A Tallahassee administrative judge has ruled that environmental opponents of the proposed Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline cannot raise allegations that Gov. Rick Scott has a financial conflict of interest in the project.
Twin rulings this month by Judge Bram D.E. Canter held that questions by the nonprofit WWALs Watershed Coalition regarding “non-environmental public interest factors” are outside the court’s jurisdiction.
“Petitioner may not present evidence or argument regarding whether there has been a violation of Florida ethics law,” Canter wrote. “Petitioner must confine its claims and evidence to the criteria applicable to the issuance of an environmental resource permit.”
The decision was a win for Sabal Trail Transmission LLC and its attorneys. Last month they called evidence of the governor’s financial interest in Sabal Trail’s majority owner, Spectra Energy, “irrelevant” and “unfairly prejudicial” while asking the court to prevent WWAL’s from bringing it up.
The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is backing the $3 billion pipeline proposed to run from the Georgia state line to a hub south of Orlando, also had called evidence of Scott’s investment in Spectra “not material to this proceeding.”
Sabal Trail is a joint venture of Spectra and Florida Power & Light parent, NextEra Energy.
WWALs president John Quarterman said his group considered filing a conflict of interest claim against Scott with the Florida Commission on Ethics, but decided against it.
“We’d be happy to do it if we had any resources to do it,” said Quarterman.
WWALs asked for the administrative hearing on Sept. 3 after the DEP announced its intention to award Sabal Trail both an environmental resources permit and rights to drill under riverbeds in order to build the 267-mile Florida leg of the underground pipeline.
Sabal Trail is an interstate project proposed to run a total of 474 miles through Alabama and Georgia into Florida. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the project and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC is expected to issue that statement by the end of the year.
KEYS TO THE PIPELINE
The ability of Sabal Trail to obtain a Florida environmental permit and rights to drill beneath state-owned submerged lands is also key to the project.
Gov. Scott’s alleged conflict involves his oversight of both the DEP, and his membership on the Board of Trustees of the Florida Internal Improvement Fund. The fund owns submerged lands beneath several rivers in north Florida where Spectra Energy wants to drill to install the 36-inch Sabal Trail pipeline.
The board of trustees delegated decision-making authority to DEP to issue an easement to allow construction.
Central to the conflict of interest allegations are Scott’s sizeable investments in not only Spectra Energy, but also other natural gas companies that stand to benefit from Sabal Trail’s construction.
If approved, Sabal Trail would connect to the existing Transco Pipeline in Alabama. Financial disclosure papers filed last year by Scott while qualifying to run for re-election show the governor owned shares of Transco’s owner, Williams Companies, which he valued at more than $100,000.
Scott also reported owning shares of Houston-based Energy Transfer valued at $300,000. Energy Transfer’s holdings include 100 percent of Citrus Corp., which owns 50 percent of Florida Gas Transmission. Sabal Trail has said it plans to build a 13-mile extension from its hub in Osceola County to tie into Florida Gas Transmission’s existing natural gas pipeline in Orange County.
Judge Canter has set a hearing on WAALs’s petition at 10 a.m. Oct. 19-22 at the Hamilton County Courthouse.