To end its losing battle to block oil exploration in Everglades wetlands, Florida plans to purchase 20,000 acres in Broward County.
Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday the state expects to pay between $16.5 and $18 million to Kanter Real Estate for land the family began amassing decades ago. The deal came together quickly in the last couple of weeks, officials said, after the state concluded its legal attempts to block the drilling would fail.
“Legally, they had the right to do this on the land,” DeSantis said Wednesday after announcing the deal at Everglades Holiday Park, a wildlife refuge about 10 miles from the property in a sprawling water conservation area.
“If we could have won in court, obviously we would have done that,” said the Harvard-trained attorney. “I don't think it was a situation where the law was being abused...The court kind of ruled on what the law said.”
Kanter applied for an exploratory drilling permit in July 2015, drawing quick objections from environmentalists and Broward County officials. The family wanted to tap into the Sunniland oil trend that stretches about 150 miles from Fort Myers to Miami. Three oil fields along the trend have been producing oil for decades in Southwest Florida. But aside from an exploratory well drilled by a Texas company in 1985 that was abandoned within a year, no wells have ever been drilled so far east.
A year later, state environmental regulators rejected the application, saying the family failed to show a strong enough likelihood of finding oil. The family estimated its odds at 23 percent.
The family went to court and in February convinced an appelate court to overturn the state's denial.
“Unfortunately state law is very weak when it comes to saying no to oil drilling,” said South Florida Wildlands Association executive director Matthew Schwartz, who fought the permit and convinced more than a dozen Broward County municipalities to sign petitions opposing it. “Kanter owned the land. He owned the mineral rights. No question the flowage rights gave them the right to drill.”
Under the deal, the state has until June 30 to purchase the land for $16.5 million, said South Florida Water Management District chairman Chauncey Goss. After that, the price jumps to $18 million, and the deal expires at the end of the year.
Goss said it’s not yet clear whether the water management district will purchase the land using money budgeted for Everglades restoration, or whether the Florida Department of Environmental Protection will tap into its Florida Forever program.
The state decided to buy the land over fears that oil operations would jeopardize efforts to repair the Everglades and move more water into southern marshes that have been cut off from historic flows, said FDEP Secretary Noah Valenstein. The project requires clean water, nearly free of phosphorus.
“This was something that we challenged in court and the court simply didn’t agree with our administration,” he said. “We have billions of gallons of water moving south from [Lake Okeechobee] to Florida Bay...and so to make sure that we have this secure—without oil and gas drilling— is key to us reaching our goals.”
At about $800 an acre, district board member and developer Ron Bergeron said the deal was a bargain.
“The price was very reasonable, less than a thousand dollars an acre,” he said. “That’s in Broward County.”
It’s unlikely the land could ever be used for development. The family sold easement rights, allowing the state to use it for water storage, in 1950. But they held onto drilling rights, and that made the state’s case difficult to win.
Schwartz does not think the purchase foreshadows the state backing off drilling in other areas. In December, DEP approved permits from a Texas company for six exploratory wells in the Apalachicola River basin, despite fears from local residents that it would threaten the Floridan aquifer.
“DEP is not in the business of denying oil permits,” he said. “It was rare that they denied this. I think the only reason they did was because of the political outcry from Broward County.”
An earlier version of this story misstated when Apalachicola exploratory drilling permits were granted. An intent to issue the permits was announced in October.