Questions linger on extent of deals' protectionBy JULIE HAUSERMAN, CRAIG PITTMAN and DAVID BALLINGRUD
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 30, 2002
Is it worth it? Will the taxpayer get a bang for all those bucks?
The brothers Bush have come up with a $235-million plan to protect two jewels in Florida's environmental crown: its beaches and the Everglades.
And while environmentalists seemed generally pleased, they warned that the protections announced Wednesday are neither complete nor all-inclusive.
Paying $115-million for oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico waters near the Panhandle removes the most immediate threat to the coastline, but it does not mean other oil-related threats won't materialize on beaches farther south.
"What happens with the rest of the leases?" asked Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We remain concerned about those."
And paying $120-million to the Collier family businesses for oil and mineral rights under 400,000 acres of the Everglades ecosystem is indeed "historic," as Gov. Jeb Bush called it, but it won't end all oil pumping in the 729,000-acre Big Cypress Preserve.
In fact, the oil field that's producing the most oil now -- a 10,000-acre tract called Raccoon Point -- will operate for at least 10 more years, said Paul Marinelli, president of the Barron Collier Co. And drilling will continue on another 3,000-acre tract called Bear Island.
Both fields are being drilled by a Texas-based company called Calumet, Marinelli said. The Collier family will collect some lease payments from Calumet. But the $120-million payment to the family will preclude drilling at 26 other sites in Big Cypress and nearby preserves.
"There's going to be no more oil exploration," he said.
In the Gulf of Mexico, Bush said, Florida had been in a "precarious position" because drilling companies were filing potentially successful legal challenges. Leases held by Chevron, Conoco and Murphy Oil in the Destin Dome area were only 30 miles offshore.
The $115-million agreement announced Wednesday "will guarantee that there will not be offshore oil drilling off Florida's waters," he said.
Maybe, but the deal affects only 11 leases.
Mark Ferrulo, director of the Florida Public Interest Research Group, said there are more than 100 leases owned by dozens of companies off Florida's west coast, ranging from 10 to 100 miles off shore. About 50 of those leases are off the Panhandle's sugar-sand beaches, he said, though none of the companies has applied to drill.
"I think this sends a message to the oil companies," said Enid Sisskin, legislative chair of Gulf Coast Environmental Defense, a group of Panhandle drilling opponents. "Had Chevron and Conoco gone into production, it would have started a rush toward (oil and gas) production. I'm hoping this will lead to the other leases being bought or canceled."
Coastal Petroleum -- which has a giant stretch of leases about 7 miles offshore from Apalachicola to Naples, including waters off Tampa Bay -- isn't affected by Wednesday's deal. But Coastal president Phil Ware says his company, which has only two employees, should get government compensation, just like Chevron, Conoco and Murphy Oil.
George Gaspar, managing director of petroleum research at the Robert W. Baird & Co. investment bankers, called the $115-million price tag "pretty attractive for the seller," and "at the higher end of the normal tract costs."
He said it sounded "fair," however, and added it is hard to pass judgment without knowing information the selling company considers proprietary, such as how much had been invested in finding and evaluating the tract.
The Collier family's two companies hold mineral rights to about 51 percent of the 729,000-acre Big Cypress Preserve. The Colliers have been trying to sell those rights to the government for years, said Estus Whitfield, an environmental adviser to former Govs. Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Bob Martinez and Lawton Chiles.
Whitfield said oil drilling in Big Cypress "was never a front-line issue in the last 15 years. Their method of drilling wasn't intrusive."
The Collier family approached Chiles about five years ago, Whitfield said, saying the family wanted to expand drilling.
"I think this was their ultimate plan: to get the government to buy the rights," Whitfield said. "I guess they'll take their $120-million and use it to do something elsewhere."
As for the deal the Bush administration struck with the Colliers on Wednesday, Whitfield said: "I'm not sure I would have recommended it."
Marinelli, the president of the Barron Collier Co., said the family's companies have extracted more than 112-million barrels of oil since the 1940s. But plans to drill more, he said, ran into political trouble.
"When you have the governor and the entire Florida congressional delegation and the environmental community expressing concerns about it, we thought, maybe there's a more creative solution."
Marinelli wouldn't disclose the company's plans for the $120-million, adding: "We don't have it yet."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times state desk
From the state wire