By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Upon his election, Gov. Rick Scott’s transition team included a Florida Power & Light executive who pitched his company’s plan to build a major natural gas pipeline in North Florida to fuel a new generation of gas-fired power plants in places like Port Everglades.
“The proposed project will need state regulatory and governmental agencies to understand and support this project,” said the proposal submitted by FPL vice president Sam Forrest.
Gov. Scott understood. In May and June 2013, he signed into law two bills (HB 999 and HB 1083) designed to speed up permitting for what came to be known as the Sabal Trail Transmission – a controversial, 474-mile natural gas pipeline that’s to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in Central Florida, south of Orlando.
Five months later, the Florida Public Service Commission, whose five members were appointed by Gov. Scott, unanimously approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline. More approvals are needed from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which the governor oversees.
What wasn’t publicly known in 2013, however, was that Gov. Scott owned a stake in Spectra Energy, the Houston company chosen by Florida Power & Light that July to build and operate the $3 billion pipeline. Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy and FPL’s parent, NextEra Energy.
BrowardBulldog.org’s review of financial records made public last month by Gov. Scott show that as of Dec. 31 his portfolio included several million dollars invested in the securities of more than two-dozen entities that produce and/or transport natural gas – including some, like Spectra, with substantial Florida operations.
His stake in Spectra Energy was reported as being worth $53,000 that day.
Florida’s ethics laws generally prohibit public officials like the governor from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation, or that do business with state agencies. A similar prohibition exists on owning shares in companies that would “create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict” between an official’s private interests and the “full and faithful discharge” of his public duties.
NEW CONCERNS ABOUT BLIND TRUST LAW
Scott’s investments in companies that do business in Florida raise fresh concerns about the operation of Florida’s so-called “qualified blind trust” statute – a law that allows public officials to veil their investment activity while affording them immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest.
Scott acquired his Spectra shares via his blind trust. Exactly when that occurred is not known, and Greg Blair, a spokesman for the governor’s re-election campaign, said in an email that Scott has “no knowledge of the investment because his decision to invest was made by a trustee of the blind trust.”
Blind trusts are supposed to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” public officials and the public to the nature of their holdings. The law’s requirement that officials hand over control of an investment portfolio to a disinterested manager was intended to accomplish that.
But as BrowardBulldog.org reported in March, the governor’s blind trust was ineffective in keeping the governor’s assets secret. And Alan Bazaar, a trusted former employee of the governor’s private investment firm Richard L. Scott Investments, managed it.
“The legislature makes it easy for officials to get away with conflicts of interest through loopholes in the ethics code,” said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, the nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog group. “Corruption has been institutionalized in Florida with flawed policies like blind trusts and political appointees issuing advisory opinions on what’s ethical.”
The governor, the senate president and the house speaker appoint the members of Florida’s Commission on Ethics.
The governor’s financial interest in Sabal Trail’s builder, Spectra, is also fueling criticism from opponents of the controversial natural gas pipeline project.
“That’s very interesting,” said Susan Glickman, Florida Director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “It’s totally inappropriate that we have policymakers making important decisions where they have a financial stake in the outcome.”
“OUTRAGED AND DISHEARTENED”
Beth Gordon is a lawyer and former South Florida resident who now lives with her family on a 32-acre horse farm in Levy County where Spectra wants to route Sabal Trail. She helped found Spectrabusters, a citizens’ group that’s fighting Sabal Trail.
“I’m outraged and disheartened by this news. I feel blindsided,” said Gordon, who like Scott is a Republican. “The governor’s interest is in getting these companies the permits they need and he’s not interested in the environment.”
The governor’s financial disclosure form, essentially a snapshot of his extensive holdings as of Dec. 31, shows that Scott also owns a $55,000 stake in another Spectra asset, DCP Midstream Partners. DCM is a natural gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra Energy.
Scott disclosed his portfolio last month after he closed his original blind trust, then immediately opened a new one and placed all of his assets back into it.
He did it “to ensure that there would not be the possibility of any conflict of interest,” spokesman Greg Blair said via email. “As a result, Gov. Scott has no knowledge of the current contents of the blind trust.”
The trustee of the new blind trust, however, continues to be New York’s Hollow Brook Wealth Management and its chief executive and longtime Scott crony Alan Baazar.
Neither the governor nor anyone on his staff would be interviewed about his investments. Last month’s disclosure form marks the first time the governor has made public a list of his securities investments since he formed the blind trust in April 2011.
