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Again? For the third time, another company wants to drill in FL’s Apalachicola River floodplain


Every year in the spring, there’s an event called Hands Across the Sand, where people gather on Florida’s beaches to show their opposition to offshore oil drilling. This year, the folks in the Panhandle may want to face north instead of south.

That’s because the biggest threat from drilling isn’t coming from offshore. It’s coming from inland.

That’s right, someone is once again pursuing a permit to look for oil in a rural part of the Florida Panhandle, specifically in the Apalachicola River basin.

This is the third time some wildcatter has asked to cosplay Jed Clampett, hoping to find some a-bubblin’ crude in the wilds of North Florida. Oil, that is — Texas Tea! So far, no one has hit a gusher on purpose like the one Uncle Jed found by accident.

A company with the ironic name of Clearwater Land & Minerals hopes to be the first.

The name is not the only thing that’s odd about Clearwater Land & Minerals. I will get to the other, even weirder stuff in a bit.

For now, though, let me assure you that there are folks who hope this petroleum pursuit will peter out like the others. These opponents fear that Clearwater will have dire consequences for clear water.

The target for this treasure hunt is in Calhoun County, in a forested spot between the Apalachicola, the Chipola River, and the Dead Lakes. I don’t know if you could pick a worse spot in Florida to plop down such a toxic industry.

The Apalachicola is the largest river in volume in Florida and has the largest and most environmentally sensitive undisturbed floodplain ecosystem in the state.

The Chipola is the source of drinking water for the town of Port St. Joe, population 3,600. Its “Look and Tremble” whitewater rapids make it popular with paddlers, too.

As for the Dead Lakes: Despite the eerie name, that’s a popular fishing spot. My dad, who grew up in nearby Jackson County, loved to fish there.

If someone spilled oil in that area, the way BP spread yucky globs across the beaches of eight Florida counties in 2010, I think those lakes would be dead for real.

Outstanding water

But let’s focus for the moment on the Apalachicola River, which runs from the Georgia border down to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The Apalachicola has excellent water quality,” Georgia Ackerman, executive director of Apalachicola Riverkeeper, told me. “One of the reasons for our excellent water quality compared to other places around the state is that it’s protected by a lot of undeveloped land.”

In fact, the Apalachicola is officially classified as an Outstanding Florida Water, which means it’s “worthy of special protection because of its natural attributes.”

Anyone who applies for a permit to do something detrimental — like, say, drill for oil there — has to show that their activity is in the public interest, and not just a way to make money, Ackerman said.

The spot where Clearwater wants to drill near the Apalachicola was under water after Category 5 Hurricane Michael slammed ashore in 2018, she said. What would have happened had a rig been operating there at the time?

“Introducing toxic chemicals into the wetlands that supply the river with water that then supplies the Gulf of Mexico with water is NOT a good idea,” she said.

Now let me tell you what I found out about Clearwater, although I don’t know if it makes the whole situation any clearer.

A stable company

OK folks, put your eclipse glasses back on. You don’t want to stare directly at the Sunshine State weirdness I have stumbled upon here. It could scramble your brain.

Turns out “Clearwater Land & Minerals” didn’t take its name from its environmental sensitivity. It’s not even a reference to the Florida city where Keith Richards composed the opening riff for “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

No, the company was named after the owner’s athletic team.

The sport: Polo. And I don’t mean Marco.

My first clue about this came when I looked up the address for its Florida headquarters. Turns out it’s a $3.7 million stable in Wellington, the Palm Beach County center of polo competition in Florida.

I guess that’s one way to make sure you’ve got a stable company.

Why would an oil company use a stable as its HQ? Because its owners are far more interested in polo ponies than Texas Tea.

Corporate records show the main man is one Edward Rupert Campbell III, son of a wealthy Louisiana banker. To his polo friends and fans, though, he’s “Chip” Campbell, former chairman of the U.S. Polo Association.

He leads the Clearwater Polo Team, where I assume everyone cheers for Mr. Chip, and perhaps refers to him as “The Chipster” and “El Chipperino.” But not in a derogatory way, no sir!

Chip Campbell is “a respected figure in American polo and has shaped the sport through his extensive involvement with the Association and his efforts in American horse breeding,” the association’s website says.

“When I was younger,” Mr. Chip-chip-cheree says in an interview on that site, “one of my goals in life was to be seasonal where I lived during the year and with polo, I have accomplished that! I just have to bring all the horses, trucks and trailers and entourage of people that help with me. My life now revolves around the sport.”

Lest there’s any confusion, “Wellington the Magazine,” in a 2020 feature called “The Faces of Polo,” says of him, “When not on the polo field, Campbell splits his time between Point Clear, Alabama; Shreveport, Louisiana; and Big Horn, Wyoming, as well as working with his newly expanded company, Clearwater Land & Minerals.”

