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The Miami Herald, November 2, 2009

Miami-Dade commissioners consider cashing in on old Glades jetport
Facing a half-billion-dollar shortfall, Miami-Dade aviation managers are pitching oil drilling and rock mining as options for squeezing money out of an Everglades jetport abandoned 35 years ago.

By Curtis Morgan

Faced with a looming half-billion-dollar deficit from the expansion of Miami International Airport, the Miami-Dade Aviation Department wants to cash in on an Everglades jetport it was forced to abandon decades ago.

County commissioners are considering prospecting for oil and gas under the swampy, sprawling 37-square-mile site that is now mostly within the borders of the Big Cypress National Wildlife Preserve.

Besides drilling, ranked as option No. 1, there are other possibilities: rock mining, a park for off-road vehicles, selling the land or charging by the chunk for its use as a ``mitigation bank'' to offset wetlands damage elsewhere.

Deputy Aviation Director Miguel Southwell made no bones about priorities for the property, largely comprised of protected marsh: Maximize the money to help pay MIA operating expenses and construction debt that will balloon from $630 million now to $1.1 billion annually by 2015.

``We need to look at all the assets owned by the county and decide how to squeeze money out of every one,'' he said. ``We think we can do this responsibly and still generate critical revenue.''

Environmentalists are flabbergasted -- and dubious.

It was, after all, Miami-Dade's plan for a massive jetport midway between Miami and Naples that galvanized the Save The Glades movement and led to the creation of the Big Cypress Preserve in 1974. Burned by the ensuing political firestorm, the county backed off after paving a 10,000-foot runway that in the 35 years since has been sporadically used as a training strip.

Longtime activist Alan Farago blasted the drilling and mining proposals as ``hare-brained'' on a blog he co-writes, Eye On Miami.

``Does anyone really believe that there is a point to fighting the same battles over and over again, over unsustainable and damaging uses to the Everglades?''

A commission vote scheduled for Tuesday was postponed after Mayor Carlos Alvarez pulled the item from the agenda on Monday. County Manager George Burgess said the last-minute change was due to the mayor wanting more time to consider revenue-generating uses for the property.

``This is a big issue,'' said Burgess. ``We're talking about a property we own in the Everglades and we need to go deliberately and understand what the realities are around us and what the possibilities might be.''

The proposals are the latest money-making schemes pitched by airport managers struggling to close an annual deficit that Southwell projected will widen to a staggering $500 million in five years.

In July, commissioners voted 8-3 to put slot machines in MIA, a side business the department hopes will ring up about $17 million annually if state gambling permits are secured.

Southwell, who has been charged with finding ways to generate non-aviation revenue, said the department is pursuing all viable options at MIA and five other, smaller county-run airports. At decommissioned Opa-locka West, for instance, the department is completing plans to mine limestone fill on 400 acres. It is expected to generate $20 million a year for 19 years.

The county paid Lampl Herbert Consultants $140,000 for an ``asset evaluation'' of the jetport. The report noted that given its history and location, in the Big Cypress and adjacent to Everglades National Park, work will be ``the subject of intense public debate'' and require ``strong environmental sensitivity'' -- not to mention a slew of state and federal permits.

The department and its consultants argue that drilling has been done for more than 60 years in the Big Cypress with little impact to wetlands or wildlife.

Exxon has operated one well, at Raccoon Point next to the jetport, since 1978 and produced nearly 20 million barrels from the richest-known deposit called the Sunniland Trend.

``It's not the big oil horse you see going up and down on TV,'' Southwell said. ``It looks like a big air conditioning unit being fed by a tank. All the pumps are underground. It's very clean and environmentally friendly.''

If the commission approves, aviation managers intend to negotiate with Collier Resources, which represents the heirs of tycoon Barron Collier and still holds 70 percent of the mineral rights under the jetport. They also will negotiate with other companies with interests.

Making a deal does not sound like a lock -- if there's even enough oil to make it worthwhile.

Robert Duncan, Collier Resources' president, said the company had given aviation managers a tour and talk that amounted to ``Southwest Florida oil and gas 101,'' but said it was premature to discuss any potential deal.

Three years ago, after Congress balked at a $120 million buyout of the company's vast mineral rights throughout the Big Cypress offered by the Bush administration, Collier Resources filed its own plans to expand exploration with seismic testing.

``Our interests,'' Duncan said, ``it's fair to say at the moment, are in another area.''

The consultants' report estimated that royalties from oil drilling could average at least $7 million annually for 20 years. Mining, limited to expanding five existing rock quarries originally dug for runway construction with sloping sides that Southwell said will create shallows for wildlife to use, could pull in $13 million.

Selling the land to the state or federal government for conservation would pull in about $22.8 million, the report found. The Miccosukee Tribe, which owns abutting land, has expressed interest as well. Most of the 23,840-acre tract also could be swapped for land more suitable for development.

But under Federal Aviation Administration rules, even if most of the land changes hands, the county is obligated to hold onto 1,300 acres surrounding the existing strip. It sees sporadic use for touch-and-go commercial jet training but also serves as an emergency Space Shuttle landing site and as an isolated spot for the Department of Homeland Security to route planes hijacked by terrorists or that face other security issues.

Although oil is the department's first option, the study suggested that selling parcels for mitigation banking could be just as lucrative and would offer environmental fringe benefits. Developers would pay to restore areas damaged by off-road vehicles to offset development in wetlands elsewhere. The study estimated the county could net as much as $6.5 million for just 100 acres.

John Adornato, regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, said the proposals show aviation managers have either forgotten history or don't understand the value of a tract where endangered Florida panthers prowl.

Selling land for conservation or mitigation could bolster county coffers and the environment, Adornato said, and might work. But he said mining and drilling are bad choices. Even seismic testing requires drilling and blasting, he said, and the county intends to dig too deep to make the quarries useful for wading birds.

The income from drilling or mining, Adornato said, would fall far short of justifying the environmental costs.

``It does nothing to close their $500 million gap,'' he said. ``It is not the way we treat our natural resources.''

Copyright 2009 Miami Herald Media Co.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton