge’s) factual findings," Chief Judge Brad Thomas wrote in the ruling.

Kanter applied for a permit to drill the exploratory oil well on 5 acres in the Everglades in 2015. DEP denied the application, doubting the likelihood that enough oil would be found to warrant a drilling operation. Kanter took the case to administrative court.

While the administrative court ruled in Kanter’s favor, DEP still had to issue the final order. It denied the permit saying, among other things, that the Everglades was considered "environmentally sensitive" land.

The judge made a decision on the basis that the Everglades site lies in an area that has existing road access isolated from both surface and groundwater, is "environmentally degraded" and is overrun with cattails.

In a 14-page ruling, the appeals court judges concluded that DEP Secretary Noah Valenstein "improperly recast factual findings to reach a desired outcome, contrary to law."

Thomas also referred to Kanter’s expert testimony, which said there is only a 23 percent chance of finding oil on the 20,000-acre site. If oil is discovered, the well could produce about 180,000 to 10 million barrels at about $50 per barrel.

The well will be the first of its kind east of 40 smaller drilling setups in the Big Cypress Preserve.

The last oil or gas permit DEP granted was 50 years ago.

Valenstein said the department’s history did not form the basis of DEP’s decision, but more so reflects that DEP has not changed its longstanding policy to deny oil and gas permits within lands subject to Everglades restoration.

DEP did not respond to a request for comment.

The Kanter family began acquiring 20,000 acres of marshland 50 years ago, the Miami Herald reported then. Joseph Kanter came from Alabama, becoming one of Miami’s top apartment builders. He told the Herald in 1983 that he bought the huge plot in hopes to build a new city in the Everglades.

While the permit has been approved, the family’s new foray into the Everglades can’t start quite yet.

The Broward County commissioners who have vocally opposed Kanter’s plans in the past will have to change the land use and award various permits for the well to operate.

The oil drilling is not the same as hydraulic fracking, of which Gov. Ron DeSantis is in staunch opposition.

Environmentalists like Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association, say they are disappointed with the decision.

Schwartz, who filed an amicus brief in the case, said DEP could have "put up a better fight." He also said the judge took all of the expert witness testimony at face value, especially when they argued the land was isolated and "environmentally degraded."

"A geologist from any place would say this is ludicrous," he said. "Limestone in South Florida is not going to isolate anything. It’s as porous as a sponge. DEP didn’t even contest the findings that the land was degraded."

He added that the 5-acre drilling area gets inundated during heavy rain periods. If this area gets inundated, there will be a washed-over oil pad and "everything that’s on it becomes part of the Everglades," he said.

Schwartz, who passed notes with DEP attorneys during both trials, said it’s unlikely the agency will take this case to the Supreme Court.

"It’s just very sad," he said. "Hopefully Broward County is going to prevail. It’s really a nightmare."

(Miami Herald staff writer Jenny Staletovich contributed to this report.)

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