State records show his wife as the only other corporate director. Kim Campbell is an avid photographer. In 2012, an Alabama gallery exhibited her photos, which were all about … polo!

“Honing her ‘Sport of Kings’ polo photography came from a lifelong family polo interest and from following her husband and son for the past nine years on the polo field looking through the camera lens,” the Mobile Press-Register reported at the time.

The application that Clearwater submitted last year to the Florida Department of Environmental Dilly-Dally — er, pardon me, I mean Protection — says there’s now a third corporate officer, a manager named Edward R. Campbell IV. That’s Chip’s son and polo teammate, Camp.

Because the county seat of Calhoun County is Blountstown, let me be blunt about the Campbells: I bet their polo ponies have never set hoof on the proposed drilling site.

I called Chip Ahoy several times and emailed him as well, but he didn’t reply. Perhaps he failed to respond because it’s hard to tap on a keyboard while you’re galloping around whacking a ball with your mallet.

Third time’s the charm?

I was more successful at reaching Calhoun County Commission Chair Lee “Gene” Bailey. He helped me understand that, while the Campbells may not be rowdy roughnecks like the ones in “Armageddon,” they possess one major qualification for searching for oil.

They have money they don’t mind losing.

“They’re investors,” he explained.

As we talked, Bailey displayed an impressive command of facts and figures about the quest for oil in the Panhandle. All of it has ended in failure.

First came a Mississippi company called Spooner Petroleum. It drilled a pair of dry holes, then left. The second, a Texas company named Cholla, readied derricks but never drilled. A day before they were set to start, he said, the company abruptly shut down the search.

“One of the head persons passed away in a car accident,” Bailey told me. “They pulled out and then their permit expired.”

Now Clearwater has acquired the rights to one of Cholla’s abandoned sites, he said. Except for the concrete pad that company left behind, the land is “just timber land and swamps,” Bailey told me.

In its application, submitted last May, the company said, “Clearwater believes the likelihood of the presence of oil and gas at this location is high.” They didn’t say “third time’s the charm,” but it was strongly implied.

The Calhoun County Commission has not objected to any of these projects, despite the risk involved. If Daniel Day-Lewis threatened to drink their milkshake, they’d say, “Go right ahead!”

“That’s understandable,” said Ackerman. “Calhoun struggles with a significant poverty rate.” It has no factories, no railroad, no four-lane highways. An oil strike would seem like buying the winning Powerball ticket.

After all, it’s happened before. In 1970, Exxon discovered oil beneath Jay, a town about 150 miles to the west of Blountstown. The company eventually sunk 93 wells there.

The oil money built new schools, paved roads, provided a new city hall and civic center. But most of the royalties went to a chemical company and a timber company, which owned most of the land where the oil was found.

By 1990, the Jay field had produced 365 million barrels of oil, but by then the flow had slowed to a trickle.

In the meantime, Calhoun County has recently had its own energy bonanza — one that’s not likely to stop anytime soon.

And it doesn’t depend on some polo player who feels lucky.

Walking on sunshine

Calhoun County has recently sprouted a bunch of solar farms built by Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest utility.

“They got seven locations in total,” Bailey told me.

State law says solar farm owners can be taxed at no more than 20% of the land’s value. Nevertheless, he said, FPL has paid more than $1 million in property taxes for its 6,000 acres of solar farms. That’s about 20% of the county’s entire tax base.

Even Bailey is impressed by that.

“I’m a fossil fuel guy,” he said, “but we have a LOT of sunshine.”

As you might guess, there’s a far smaller chance of a toxic spill from a Sunshine State solar array.

In a perfect world, Calhoun County would be satisfied with the riches they’re reaping from FPL’s solar farms. Like Katrina & the Waves, they’d be walking on sunshine.

Meanwhile, Florida would say “whoa!” to the Clearwater Polo and Toxic Waste Co. application. As a pollution threat to an outstanding waterway, it clearly fails the public-interest test.

Sadly, I don’t think there’s much chance of a rejection, considering how Gov. Ron “I Love Fossil Fuels More Than I Love My Own Children’s Future” DeSantis has been talking. Remember, this is the guy who says the way to fight climate change is by burning more fossil fuels, not less.

And, as DEP Press Secretary Brian Mills noted in an email to me, Clearwater “is proposing the same exploratory well and site that was previously permitted in 2019 to Cholla Petroleum.”

But I have a proposal. I think everyone who loves the Apalachicola, the Chipola, and the Dead Lakes should form a new corporation called Cleaner Water Land & Minerals.

Then we should apply to erect a few derricks smack in the middle of Chip’s favorite polo field. Our corporate slogan could be: “We’re bringing the wells to Wellington!”

Florida Phoenix is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Florida Phoenix maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Diane Rado for questions: info@floridaphoenix.com. Follow Florida Phoenix on Facebook and Twitter.


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