Category Archives: Earth Island Journal

Wildcat Wells in Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve Bring New and Unstudied Risks (Earth Island Journal)

BY KAREN HOFFMANN – MAY 1, 2014

Regulatory agencies aren’t carefully assessing the impact of ramped up oil and gas exploration in southwest Florida, say critics

When you think of oil drilling, South Florida probably doesn’t immediately come to mind. But rising oil prices are bringing increasing oil and gas exploration projects to southwest Florida, home of the Everglades, and they are already putting environment at risk.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently slapped a $25,000 fine on the Texas-based Dan A. Hughes Company for injecting unapproved acid into Florida’s vulnerable underground limestone formations in the middle of Audubon Society’s Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, a major nesting site for wood storks. Yet the DEP recently approved another request by Dan Hughes to drill near another protected areas — the Florida Panther Wildlife Refuge — despite vehement opposition from residents and environmental groups.

Big Cypress National PerservePhoto by Marcel Hujser

Of all the new drilling proposals, the one seeking to drill the federally protected Big Cypress Natioanl Perserve has created the most furor.

Though oil drilling seems at odds with South Florida, which is known for its wildlife parks and agricultural reserves, fact is, drilling has been going on in this region ever since Humble Oil bored its first well in Collier County in 1943. The US Geological Survey’s most recent estimates show that there are about 370 million barrels of undiscovered oil in South Florida. Energy companies are eager to get that oil out of the ground.

Most of the recent drilling applications have been for exploratory wells — “wildcats” in industry parlance. First, companies drill an exploratory well to see if there’s any oil. If there isn’t, they plug it up and move on. If there is, they drill another well to inject the wastewater, called brine, into the ground.

These injection wells are the main threats to the environment. From Ohio to Texas, they have a record of leaking. The US Environmental Protection Agency notes that brine from oil and gas extraction may contain “toxic metals and radioactive substances” and “can be very damaging to the environment and public health if it is discharged to surface water or the land surface.”

But Florida’s permeable geologic formations present new and unstudied risks as well. Because of the porous limestone that makes up the southwest Florida’s bedrock, it’s possible that the wastewater could migrate upward into the groundwater that millions of Floridians drink.

Given these concerns, you might assume the EPA and DEP would carefully study the environmental impacts before issuing a permits for such wells — especially in environmentally sensitive areas. But this is Florida (cue the chirping cicadas), where it seems, anything goes. . The Big Cypress National Preserve, incidentally, is already home to 11 wells.   More at Earth Island Journal >

The Guardian/Earth Island Journal: Where have all Florida’s sea cows gone?

“Karen Hoffman’s dad, Pete Hoffman, and dog, Bubba, check out a manatee swimming past their home by the Intracoastal Waterway.” (Earth Island Journal)

The West Indian manatee is an example of evolution optimizing for one thing: taking time to slow down and munch the seagrass. They have no natural predators, just humans and their boat propellers. Individual animals can be identified by the unique pattern of scars on their backs. Their thick skin has kept them going, but maybe not for much longer.

Florida’s manatees are on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species because “the population is estimated to decline by at least 20% over the next two generations due to anticipated future changes in warm-water habitat and threats from increasing watercraft traffic over the next several decades.”

But even slow or no-wake zones and better boater education may not be enough to save the Florida manatee. Another kind of man-made threat – runoff and pollution – is destroying their seagrass beds. More manatees died last year in Florida than ever before recorded.

I came home for the holidays to South Florida, where my parents live on the Intracoastal Waterway. Every year around this time, we see many manatees go past the house, heading south to warmer water.

But this year, I was puzzled. Where were all the manatees? Then I read about the record die-off in the state of Florida in 2013 – 829 dead manatees, out of an estimated total population of 5,000. That’s more than one in six of all the manatees in the state. And 173 of the dead were breeding-age females, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute.

Read more at The Guardian > (Sadly, they took out the picture of Dad and Bubba and replaced it with “professional” AP/Reuters photos. You can’t have everything.)

Original story in the Earth Island Journal >

As Host to Rio+20, Brazil Faces Own Environmental Struggles

Photo by Karen Hoffmann
Cattle ranching and soybean cultivations are the two major drivers of deforestation in Brazil.

As leaders from 130 countries gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this week for the “Rio+20” United Nations environmental summit, the host country is grappling with its own increasingly volatile struggles between economic growth, ecosystem conservation, and human rights protection.

From deforestation for soy and cattle plantations to violence against forest activists, to the scores of dams being built on the country’s rushing rivers, Brazil faces debate both internally and internationally about its future. The South American nation is home to one-third of the world’s remaining rainforests, including a majority of the Amazon rainforest. Its forests host an incredible biodiversity, with more than 56,000 described species of plants, 1,700 species of birds, 695 amphibians, 578 mammals, and 651 reptiles.

Photo by Karen Hoffmann
Chief Jose Carlos Arara gestures to the Xingu River that his village in Altamira depends on for life. Brazil plans to build 60 big and small dams on its many rivers and their tributaries, most infamously the $11billion Belo Monte dam over the Xingu that would displace several Indigenous and riverine communities.

Twenty years ago, at the first Earth Summit in Rio, protecting the Amazon was already on everyone’s minds. Canadian environmental activist John Hemming wrote in his book Tree of Rivers: “More heads of government attended this gathering than any previous event: It took place in the country that held the most tropical forests and rivers, and ironically it was in the 500th anniversary of Columbus. … I was at this huge, vibrant conference and experienced the resulting feeling of optimism.”

Now Brazil is on its way to becoming an economic powerhouse and its using up its natural resources faster than ever. …

More at Earth Island Journal >

Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico Oil Exploration Makes Strange Bedfellows

US Enviro Groups and Oil Execs Band Together to Promote End of Cold War-Era Hostilities Between Two Nations

BY KAREN HOFFMANN – MARCH 15, 2012

From his hotel in Havana, marine scientist and conservation policy specialist David Guggenheim, aka the “Ocean Doctor,” can see the lights of Scarabeo 9. The recently arrived oil-drilling platform off the Cubancoast began drilling exploratory deepwater wells on the Cuban side of the Florida Straits, about 70 miles from Key West, last month.

The 53,000-ton rig is, literally, under more pressure than Deepwater Horizon. Operated by Spanish company Repsol, it’s what’s known as an “ultra-deepwater” platform, drilling at depths up to 6,000 feet. (Deepwater Horizon’s depth was 5,000 feet.) A Scarabeo 9 spill would damage critical marine ecosystems in the Gulf.  US environmentalists and policymakers are concerned that Cuba doesn’t have the resources, technology, or expertise needed to prevent or respond to such a disaster.

But even the threat of irreparable environmental damage hasn’t been enough to clear away old Cold War resentments and political inertia between the two countries and get them working together to formulate an emergency response plan. Which is why an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, oil executives, and scientists — like Guggenheim — are joining forces to try to, in his words, “fight half a century of an illogical policy with logic.”

More at Earth Island Journal >

In Brazil, Murder of Activists Underscores Bitter Fight over Amazon’s Resources

The mega-dam on Xingu River would cause the disappearance of entire species of birds, reptiles, and fish, and displace tens of thousands of people.

BY KAREN HOFFMANN – JULY 5, 2011

Locals Say Timing of Killings and Approval of Belo Monte Dam Far From Random

“The forest cries,” read a sign at the funeral of José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and Maria do Espirito Santo. The Amazon activists had been murdered, execution-style, by unknown assailants, less than 24 hours after Brazil’s lower house of congress voted to roll back forest protections.

Chillingly, Silva had predicted his own death at a TEDx talk in Manaus six months earlier. He had been receiving threats from loggers in the area of his home near Nova Ipixuna, in the lawless Brazilian state of Para.

“I could be here today talking to you and in one month you will get the news that I disappeared,” Silva said. “I will protect the forest at all costs. That is why I could get a bullet in my head at any moment, because I denounce the loggers and the charcoal makers, and that is why they think I cannot exist.”

Two days after his murder, another activist and possible witness to him murder was killed. Soon after, Brazil’s environmental agency, IBAMA, approved construction of the controversial Belo Monte mega-dam on the Lower Xingu River in Pará.  (More at Earth Island Journal)