Deal could prevent drilling on Everglades land

Florida is moving forward on a deal that would keep a piece of land in the Everglades from being used for oil production.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Wednesday the state has an option agreement to buy 20,000 acres that Kanter Real Estate LLC owns in western Broward County. Part of the land has been subject to years of litigation over the right to drill an exploratory oil well in the Everglades.

The agreement gives the state 75 days to buy the land for $16.5 million, with the money coming from the Department of Environmental Protection or the South Florida Water Management District. The price tag would increase to $18 million if no deal is completed by June 30.

“With this acquisition there'll be nearly 600,000 acres of wetlands in Water Conservation Area 3 (in the Everglades) that will be protected by public ownership for restoration and for recreation, and then obviously it will build off some of the things that we're already doing,” DeSantis said during an event at Everglades Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale.

Last February, a panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled the Department of Environmental Protection improperly rejected a recommended order by an administrative law judge, who said in 2017 that a permit should be approved for Kanter to drill an exploratory well. Kanter had applied in 2015 for the permit, which the department denied.

While DeSantis said the state is also seeking to address separate plans to drill in Big Cypress National Preserve, the Kanter property is further along.

 “Legally they had, you know, the rights to do this on the land,” DeSantis said. “That's why we had to have a negotiation and do this deal. If we could have won in court, obviously, we would have done that. I don't think it was a situation where the law was being abused in a sense. The court kind of ruled what the law said, so, you gotta kind of take that and go forward.”

Water Conservation Area 3 covers about 915 square miles in western Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where state efforts are trying to move billions of gallons of water south from Lake Okeechobee to Florida Bay.

“This is guaranteeing that the heart of the Everglades is in public ownership and secure for future generations,” Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Noah Valenstein said.

The announcement drew quick support from environmental groups. 

“Drilling for oil in the water conservation area is incompatible with our commitment to restore this fragile ecosystem,” Audubon Florida Executive Director Julie Wraithmell said in a prepared statement. “This land is part of our water supply.”

Money for the land would come from Comprehensive Everglades Restoration funds or from other sources, including the Florida Forever program, Valenstein said.

Chauncey Goss, chairman of the South Florida Water Management District, said the state under DeSantis has been expediting critical restoration projects, including an Everglades Agricultural Area reservoir project that was approved by the Legislature..

“It's going to be recognized nationally and internationally as an important step in restoring our Everglades,” Goss said of the Kanter land deal.

The land is home to more than 60 endangered species, including the wood stork.