With help from investor-Gov. Scott, Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline looks to open in June

By Joseph A. Mann Jr., FloridaBulldog.org 

A protest in January against the Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline in Suwanee River State Park, Live Oak. Photo: WCTV CBS Tallahassee

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.

Sabal Trail pipeline route

“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.

Gov. Rick Scott

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.

Pipeline needed?

“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.”

Gov. Scott’s blind trust and a company with a massive pollution problem

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

When Gov. Rick Scott put $133 million of his assets into a blind trust two years ago, he included his shares of Mosaic, owner of the Central Florida fertilizer plant where 215 million gallons of contaminated wastewater recently drained into an aquifer that provides drinking water for millions of Floridians.

Scott’s ownership interest in Mosaic was relatively small – he valued it at about $14,000 on the list of assets he placed in the blind trust – yet it provides another example of how the governor’s sprawling personal finances conflict, or appear to conflict, with his official duties.

Does Gov. Scott still have an ownership interest in Mosaic? Has it increased? On Wednesday, his office released a statement saying the governor is unaware of any sales, purchases or changes in the trust because it is “under the control of an independent financial professional.”

The trustee is New York-based Hollow Brook Wealth Management, whose chief executive is longtime Scott crony Alan Bazaar.

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission documents filed earlier this year state that Bazaar also serves as an advisory board member of G. Scott Capital Partners, the private equity firm co-owned by First Lady Ann Scott and run by a trio of the governor’s former employees at Richard L. Scott Investments. Both the governor and Mrs. Scott have been substantial investors in Scott Capital’s investments.

Republican Gov. Scott’s handpicked Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, Jon Steverson, is now overseeing Mosaic’s response to the massive dump of contaminated water that occurred in late August when a 45-foot wide sinkhole opened at Mosaic’s New Wales fertilizer manufacturing plant in Mulberry, about 55 miles east of Tampa.

The Mosaic plant sinkhole in what was a large pond atop a gypsum stack. When the sinkhole opened, millions of gallons of acidic wastewater drained into an aquifer used for drinking water. Photo: WFLA Tampa

The Mosaic plant sinkhole in what was a large pond atop a gypsum stack. When the sinkhole opened, millions of gallons of acidic wastewater drained into an aquifer used for drinking water. Photo: WFLA Tampa

“Governor Scott will hold all responsible parties accountable for their actions and has directed the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to expedite their investigation,” Scott’s communications director Jackie Schutz said in a Wednesday statement. “Governor Scott has also directed the Department of Health to partner with DEP in their investigation to ensure all drinking water in the area is safe. We know Mosaic has taken responsibility, but our job is to ensure 100 percent safe drinking water.”

Earthjustice is a large nonprofit environmental law firm. Informed that Gov. Scott previously disclosed his ownership of Mosaic stock, Senior Associate Attorney Bradley Marshall said, “We’re always concerned about the governor’s ties to industry. We certainly do think the governor has not been a good protector of the environment in Florida. We’ve already seen veterans at DEP fired for doing their jobs.”

Mosaic, based in Plymouth, Minnesota, is a Fortune 500 company (NYSE: MOS) with extensive operations in Florida, where it employs 4,000 workers. According to the company’s web site, it mines phosphate rock from nearly 200,000 acres of Mosaic-owned land in Central Florida and potash from mines in Canada. The products are processed into crop nutrients that are shipped around the world. Mosaic’s revenues last year were about $9 billion.

Mosaic politically active

Mosaic Fertilizer LLC, the company’s principal operating subsidiary in Florida, is politically active. State records show it fields a team of 14 executive branch lobbyists in Tallahassee. Since 2008, Mosaic entities have contributed about $1.9 million to political candidates and causes, with about $840,000 going to the Republican Party of Florida and the Florida Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, records show.

In October 2015, Mosaic Fertilizer LLC agreed to a nearly $2 billion settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regarding charges that its New Wales facility and other plants in Florida as well as Louisiana improperly handled 60 billion pounds of hazardous waste. Specifically, EPA inspectors found that Mosaic had mixed certain types of highly corrosive substances like sulfuric acid from its fertilizer operations with phosphogypsum and wastewater from its mineral processing. Sulfuric acid is used to extract phosphorus from mined rock.

Phosphogypsum is the radioactive byproduct that’s created when phosphate is turned into fertilizer.

An EPA press release at the time said the settlement “will ensure that wastewater at Mosaic’s facilities is properly managed and does not pose a threat to groundwater resources.’’

Gypsum stacks at a a phosphate plant in Florida Photo: Engineering and Mining Journal

Gypsum stacks at a a phosphate plant in Florida Photo: Engineering and Mining Journal

The sinkhole formed beneath one cell of a mountainous phosphogypsum stack topped with a 250-million-gallon pond filled with acidic wastewater from the fertilizer manufacturing process.

According to the company, plant workers noticed a decline in the water level on Aug. 27. While Mosaic quickly notified the DEP and the EPA, no public announcement was made until Sept. 15.

“A sinkhole formed under the west cell that we believe damaged the liner system at the base of the stack,” said the company’s initial press release. “The pond on top of the cell drained as a result, although some seepage continues.”

Mosaic went on to say it “immediately implemented additional and extensive groundwater monitoring and sampling regimens and found no offsite impacts.”

Company officials who appeared Tuesday before the Polk County Commission reiterated, “No water from the stack has migrated off our property.” The company also apologized for not notifying the public sooner.

Gov. Scott’s blind trust – his second while in office – was created under the terms of a secret trust agreement signed in June 2014. His office has declined to make the agreement with the trustee public.

Scott acquired Mosaic while in office

Gov. Scott acquired his Mosaic investment while in office. His first blind, created in April 2011 a few months after he was sworn in, disclosed no ownership of Mosaic shares.

Florida’s qualified blind trust law was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Scott in 2013. The idea was to prevent conflicts of interest by blinding public officials and the public to their holdings, and also afford those who use them immunity from prohibited conflicts.

“The Legislature finds that if a public officer creates a trust and does not control the interests held by the trust, his or her actions will not be influenced or appear to be influenced by private considerations,” the law says.

But Florida’s blind trust law, crafted with mega-wealthy Gov. Scott in mind, did not contemplate that such a trust could at times become a see-through entity, making it ineffective.

For example, in March 2014 Florida Bulldog reported that SEC records showed Gov. and Mrs. Scott had recently sold $17 million worth of shares in Argan (NYSE:AGX), a company whose principal subsidiary builds and operates power plants in Florida and elsewhere.

Florida Bulldog reported in July 2014 about Scott ownership of shares in a natural gas pipeline firm, Spectra Energy, looking to build the $3-billion Sabal Trail pipeline across North and Central Florida.

In 2013, Florida’s Public Service Commission – five members appointed by Gov. Scott – unanimously approved construction of Spectra’s controversial pipeline venture with Florida Power & Light. Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection subsequently approved it, too.

What didn’t become known until the following year, however, was that Scott had investments totaling $110,000 in Houston-based Spectra and DCP Midstream Partners, a natural gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra. Scott only disclosed those interests in June 2014 when he closed his first blind trust and created his second blind trust while qualifying to run for re-election.

Florida’s ethics laws generally prohibit public officials like the governor from owning stock in businesses subject to state 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.

The governor has said he was unaware of his Spectra investments because they were in his blind trust.

In February, Florida Bulldog reported that in 2012 Scott owned a $210,000 stake in a private equity firm that owned Fort Myers-based 21st Century Oncology when it was awarded a unprecedented 25-year, no-bid contract to supply radiation oncology services to taxpayer-supported Broward Health. An all-Republican board of commissioners appointed by Scott and his Republican predecessor made the award.

A spokeswoman for the governor said Scott wasn’t aware that 21st Century had sought the Broward Health contract and that no one at the private equity firm, Vestar Capital Partners, or 21st Century, had asked him to try to influence the hospital district’s selection process.

Florida DEP sought little public input about plan to allow more toxins in state waters

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org

everglades

everglades

With minimum public input, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been working for four years on a proposal that could let more cancer-causing toxins be released into the state’s surface waters. Most Floridians have been kept in the dark regarding the plan that will cause great harm to the state’s aquatic environment, residents and visitors, according to activists and some elected officials.

Critics told FloridaBulldog.org that DEP officials hope the lack of public scrutiny will allow them to push through changes to increase the amount of hazardous chemicals that can be allowed in the discharging of industrial waste into the state’s rivers, streams, canals, lakes and coastal waters. The proposed rules would go into effect in September if approved by the Florida Environmental Regulation Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is deliberately being cloaked in secrecy,” said Joanne Oyen, a Pembroke Pines Democratic Party activist. “They are trying to push through something that is wrong and corrupt. There should be a public outcry about this.”

The DEP is recalculating the parts-per-billion limits for 43 chemicals designated as health hazards, as well as adding 39 toxins that are not currently regulated. For example, the cap on benzene, a carcinogen that can cause vomiting, convulsions and loss of consciousness to people exposed to high levels, would increase from 1.18 parts per billion to 3 parts per billion under the new criteria. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limits benzene at 1.14 parts per billion.

Department spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller insisted the new rules would protect Florida’s waterways. “DEP’s nationally recognized scientists have worked diligently since 2012 to develop the proposed Florida-specific human health criteria,” Miller said. “They have been calculated based on the best science available, guidance from EPA and a scientific peer review panel and input from the public.”