The maneuver served to insulate Gov. Scott from criticism about financial transparency amid his re-election campaign against former Gov. Charlie Crist. But it also revealed Scott’s large personal bet on natural gas and firms like Spectra and Energy Transfer Equity LP.
GOV. SCOTT’S STAKES IN OTHER FLORIDA PIPELINES
Energy Transfer is a publicly traded master limited partnership whose subsidiaries include a joint venture that owns Florida Gas Transmission. FGT is the state’s largest natural gas pipeline, transporting it from Texas through the Florida peninsula south to Miami-Dade.
Florida Gas Transmission is also a major state vendor. According to Transparency Florida, the state website where government spending information is posted, FGT was paid $28.4 million by the Department of Transportation for various construction services in 2013-2014.
Scott valued his units of Energy Transfer as being worth $311,000 as of the end of last year. He likewise reported additional investments in a pair of entities owned by Energy Transfer, Regency Energy Partners LP and PVR Partners LP, totaling $400,000.
Scott’s investments in Spectra and Williams, an energy infrastructure company, also gave him a financial interest in Florida’s other major natural gas pipeline, Gulfstream, which runs from Alabama to Tampa Bay beneath the Gulf of Mexico. Those companies and their limited partnerships jointly own and operate Palmetto-based Gulfstream Natural Gas System LLC.
Scott’s disclosure form reported that in addition to his Spectra holdings he owned Williams shares worth $104,000 and a $71,000 ownership interest in a master limited partnership owned by Williams, Access Midstream Partners.
In addition to the bills Scott signed to streamline permitting for natural gas pipelines, he likewise benefitted the industry last year by approving another law (HB 579) that provides $30 million over five years to fund rebates to commercial fleet operators who buy, convert or lease vehicles that run on natural gas. The program, administered by Agriculture and Consumer Services boss Adam Putnam, offers applicants a maximum annual rebate of $250,000.
The Public Service Commission later approved several individual natural gas vehicle programs. PSC Commission Chairman Ronald A. Brise said the moves helped make “natural gas pricing more competitive with conventional motor fuels.”
The law also exempts natural gas fuel from state fuel, sales and use taxes for five years.
“They’re doing everything they can to build the market,” said Glickman.
Florida’s natural gas market is huge and growing. Nearly 68 percent of Florida’s electric generation, and more than 72 percent of FPL’s total energy, was fueled by natural gas in 2012, according to the Public Service Commission. Pipelines bring virtually all of that gas to Florida.
SABAL TRAIL TO POWER FPL PLANTS
The Sabal Trail underground pipeline is to run through 13 Florida counties. Documents state that it is intended to provide Florida Power & Light with a dedicated supply of natural gas for power generation needs and other purposes starting in May 2017.
Much of that new supply is to come from natural gas fracked from shale. It would flow to Florida from Sabal Trail’s connection to Williams’ Transco pipeline in Alabama.
Sabal Trail is to terminate at a new central Florida hub where it would connect to the state’s two other main natural gas pipelines, Florida Gas Transmission and Gulfstream. Another part of the new pipeline project that does not involve Spectra is the construction of a 126-mile, $550 million pipeline to run from Sabal Trail’s termination point in Osceola County to an FPL plant in Indiantown in Martin County.
“The primary factors driving this increased need are the three modernization projects currently in progress at FPL’s Cape Canaveral, Riviera Beach and Port Everglades natural gas plants to upgrade older, 1960’s-era steam combustion turbine generating units to modern, and more efficient combined cycle technology,” said the Public Service Commission’s October 2013 memorandum endorsing the pipeline projects.
Sabal Trail, however, has drawn significant opposition from both environmentalists who fear pollution and residents who consider the 36-inch steel pipeline a hazard and don’t want it anywhere near them.
In April, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a 17-page letter to FERC that questioned the need for Sabal Trail and suggested alternatives, like improved energy conservation measures, that would allow FPL to otherwise meet the power needs of its customers.
“U.S. electricity sales appear to have peaked in 2007,” the letter says.
FPL isn’t the only utility looking to generate electricity using natural gas imported via Sabal Trail.
Later this year, the Public Service Commission will consider plans by Duke Energy Florida to build a new, combined-cycle natural gas plant near Crystal River in Citrus County that would be a major customer of the new pipeline.
According to a Duke Energy press release, the project also requires certification under Florida’s Power Plant Siting Act. Certifications are issued by Florida’s siting board, which consists of the governor and Cabinet.