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One of the first lessons everyone has to learn in life is the meaning of “no.” As in, there are some things you just shouldn’t do because of the consequences and harm to others.

By seeking to drill any time, anywhere, the oil and gas industry clearly doesn’t think this concept applies to them. Unfortunately, Earthworks and its partners recently lost a legal battle to show them it does, and to make sure that public agencies put the public interest ahead of corporate interests. 

In late April, a US District Court judge in Florida ruled that the National Park Service (NPS) hadn’t violated federal environmental laws when it decided Burnett Oil could conduct seismic testing for oil in the Big Cypress National Preserve

Big Cypress Preserve is home to the critically endangered Florida panther and other animals like songbirds, wood storks, black bears, tortoises, and bats. Its swamps keep clean water flowing into the nearby Everglades. Seismic exploration in the Preserve means the cutting of trees, trampling of vegetation, loud noise and air pollution, and potential damage to wetlands and wildlife.

As environmental organizations detailed in official comments and court filings on Burnett’s plans, the refusal by NPS to conduct a full analysis of impacts was legally and factually wrong. NPS relied on an environmental assessment by Burnett consultants that barely described how the company would prevent environmental impacts. The agency also used outdated documents to decide that the seismic testing wouldn’t harm the Preserve. 

Unfortunately, the court agreed with NPS’ shortsighted approach. Making matters worse, Burnett got ready to launch its exploration activities before the court even ruled. While Big Cypress burned during a record wildfire season and access for everyone else was restricted, Burnett Oil prepared to bring in work crews, huge thumper trucks, and heavy equipment. 

For nearly three years, the public outcry — including over 30,000 comments from Earthworks' members — over oil exploration in Big Cypress had a significant effect. The company was forced to answer tough questions, provide more information, re-do parts of its plans, and delay its activities. Most important of all, a bright light was cast on its greed and blatant disregard for Big Cypress Preserve, the people who love it, and the wildlife that call it home.

Despite the court's decision, our work to protect Big Cypress is far from over. Earthworks and its partners will gather evidence of any damage caused by the first phase of Burnett’s seismic exploration. We will closely watch whether NPS and Burnett are doing what they promised to prevent harm—and if not, we will be ready to act again. 

Should Burnett find more oil in Big Cypress and seek to drill in new places, federal law will require a new environmental analysis and new opportunities for the public to weigh in. It will be up to all of us to speak up and ensure that this time, the oil and gas industry may finally understand the meaning of no. 

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