Yet, DEP has conducted very little public outreach. Between May 2012 and February 2013, the department held eight public workshops and presented its proposal at two public hearings, including one in front of the Environmental Regulation Commission. The only workshop in South Florida — home to two national parks and a preserve in large bodies of water — took place in West Palm Beach on May 15, 2012. None took place in 2014 and 2015. Last  month, about three weeks before the deadline for public comments, DEP held workshops in three cities in a 72-hour span. 

But none took place in 2014 and 2015. In May of 2012, about three weeks before the deadline for public comments, DEP held workshops in three cities in a 72-hour span. The only workshop in South Florida — home to two national parks and a preserve in large bodies of water — took place in West Palm Beach on May 15, 2012.

Moreover, Miller said the public workshops and hearings were advertised only in the Florida Administrative Register and DEP websites, as required by state law. Aside from the online public service announcements, the department sent emails to more than 1,000 individuals and organizations that had signed up for updates and notifications, Miller added.

The department did not engage in any radio, television, or newspaper advertising. And there was no social media campaign. Not surprisingly, the department has received comments about its proposed new rules from only 115 people.

Considering the new rules will impact Florida’s 19 million residents and the state’s 100-million-plus visitors, DEP should have held more hearings and taken more measures to inform the public, Oyen said. When the department held three workshops last month, the closest location to South Florida was in Stuart, an hour-and-a-half drive from Pembroke Pines.

‘A very serious public health issue’

“This is a very serious public health issue,” Oyen said. “Eleven workshops since 2012 equates to less than three workshops per year in our huge state. Is anyone starting to get the picture that the DEP does not want anyone to know of their toxic intentions?”

Oyen took her complaints to U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham and State Sens. Kristin Jacobs and Eleanor Sobel, all of whom recently wrote letters to DEP officials expressing their concerns about the lack of public involvement and increasing the caps on toxic chemicals.

“FDEP should maximize the opportunity to maintain higher levels of protection through more stringent regulations of chemical compounds released into our environment,” Jacobs wrote DEP Manager Eric Shaw on June 6. “I urge the Department to select the method which will offer the most protection for both Florida residents and our precious resources.”

Three days later, Graham weighed in. “Contamination of our waters threatens the health of our communities, our economy and our environment,” the congresswoman wrote DEP Secretary Jon Stevenson. “I urge you to give these concerns your full and timely consideration and to reconsider any proposal that would weaken Florida’s water quality standards.”

On June 13, Sobel suggested to Shaw that the DEP should hold more public workshops. “While we can debate the issue of the water quality standards themselves, I am also concerned about the process through which the public was notified regarding the workshops,” Sobel said. “I am aware of only three workshops held across the state this year addressing this issue with the nearest location being Martin County … This is completely unacceptable.”

However, Miller was noncommittal about allowing for more public discussion. “DEP is now considering all comments and will update its proposed rules as necessary,” Miller said. “If substantial changes occur, another round of public workshops will be held.”

Environmentalists blow whistle on state proposal to allow more toxins in state waters

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Photo: Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Florida’s rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters face a dramatic increase in the level of toxic chemicals that cause cancer and other serious illnesses under a proposal by the pro-business administration of Gov. Rick Scott to water down state environmental protections.

That’s the warning from a coalition of activists and scientists about a proposal by Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] to allow corporations to dump higher levels of dangerous contaminants into public waterways than state rules now allow.

“The department is taking us backward,” Florida Clean Water Network founder Linda Young told FloridaBulldog,org. “[The new rules] will make our waters more polluted. It is really bad policy that is of no benefit to the taxpayers and the public.”

The proposal would recalculate the parts per billion limits for 82 toxic chemicals designated as human health hazards. State law allows industrial waste to include these chemicals as long as they are under the limits set by DEP.

State officials, however, flatly reject the environmentalists’ concerns that those higher limits pose a threat to all Floridians.

“Depictions that the Florida Department of Environmental Protection is weakening water quality protection and endangering Floridians is false,” said agency spokeswoman Lori Elliott. “The proposed criteria were based solely on scientifically sound and verifiable information and variables, and are protective of human health even in the most extreme cases.”

The impasse illuminates a long-running battle that environmentalists and preservationists have waged against the administration of Gov. Scott, which recently came under fire over the state’s handling of Lake Okeechobee discharges that sent billions of gallons of toxic polluted rainwater into the Atlantic earlier this year.

Michelle Gale, a former psychologist who lives in Coconut Creek, is an activist for the national anti-fracking organization Food and Water Watch, said Scott has effectively neutered DEP’s enforcement powers. “Since Gov. Scott got into office, he has really gutted DEP,” Gale said. “He has put in people who do his bidding. We have to keep fighting and fighting them.”

