Fight Gears Up Over Oil Drilling Permit

TALLAHASSEE — A legal battle is moving forward over a plan to drill for oil and gas in part of rural Northwest Florida.

The environmental organization Apalachicola Riverkeeper is challenging a draft permit that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection approved in April for a company to drill an exploratory well in Calhoun County. The challenge was sent Monday to the state Division of Administrative Hearings, where a judge will consider whether the project should advance.

Louisiana-based Clearwater Land & Minerals FLA, LLC, plans to drill a well in an unincorporated area of Calhoun County, between Tallahassee and Panama City. But Apalachicola Riverkeeper contends that the project threatens the Apalachicola River and would be in the river’s floodplain.

“The drilling site is not consistent with the relevant Department (of Environmental Protection) rules and statutes, which require applicants to locate projects to minimize impacts to sensitive areas and environments,” Apalachicola Riverkeeper’s petition for an administrative hearing said. “Instead, the drilling site selected by the applicant (Clearwater Land & Minerals FLA) is in a sensitive area and environment.”

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But the department’s draft permit pointed to safeguards planned for the project.

“The permit application includes well control procedures, preventative measures and contingency plans for responding to potential accidents and spills,” the draft permit said. “Best management practices will be employed to reuse or dispose of drilling fluids, cuttings and formation water. Test fluids and gas will be recovered, sold, flared or hauled to permitted out-of-state facilities.”

While relatively unusual for Florida, companies have long drilled for oil around the Santa Rosa County community of Jay and in parts of Southwest Florida. Also, a document filed at the Division of Administrative Hearings said the planned project in Calhoun County is at a site that was previously permitted for drilling but was never drilled.

Environmental conditions in the Apalachicola River, however, have long been a high-profile issue. The river is part of the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river system, which starts in northern Georgia, crosses into Alabama and ends in Apalachicola Bay in Florida.

In the petition for an administrative hearing, Apalachicola Riverkeeper made a series of arguments, including that the drilling project would be “in a sensitive environment or sensitive area as it is in the floodplain of the Apalachicola River, which is an Outstanding Florida Water and an ecologically diverse natural area with state, national and international significance.”

A state Outstanding Florida Water designation can offer special protections to water bodies.

Also, the petition cited concerns about the project being exposed to the “foreseeable risk of flooding from the Apalachicola River and the foreseeable likelihood of pollution from the site being carried away to the surrounding area and beyond by floodwaters, thus affecting this sensitive area and environment.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, an administrative law judge had not been assigned to the case, according to an online docket.

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