By Joseph A. Mann Jr., FloridaBulldog.org
The Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline, a giant interstate project whose tail reaches over 268 miles into Florida, has generated fierce opposition as its construction moves through the state from Georgia to its end-point in Osceola County, where it is scheduled to link up to an existing gas pipeline in June.
Starting late last year, hundreds of protestors picketed construction sites in northern and central Florida. Some of them handcuffed themselves to machinery, confronted police, set up a camp and organized sit-ins and meetings along the route, which passes through 12 Florida counties. A lawsuit also was filed by a non-profit to halt the project, but the action was denied.
The $3.2-billion project, called Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, is a joint venture among Houston-based Spectra Energy Partners, a major owner of pipelines and storage facilities that is now part of Enbridge Inc., a Canadian energy firm; NextEra Energy (parent of Florida Power & Light) and Duke Energy. FPL and Duke plan to use Sabal Trail’s natural gas to generate electricity in their Florida power plants.
Construction on Florida’s third major gas pipeline, which will run about 516 miles through Alabama, Georgia and Florida when completed, began in September 2016. The line also has two gas compression plants, one at each end, and plans to build three more by 2021.
Opponents – including environmentalists, residents and landowners along the route – warn of environmental harm. For example, they say that drinking water sources and surface water bodies are being damaged by problems like leakage of diesel fuel on land and in water around construction sites, spills of drilling mud used when running the line under the Suwannee River, the appearance of sinkholes near building sites, which could foreshadow damage to karst limestone bedrock in the region, and damage to wetlands and other parts of the countryside as crews clear a 75- to 100-foot swath to lay the underground pipeline.
Complaints also come from landowners whose property was split to accommodate part the pipeline route and from people worried about the long-term safety of the line, which carries large volumes of flammable natural gas under extremely high pressure.
Moreover, some opponents question whether the utilities building this pipeline will actually need the new volumes of natural gas for Florida, and say they may be planning to liquefy and export gas at a later date.
“The construction of a natural gas transportation corridor threatens the state’s vulnerable fresh water supply and will leave Florida citizens having to deal with this forever,” Merrilee Malwitz-Jipson, an organizer for the Sierra Club in northern Florida told the Florida Bulldog. Projects like this will make Floridians dependent on fossil fuel for many decades “when its citizens continually vote for solar energy and renewables,” she said. “We’re not alone. This is happening all over the country.”
Sierra Club volunteers watching construction work proceed have seen heavy equipment tipped over in wetlands, leaking fuel, a lack of appropriate fencing for wildlife and drainage of some bodies of water along the pipeline route, she added. “The pipeline is impacting 700 bodies of water between here and Alabama, and we don’t know if they are being restored.”
Broad media attention
While not receiving national attention like protests over the Dakota Access oil pipeline or the Keystone XL, Sabal Trail has become a cause célèbre, receiving broad media attention, particularly in northern Florida.
More than a dozen protesters have been arrested and later released at different locations. In an incident apparently unrelated to the peaceful protests, a 66-year-old man was shot and killed by police after he used a rifle to shoot at the pipeline and equipment in Marion County and then fled the scene, according to media reports. Police are still investigating the case, but pipeline opponents said that they rejected violent acts and that the individual was not part of their movement.
Gov. Rick Scott also is a factor in the Sabal Trail story. The governor actively supported the project, signing two bills in 2013 that helped speed up the extended approval process.
In 2014, Florida Bulldog reported exclusively that the governor owned a stake in one of the pipeline partners, Spectra Energy, and that he apparently still owns shares in the company through a blind trust. Florida ethics rules generally ban government officials from owning stock in companies subject to their regulation, or in companies that do business with state agencies. Scott also has holdings in other pipeline companies that produce or transport natural gas, some with Florida operations, the Bulldog reported.
In subsequent reporting, the Bulldog asked the governor’s office about potential conflicts of interest, but was told there are no conflicts since Gov. Scott has no knowledge of the current investments held in the blind trust, which is administered by third parties.