Lauren Schenone, Scott’s deputy press secretary, declined comment.

‘DEP stalling’

The state’s environmental protection department last updated the list of regulated toxic chemicals in 1992. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA] has been doing it more frequently, most recently a year ago,” Young said. “Florida DEP had been stalling.”

Out of 120 toxic chemicals the federal agency recommended regulations for, Florida only has restrictions on 43. Under the new plan, DEP would add 39 more toxic chemicals to the list. The DEP’s Elliott insisted Florida has some of the most stringent regulations in the nation.

“In fact, we are increasing protection by proposing to nearly double the number of regulated chemicals to better protect Floridians and visitors from exposure to contaminants,” Elliott said. “In addition to adding criteria for 39 chemicals that currently have no regulations, DEP is also updating 43 existing criteria to incorporate the latest national science for the protection of public health.”

However, draft language of DEP’s updated Human Health-Based Water Quality Criteria shows the department is raising the caps on a majority of the regulated toxic chemicals that can be released into surface waters. Young said DEP has ignored concerns raised by scientists and activists at three public workshops held in May. The department has until September to finalize the new criteria.

For instance, the current limit for the chemical benzene, a carcinogen that can cause vomiting, convulsions and loss of consciousness to people exposed to high levels, is 1.18 parts per billion. Under DEP’s updated criteria, the cap would be three parts per billion. The federal standard is 1.14 parts per billion.

Some chemicals, like arsenic, would remain at a current level of 10 parts per billion. But that’s still 1,000 times higher than what the federal government recommends as an allowable limit, Young said.

She also noted that DEP’s new rules don’t address several dozen unregulated toxic compounds, including dioxin, a byproduct of pulp and paper mills that has contaminated such places as the Fenholloway River in Taylor County. Short-term exposure to dioxin may result in skin lesions and a breakdown in liver function, while long-term exposure can impair the immune system, the developing nervous system, the endocrine system and reproductive functions, environmentalists say.

“DEP’s approach allows us to take into consideration the characteristics of all Floridians,” Elliott said. “This is a much more sophisticated and comprehensive analytical method that allows us to generate criteria to protect all Floridians including small children and people who eat more seafood than average.”

Young disagreed. “It is not going to protect us,” she said. “They want to justify having the weakest standards as possible.”

Gov. Rick Scott won’t release 2014 tax return or info about his blind trust

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

When Gov. Rick Scott qualified to run for re-election last year, he made public his federal income tax returns for 2010-2012 “in the interest of full and complete public transparency,” according to his lawyer.

Four months later, with Election Day approaching and media inquiries rising, Scott also disclosed his 2013 tax return.

But today, amid news of Scott’s investment in a company that’s seeking to build a controversial, $3-billion natural gas pipeline in north and central Florida, the governor won’t make public his federal income tax return for 2014.

“If he’s provided his income tax returns in the past, it would seem in the spirit of transparency that he should provide it now,” said Ben Wilcox, research director for the nonpartisan government watchdog group Integrity Florida.

The governor’s office also declined a request by FloridaBulldog.org for copies of the federal tax returns filed by the now-closed blind trust that Scott used during his first term to hold his assets outside public scrutiny.

Scott revoked his original blind trust in June 2014 in order to run for re-election, immediately opening a new blind trust into which he rolled over his assets. By state law, public officials do not have access to the tax returns of their active blind trust.

Likewise, the governor’s office would not make public copies of the agreements Scott signed with the trustee of his blind trusts in 2011 and again last year. Those trust agreements control the trustee’s actions. Florida’s “qualified blind trust” law specifically allows the governor to make his trust agreements public, but it does not require him to do so.

“A search of the Executive Office of the Governor’s files produced no documents responsive to your request,” said Savannah Sams of the governor’s Office of Open Government.

In 2013, the Legislature decided that if a public official creates a trust and does not control the interests it holds, his “official actions will not be influenced or appear to be influenced by private considerations.”

BLIND TRUST = IMMUNITY FROM CONFLICTS 

That justification underlines the enactment of Florida’s qualified blind trust statute, which effectively grants immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest to public officials regarding assets they stash in a blind trust.

There is strong evidence, however, that Gov. Scott retains control over his blind trust.

An investigation last year by FloridaBulldog.org found that the state’s blind trust law has been ineffective in keeping Scott from becoming aware of what’s in his trust. Indeed, on several occasions in the last three years Gov. Scott signed paperwork filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that reported in detail on large stock transactions made by his blind trust. Those transactions brought the governor tens millions of dollars.

