Out here, in the middle of the swamp, dragonflies circle and egrets glide above. When the airboat stops, a blissful quiet falls over Florida's Everglades, little more than the sound of gentle raindrops landing on still waters pierced by sawgrass.
It is a one-of-a-kind place known for alligators, marshland and mangroves. But could it be known instead for tankers, rigs and oilmen?
A seemingly door-shut debate over expanding Everglades oil drilling was singlehandedly reignited by Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann, when the Minnesota congresswoman said this week she'd be open to the idea. Though few expect her comments to amount to any actual U.S. policy shift and the amount of oil is not enormous, they have become the topic du jour among environmentalists and others who revere this place known as the "River of Grass."
If drilling sounds like an odd fit for this natural wonder, perhaps it shouldn't. It's been going on in the Everglades for decades.
The story starts with entrepreneur Barron Collier who, beginning in 1921, purchased 1.3 million acres of land in Florida, and became the state's largest landowner. Oil was discovered on the land in 1943. As the environmental movement reached its apex in the 1970s, Congress sought to protect the land and created the Big Cypress National Preserve to the west of most of Everglades National Park.
Through deals and land swaps, though, the Collier family retained drilling rights and continues to pump oil to this day.
"That was part of the Faustian bargain," said Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University.
Collier Resources Co., which controls the mining operations, and its parent, Barron Collier Cos., declined to comment on their drilling interests.
The operations nearly came to an end through a deal negotiated by the administration of President George W. Bush. In 2002, he announced a $120 million plan to buy back oil and mineral rights.
Gale Norton, the interior secretary at the time, hailed it as a victory for the "long-term conservation of the Everglades." But the deal ultimately fell through when Congress refused to approve the down payment amid allegations the government was substantially overpaying.
Since then, Collier Resources has sought to expand its yields through increased exploration and drilling. On its website, the company says its focus is on "further development" and "the exploration of our other mineral assets."
The company says it is committed to balancing energy and the environment and notes that state commissions "have twice concluded that operations have been carried out safely and with minimal impacts to the surrounding environment."
Bachmann hasn't specified what she meant by her openness to Everglades drilling and a spokeswoman didn't immediately return a call or e-mail seeking comment. Bachmann said it would have to be done in a way that doesn't harm the environment, but it's not clear if she was expressing flexibility in expansion of Collier Resources' oil fields or if she was advocating additional exploration outside those grandfathered-in properties.
Federal Elections Commission records show $9,600 in donations to Bachmann's presidential campaign by Miles Collier, who established the family company's real estate and investment arm, and his wife Parker. Miles Collier is Barron Collier's grandson. He and his wife have jointly given nearly $900,000 since 1999 to political causes, mostly to Republicans, though to some Democrats as well, FEC filings show.
Collier Resources is the only company that appears poised to gain _ at least immediately _ should Everglades drilling be expanded. The question is whether there's much more oil to get.
"The amount of oil there is trivial at best," said Robert Kaufmann, a Boston University professor whose research has focused on world oil markets.
By the Bush administration's own estimate, the area they sought to purchase from the Colliers was home to an estimated 40 million barrels of oil _ roughly equal to about two days of U.S. oil consumption. One section _ Area 1002 _ of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, by comparison, is estimated to have 10.6 billion barrels of available oil, or 265 times the Everglades estimate.
Collier Resources' own estimate shows a marked decline in its yield, saying it now produces about 2,800 barrels of oil a day at their Sunniland field, down from a peak of 14,000 barrels a day in 1977. The Sunniland field is located in Collier County, the southwest Florida locality named for the wealthy family.
A spokesman for the Interior Department, Adam Fetcher, said Wednesday he couldn't comment on Bachmann's remarks but added that Everglades restoration remains the focus. "Our priority is to continue these critical restoration efforts, and we are not aware of any other privately-held mineral rights within Department of the Interior lands in the Everglades region where oil and gas development would be viable," he said.
Still, some insist there is more oil to be had, even if there isn't publicly known evidence of it.
Dan Krish, a vice president at the Institute for Energy Research, which has pushed for increased domestic oil production, said the Everglades show promise, and environmental safety concerns are overstated.
"The Everglades holds huge potential for oil and gas production, which could be done safely while benefiting Florida and producing jobs," he said. "Equating modern energy exploration and production with 100-year-old technology is like comparing surgery today to that practiced in the Civil War."
To environmentalists, there is no method of drilling safely enough to protect the already fragile Everglades. They insist the ecosystem is far more than simply a natural wonder _ it is a refuge from hectic metropolitan life, a tourist draw, a magnet for fishers and hunters and, perhaps most importantly, the source of water for an estimated 7 million Floridians.
"They think it's about tree huggers and everyone loving bunnies," said Jerry Karnas of the Everglades Foundation. "But really, it's about saving the ecosystem, it's about drinking water, it's basically a survival project for South Florida."
And, over the last several decades, it has been the site of the biggest environmental restoration project in U.S. history, the source of billions of dollars in federal and state spending. Those very dollars are on display as visitors make their way west from Miami to Shark Valley, one of the most popular Everglades venues. Along Alligator Alley, which runs between suburban Fort Lauderdale and Naples, crews are at work raising the roadway, with the goal of creating a bridge so that dams can be released and some of the Everglades' natural water flow can be restored.
Florida has long rejected most any oil drilling, fearful it could jeopardize the state's massive tourism industry. The bipartisan opposition to drilling off Florida's west coast has shown some splintering in recent years as gas prices have risen and politics have changed, although last year's BP spill tamped that down a bit. But Karnas says Everglades drilling doesn't even compare with Gulf drilling.
"Reasonable people can disagree about the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "I don't think reasonable people can disagree about drilling in the Everglades."
That thinking has been reflected even among some allies of Bachmann. U.S. Rep. Allen West, a Republican who is among the foremost tea party congressmen, supports off-shore drilling, but was critical of Bachmann's Everglades comments. In a town hall gathering Tuesday, he said his colleague made "an incredible faux pas," according to The Palm Beach Post, and said "I'll straighten her out about that."
Bachmann isn't the first to draw fire for such comments. Just four years ago, in the heat of the last Republican primary, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson said he wouldn't take Everglades drilling off the table either.
Kenny Deutsch has heard it all before. He is an airboat driver, making his way on a recent August day through the swamp's well-worn paths of grass. He doesn't care too much for politics. The Everglades, he said, is an escape from such things, the noise, the bickering, all the fury he encounters when he returns home to Miami.
Not here. Here, things are different.
"I get peace and quiet every day," he said.