Naples Daily News: Hughes to abandon drilling in Collier County except….

Dania Maxwell 7/11/14

NAPLES, Fla. – Opponents of oil drilling in Southwest Florida were jubilant Friday over news that the Dan A. Hughes Co. no longer will be drilling in Collier County, except at the controversial Collier Hogan well.

Collier Resources Co. said Friday that it and the Dan A. Hughes Co. had agreed to terminate their oil drilling leasing relationship, which covers about 115,000 acres in the county.

“That’s tremendous,” said Don Loritz, vice president of the citizens group Preserve our Paradise, which filed an administrative challenge to another well the Hughes Co. planned to drill near Golden Gate Estates.

That well no longer will be drilled, even though Hughes already had received approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

It was fiercely opposed by nearby residents and environmentalists, who worried about hydrogen sulfide leaks, drinking water pollution, noise, traffic and threats to the endangered Florida panther.

“I’m pretty damned happy right now,” said Matthew Schwartz, who also had filed an administrative challenge to the Golden Gates Estates-area well.

His challenge was combined with that of Preserve Our Paradise and nearby resident Thomas Mosher. Their petitions were heard in February by state Administrative Judge D.R. Alexander, who recommended to the DEP that the permit be allowed.

Now that the Golden Gate Estates area well has been halted, prime panther habitat will be protected, Schwartz said. But other threats to wildlife remain, he added, because more than 335,000 acres in Southwest Florida have been leased to other drillers for seismic testing.

While celebrating the agreement, some drilling opponents remained skeptical.

“I feel there may be something else going on that hasn’t been revealed,” Mosher said.

Attorney Ralf Brookes, who represented both Preserve our Paradise and Mosher in the administrative hearings, said fracking remains a concern in Southwest Florida, considering reports that the Collier Hogan well is producing good quality oil.

If that attracts other drillers, “it could change the landscape of the county,” he said.

The Hughes Co. performed an unauthorized injection technique on the Collier Hogan well in late 2013 to enhance oil production.

That resulted in a consent order with the DEP that called for, among other items, groundwater testing to see if any pollutants were introduced into the area’s aquifers.

The Collier Hogan well permit is being challenged by some environmental groups, including the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

Jennifer Hecker, the Conservancy’s director of natural resources, said while it is positive news that the Hughes Co. won’t be pursuing more drilling in the county, “we have to make sure we’re not swapping one bad operator or project for another.”

Collier Resources announced the lease termination agreement in a letter to Collier County commissioners, who are pursuing their own administrative challenge to the Collier Hogan well. They are asking for a revocation of the consent order and the well’s permit.

While applauding the agreement for Hughes to not pursue any new drilling, Commissioner Georgia Hiller criticized both state lawmakers and the DEP for not providing better oversight.

“But for the DEP’s failure to have already made a determination whether this type of drilling is safe or unsafe and but for the failure of our state Legislature to make that same determination, we would not be in this situation today,” she said.

DEP spokeswoman Tiffany Cowie said neither the Hughes Co. nor Collier Resources notified the DEP of their agreement.

“We learned about it through the media,” she said.

In a statement, DEP said it would still hold the Hughes Co. accountable for meeting nine demands it made with a July 15 deadline before considering consequences, which include pulling the permit on the Collier Hogan well.

“There are still many existing demands we have of Dan A. Hughes in order for them to continue their operations at the Collier-Hogan site,” DEP Secretary Herschel Vinyard said in the statement. “We will be prepared to take action after the July 15 deadline, in accordance with what they have chosen to do or not to do.”

DEP’s demands included attending a meeting of the Collier commissioners on July 8, which the Hughes Co. skipped, as well as holding a media tour on July 15.

Hughes Co. spokesman David Blackmon said the scheduled media tour of the Collier Hogan well on July 15 has been postponed.

However, he released a statement regarding the lease’s relinquishment which said the company would cease oil and gas exploration in Southwest Florida.

“We make this announcement with the knowledge that our activities in the region have caused no harm to the environment and have been fully compliant with Florida law,” the statement said.

Hughes Co. also said it would work with DEP on details related to ongoing operations and fulfilling provisions of the consent order at the Collier Hogan well.

“Respect for the law is our core operating principle,” the company said.

Meanwhile, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is planning to meet with county officials, environmental groups and the media on Monday to discuss expanded drilling near the Everglades and whether it poses water quality issues the Environmental Protection Agency should consider.

“The Colliers’ decision (Friday) is only part of a broader picture,” Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown said.

__Staff Writer Greg Stanley contributed to this story

Special thanks to Ralf Brookes

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