Alan Bazaar, CEO of Hollow Brook Wealth Management

Alan Bazaar, CEO of Hollow Brook Wealth Management

Further, the governor has described his trustee, New York’s Hollow Brook Wealth Management, as “independent,” yet the firm’s chief executive officer is longtime Scott crony and former employee Alan Bazaar. Also at Hollow Brook: Cathy Gellatly, Scott’s former corporate accountant at Richard L. Scott Investments.

Bazaar signed paperwork in 2011 and again last year certifying the blind trusts met the requirements of Florida law and were independent of the governor. His certifications, however, were not made under oath and were not notarized, offering the public little assurance or recourse.

When Scott revoked his original blind trust last year while qualifying to run again for governor, he made public a lengthy list of his assets. The maneuver served to insulate Scott from criticism about financial transparency during his successful re-election campaign against Charlie Crist, but it also revealed that since 2011 Scott had placed a large personal bet on the natural gas industry.

One of Scott’s investments was in Texas-based Spectra Energy, which wants to build Sabal Trail, a controversial 474-mile underground pipeline designed to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in central Florida near Orlando, in partnership with Florida Power & Light. Scott reported owning $108,000 in shares of Spectra and its affiliate DCP Midstream Partners.

Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies.

Gov. Scott’s stake in Spectra wasn’t publicly known in 2013 when he signed into law a pair of bills designed to speed up permitting for the pipeline project, or when the state Public Service Commission – whose members he appointed – unanimously approved its construction.

In July, the Department of Environmental Protection announced it intended to award both a permit and underwater drilling rights for the project to Sabal Trail Transmission LLC. An environmental group challenging that decision has accused the governor of a conflict of interest. A state administrative judge is considering the matter.

Judge: Pipeline foes can’t raise Gov. Scott’s alleged conflict of interest

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org pipebury

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.

Pipeline company to judge: Evidence of Gov. Scott’s investment in us ‘irrelevant’

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Lawyers for a company that wants to build a natural gas pipeline in north Florida have told a judge that environmental opponents should be blocked from “presenting evidence or argument” about Gov. Rick Scott’s financial interest in the company.

“Such evidence is irrelevant and the admission of which would be unfairly prejudicial,” attorneys for Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC told Administrative Law Judge Bram D.E. Canter in last week’s filing.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is backing the $3 billion Sabal Trail pipeline, filed a similar argument earlier this month when it called the “allegation regarding a conflict of interest…not material to this proceeding.”

Sabal Trail is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners and Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy. Spectra Energy’s investors have included Gov. Scott.

The nonprofit WWALS Watershed Coalition filed for an administrative hearing on September 3 after state regulators said they intended to award Sabal Trail both a permit and rights to drill under riverbeds in order to build the 267-mile stretch of 36-inch underground pipeline in Florida. WWALS has asked the judge to deny the permit.

Among the documents WWALS has asked the DEP to produce are all communications from Scott or his executive office about the Sabal Trail project since the governor took office.

WWALS Watershed Coalition logo

WWALS Watershed Coalition logo

The case is proceeding quickly. On September 21, Sabal Trail’s attorneys at the Tallahassee law firm Hopping Green & Sams invoked a law that Scott signed in May 2013 that speeds up the permitting process for the construction of interstate natural gas pipelines.

Under the law, challenges to new pipelines must be heard within 30 days “regardless of whether the parties agree to the summary proceedings.” Before Scott signed the law, natural gas pipelines were specifically excluded from consideration for expedited review.

The bill (HB 999) that ultimately amended the law to include expedited review for natural gas pipelines was introduced by then State Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Pensacola.and overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature. Last October, Republican Scott appointed the term-limited Patronis to Florida’s Public Service Commission.

HEARING NEXT MONTH

Judge Canter has set a hearing on Sabal Trail, which is to run a total of 474 miles from Alabama and Georgia to a hub south of Orlando, for Oct. 19-22 in either Jasper or Live Oak. Click here to view documents filed in the case, 15-004975.

The issuance of a Florida environmental resources permit would be a key step toward construction of the pipeline. But it is not the only remaining hurdle.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the Sabal Trail proposal and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC’s decision is expected by the end of the year.

FERC’s first public hearing in Florida is 5:30 p.m. Thursday, October 1, at Columbia High School Auditorium, 469 SE Fighting Tiger Drive in Lake City.

WWALS’s petition contends the pipeline poses threats to native wildlife, including threatened species, and argues that proposed drilling into the area’s karst limestone to lay pipe could cause new sinkholes to form.

The group, an affiliate of the Waterkeeper Alliance, also raises a potentially explosive political issue: Whether Gov. Scott, as a trustee of the state board that owns the land beneath the rivers, has a conflict of interest due to his investments in Spectra Energy and Williams Company, owner of the Transco pipeline from which Sabal Trail plans to obtain its gas.