“Florida is swarming with protests, like an antbed stirred up by a 600-mile pipeline stick,” John A. Quarterman, president of WWALS Watershed Coalition and a key pipeline opponent, said in a recent interview. The coalition is the WATERKEEPER affiliate for the Suwannee River and its tributaries.
“I was the first to call for protests against the pipeline in 2014, and we’ve seen a big swell of support since the middle of last year,” said Quarterman, whose non-profit organization works for water conservation.
Hoping to derail the pipeline, WWALS filed a petition against Sabal Trail and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, seeking an administrative hearing. WWALS said that the pipeline poses a threat to native wildlife and that drilling in karst limestone along the pipeline would cause sinkholes. It also said that Gov. Rick Scott has a conflict of interest, since he has investments in Spectra Energy, part of Sabal Trail joint venture. This legal challenge was turned down.
In an interview, Quarterman also said that Florida utilities will not need the new volumes of natural gas to be provided by Sabal Trail, and suggested that they instead plan to liquefy and export a major share of future gas deliveries.
“There is no need for this pipeline, and the approximately $3 billion being used would provide a lot of solar power for the Sunshine State,” he said.
In defense of the natural gas transmission project, Andrea Grover, a spokeswoman at Spectra Energy, pointed out the following:
- Before construction work began, she said, the company successfully went through an extensive permitting process, obtaining approval from a variety federal and state entities, including the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and others. The need for new natural gas supplies in Florida and an additional pipeline were demonstrated in the planning, permitting and approval process.
- Karst conditions exist in south-central George and northern Florida, the company spokeswoman said, and much larger infrastructure projects – highways, railroads, urban development — have been built in these areas already.
- Sabal Trail uses best practices for its construction work, and its safety programs often exceed regulatory requirements.
- After completion, the pipeline will be monitored around the clock according to state and federal safety regulations.
- According to outside analysts, Sabal Trail is having a significant economic impact on Alabama, Georgia and Florida. This includes the creation of more than 5,600 construction jobs, over $207 million paid to construction workers and about $1 billion spent directly and indirectly on construction activities. Once completed, the pipeline and compression plants will have more than 500 permanent jobs and will provide new tax revenues for local governments. In Florida, the pipeline is expected to create more than 2,700 jobs during construction, and 288 permanent jobs after completion. Aside from construction wages, tens of millions of dollars are being spent in Florida for items like trucking, security, fuel, gravel, equipment rentals, meals and lodging, as well as other supplies and services.
- Pipeline representatives held public outreach meeting with landowners, community members and public officials. “Some stakeholders did raise concerns,” Grover said. “These have been vetted and addressed by Sabal Trail or federal and state agencies. No one had to be required to permanently relocate during construction.”
Asked if protests had significantly delayed construction, Grover said that the current in-service date (June 2017) was changed from May 2017 due to normal internal decision-making, planning (which began around 2013) and permit applications.
However, one section of Sabal’s website said that original in-service date would be March 2017.
Construction is still underway in several of the Florida counties in the pipeline’s path, and over 81 percent of the pipe is in the ground. The pipeline is installed in a type of “assembly line” process. Construction crews first clear an area up to 100 feet wide, grade the land, dig a ditch for the pipeline, string pipe sections together, weld and then lower the pipe into the ditch, which is filled in. The work area is then cleaned up and vegetation is restored.
“Following pipeline installation,” Grover said, “all disturbed areas will be returned as close as possible to their original contours. Temporary [construction] workspace will be allowed to return to its original state. The entire work area will be restored in compliance with all applicable federal, state and local permits.
“As part of our commitment, we want to establish a positive footprint in the communities along the pipeline route where [permanent] Sabal Trail representatives will live and work.” This means donations and community efforts from pipeline employees over the long run.
“By bolstering community vitality, Sabal Trail is supporting the communities where we will be working and operating for many years to come,’’ Grover said. “Sabal Trail operators and their families are part of these communities too.”