“The governor and other public officials are prohibited by state ethics laws from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies,” the group’s petition says.

The governor’s blind trust is supposed to shield him, and the public, from conflicts of interest by putting his investments under the control of an independent trustee, and keeping them secret. Public officers who put their assets in a qualified blind trust receive immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest.

As FloridaBulldog.org has reported, however, Scott’s trustee is Hollow Brook Wealth Management, run by his longtime business crony Alan Baazar. The blind trust also has proved ineffective in preventing public disclosure of Scott’s assets.

Moreover, Florida’s qualified blind trust law, which Scott signed into law in May 2013, does not contemplate the unique situation that has transpired as Scott has used the law.

SCOTT’S BIG INVESTMENT IN NATURAL GAS

Scott created his original blind trust in 2011. Last year, while qualifying to run for re-election, he dissolved that trust, disclosed a lengthy list of his assets, opened a new blind trust and immediately stashed his assets into it.

The asset list revealed that during Scott’s first term the governor acquired substantial investments in the natural gas industry. His holdings, first reported by FloridaBulldog.org in July 2014, included stock in Spectra Energy, majority owner of Sabal Trail Transmission; Williams and more than two-dozen other entities that produce and/or transport natural gas, including some with substantial Florida operations.

Scott’s investments in Spectra and Williams also gave him a financial interest in the Gulfstream pipeline that runs from Alabama to Tampa Bay under the Gulf of Mexico. Those companies and their limited partnerships jointly own and operate Palmetto-based Gulfstream Natural Gas System, LLC.

Scott, too, reported owning a bigger stake in giant Energy Transfer, the publicly traded master limited partnership whose subsidiaries include a joint venture that owns Florida Gas Transmission, Florida’s other major natural gas pipeline that runs from Texas through the Florida peninsula to Miami-Dade.

Scott also invested in Boardwalk Pipeline Partners (BWP), a master limited partnership that wholly-owns Gulf South Pipeline Co. Gulf South operates pipelines in Florida’s Panhandle.

Scott has declined to be interviewed about the matter, but his staff has said the governor has no conflicts of interest because he has no knowledge of the current contents of the blind trust that are under the control of trustee Hollow Brook Wealth Management and Alan Baazar.

Pipeline foes ask DEP to deny key permit; Cite ‘conflict of interest’ by Gov. Scott

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Opponents of a proposed natural gas pipeline in North Florida are asking Florida regulators to reject the project, citing both dangers to the environment and a “conflict of interest” by the regulators’ boss, Gov. Rick Scott.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced in July its intention to award a crucial environmental permit and rights to drill beneath riverbeds that would allow Houston-based Spectra Energy (NYSE:SE) to construct the controversial, $3-billion Sabal Trail Transmission.

State records show Spectra Energy’s investors have included Gov. Scott.

On Friday, the nonprofit WWALS Watershed Coalition, an affiliate of the Waterkeeper Alliance, filed an amended petition asking the DEP to deny the permit or “at the very least” re-route the underground pipeline to avoid “the sensitive karst terrain that underlies north central Florida…especially drilling under the Withlacoochee, Suwannee and Santa Fe rivers.”

“The risk is not just to these waters…it is to the entire State of Florida whose growing population relies on the Floridan aquifer for much of its drinking water,” says the 34-page petition filed by WWALS president John S. Quarterman. The Floridan aquifer underlies all of Florida and parts of Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

Spectra Energy spokeswoman Andrea Grover, however, noted that DEP’s notice of intent to issue the permit followed nearly a year of discussions and review. “The permit requires full mitigation of all wetland impacts and protects water quality,” she said.

deplogoIf accepted as legally sufficient by DEP, the petition would put the brakes on the department’s plans to issue the permit and trigger an administrative hearing before any permit could be awarded. A DEP spokeswoman said Monday that the department’s lawyers are reviewing the petition.

The 474-mile Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy Partners and Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy. It is intended to supply fracked natural gas to fuel a new generation of gas-fired power plants across the state, including Port Everglades.

Sabal Trail is to run across Alabama and through southern Georgia where it will enter Florida in d County. The Florida leg, 257 miles long, will push south through a dozen counties to a hub in central Florida south of Orlando. Along the way, the pipeline would be installed beneath several rivers.

‘REASONABLE ASSURANCE’

In the July 10 notice of intent, DEP Central District Director Jeff Prather wrote that Sabal Trail had provided DEP with “reasonable assurance” that pipeline construction would comply with state laws and rules. Likewise, Prather wrote, the department determined that “construction and operation” of the Sabal Trail pipeline would not violate state water quality standards.

“The applicant has also demonstrated that the construction…is clearly in the public interest,” Prather said.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the Sabal Trail proposal and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC’s decision could come as early as November.

The WWALS petition argues that the project is “clearly not in the public interest of the citizens of Hamilton and Suwannee counties who will be affected…without any benefit whatsoever.”

The petition describes the lands in north Florida along Sabal Trail’s proposed route as a rich habitat for native wildlife – including threatened species like the gopher tortoise and the eastern indigo snake.

The area is honeycombed with sinkholes and sensitive underground springs and caverns at special risk from the proposed, 36-inch natural gas pipeline. Forested lands will be cleared and wetlands filled to make way for the pipeline, substantially reducing wildlife habitat, a plan that is “not acceptable,” the petition says.

Schematic showing cross-section of the proposed HDD crossing of the Withlacoochee River and hypothetical karst features that could result in a hydrofracture (frac-out), significant loss in drilling fluid and potential loss of the borehole. Source: August 2014 report by geologist Robert Brown

Schematic showing cross-section of the proposed HDD crossing of the Withlacoochee River and hypothetical karst features that could result in a hydrofracture (frac-out), significant loss in drilling fluid and potential loss of the borehole. Source: August 2014 report by geologist Robert Brown

Drilling through the area’s karst terrain, formed by the gradual erosion of Florida’s limestone or dolomite rocks, could cause new sinkholes that could cause pipeline failure, property damage or even human injury, the petition says.

More ominously, the petition says the proposed use of Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD) to bore through karst limestone in order to lay underground pipe at river crossings increases the risk of “frac-outs” that happen when a drill bores into an underground spring. The result can be a new sinkhole “resulting in potentially catastrophic effects on spring and river flows and water quality in both rivers and private wells.”

“This month another sinkhole opened just across the state line in Lowndes County, Georgia, threatening to absorb a road, as another did a few years ago,” the petition says. “Such sinkholes can form years after a pipeline is installed, as happened in Assumption Parrish, Louisiana in 2013 when Florida Gas Transmission had to move its pipeline.”

MORE STUDY NEEDED?

The petition calls for more study before such drilling “destroys underground caverns and spring conduits that may cause the extinction” of exotic species living in those caverns and springs.

Further, the petition cited the possibility of a pipeline failure and an explosion that would damage the underground karst terrain and springs and kill designated or threatened species like the alligator snapping turtle, American alligator and Suwannee cooter turtle.

The petition points out that a Spectra Energy pipeline exploded beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. It goes on to note that Spectra has been repeatedly fined by federal regulators in the U.S. and Canada for “failing to properly maintain and repair their pipelines and for failing to clean up contamination” when their pipelines leaked.

“Why is Florida DEP trusting this company with our valuable natural resources?” the petition asks.

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

Spectra Energy presents a different picture.

“Our safety record is better than the industry average,” said spokeswoman Andrea Grover. “Our reportable incidents were approximately half the rate of the industry average during the past five years.”

During the same period, Grover said, Spectra Energy operates about four percent of the nation’s natural gas transmission pipelines, yet received only two percent of the enforcement actions initiated by U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection serves as staff to the Board of Trustees of the Florida Internal Improvement Fund, which owns the submerged lands beneath the rivers where Spectra Energy wants to run the pipeline. The DEP is delegated decision-making authority to issue an easement to allow construction under the Florida Administrative Code.

The WWALS petition says Gov. Scott, in his role as a member of the fund’s board of trustees, has a “conflict of interest” due to his “financial interests in Spectra Energy, the parent company of Sabal Trail Transmissions, as well as in Williams Company, the owner of the Transco pipeline from which Sabal Trail plans to get its gas.

“The governor and other public officials are prohibited by state ethics laws from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies,” the petition says.

In response, Scott’s office issued a statement saying the public is protected from conflicts of interests because his assets are in a blind trust “under the control of an independent financial professional. As such, the governor has no knowledge of anything that is bought, sold or changed in the trust.”

As FloridaBulldog.org has reported, however, the blind trust has not prevented public disclosure of Gov. Scott’s personal stock holdings. On June 25, for example, Scott and the trust reported to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission that Scott had sold 122,653 shares of Argan (NYSE:AGX) earlier that month for $4.87 million. Argan’s Gemma Power Systems subsidiary builds and operates power plants in Florida and elsewhere.

In March 2014, the Bulldog also reported that longtime Scott crony Alan Bazaar runs Hollow Brook Wealth Management, the trustee. Bazaar, who also manages another large Scott trust and family partnership, was a principal and a portfolio manager at the governor’s Naples-based investment firm for nearly 11 years before Scott ran for office.

Pipeline company with tie to Gov. Scott, and state backing, has history of accidents

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

With the Clinton Presidential Center in the foreground, this photo shows a Spectra Energy pipeline blowout beneath the Arkansas River in Little Rock on May 31. Photo Courtesy: Tony Cassady

Spectra Energy, the company that state environmental regulators say should be allowed to construct a 267-mile-long natural gas pipeline in North Florida, has a checkered history of accidents and violations of federal safety rules in the U.S. and Canada dating back decades.

FloridaBulldog.org reported last week that Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection is backing the award of a key environmental permit for the controversial $3-billion Sabal Trail pipeline to a joint venture majority-owned by Houston-based Spectra Energy.

Spectra Energy’s investors have included Gov. Rick Scott. On last year’s financial disclosure form, Scott reported owning a $108,000 stake in Spectra and its affiliate, DCP Midstream Partners. His latest disclosure form, filed in June, no longer details Scott’s securities holdings because he put those assets into a blind trust.

The underground Sabal Trail Transmission is proposed as a nearly 500-mile interstate natural gas pipeline to run from Alabama, through Georgia south to Orange County, south of Orlando. Spectra owns 59.5 percent; Florida Power & Light parent NextEra Energy owns 33 percent; and Duke Energy, which spun off its natural gas business to form Spectra in 2007, recently paid $225 million for a 7.5 percent stake.

Federal and state election records show that FP&L, Duke Energy and their affiliates together have contributed $1.4 million to Let’s Get to Work, the political committee branded with Scott’s campaign slogan. They also gave a total of $5.8 million to the Republican Governors Association in 2013-14, which in turn contributed $18.3 million to Let’s Get to Work last year.

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

Spectra Energy operates approximately 22,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in North America. U.S. and Canadian agency files detail the company’s problematic safety record.

From 2006 to date, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration recorded 25 incidents that caused more than $12 million in property damage along Spectra’s main line – the 9,000-mile Texas Eastern Transmission that connects Texas and the Gulf Coast with big urban markets in the Northeast. The causes ranged from equipment failure and incorrect operations to pipe corrosion.

The agency found numerous federal rules violations during the same period and slapped Spectra with a total of $400,000 in fines – not counting another $59,000 proposed penalty for failing to construct a pipeline in Pennsylvania in accordance with written specifications.

Spectra’s press office did not respond to detailed requests for comment made over two days.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection issued its July 10 notice of intent to issue the permit and easement for Sabal Trail without a public hearing. The WWALS Watershed Coalition, a Georgia based nonprofit and environmental advocate, filed an objection to the permit last week and the department is considering its response.

Was Spectra’s safety record considered in DEP’s decision?

“The department assesses a permit application based on Florida statutes and rules to ensure that all aspects of the proposed operation follow Florida law and are protective of the environment and human health and safety,” DEP spokeswoman Lori Elliott said in a Wednesday statement.

A DRAMATIC RUPTURE

Spectra’s most recent pipeline accident was the dramatic rupture of an auxiliary pipe along its Texas Eastern Pipeline in Little Rock, Ark. on May 31. The buried line, which crossed the Arkansas River near the Clinton Presidential Center, was not in use at the time, but contained four million cubic feet of natural gas that exploded with such force that churning water boiled up high into the air across the span of the river. Eyewitness Tony Cassady, who lives nearby, said the gushing waters had settled back somewhat by the time he managed to snap the photo above.

While no one was injured, the blow out resulted in more than $1 million in damages, according to federal records. The cause has not been determined, but an incident report filed by Spectra in June noted that high rains had caused flooding that had washed away soil that once covered the pipeline on the river’s bank.

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy's Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Aerial view of the explosion site of Spectra Energy’s Nig Creek Pipeline in 2012. Photo: Transportation Safety Board of Canada

Another vivid example of the power of out-of-control natural gas occurred June 28, 2012 at the Nig Creek pipeline in British Columbia, operated by Spectra’s wholly owned subsidiary Westcoast Energy. The 16-inch pipeline, which had been shut down that night, was filled with pressurized “sour gas” that exploded when the line ruptured, causing a fire and creating a large crater in a remote forest area in British Columbia. Sour gas contains significant amounts of hydrogen sulfide and is highly toxic.

No one was injured in the blast – the nearest town, population 58, was 25 miles away. The cause was later determined to be a crack in a pipe.

So far in 2015, Canada’s National Energy Board has fined Spectra Energy three times for a total of $122,300 – including $88,000 imposed in January after inspectors found violations with “the potential to significantly impact worker safety and infrastructure” at Spectra’s Dawson Creek Gas Plant, also in British Columbia.

Just last month, the board also ordered Spectra to fix “management system failures” at its Westcoast Energy gas processing plants and facilities in western Canada after inspectors uncovered 27 safety issues between April 1, 2014 and June 26, 2015.

“The board expects Westcoast to address safety concerns on a systemic basis,” says the July 14 safety order. “Based on recent violations described below, the board is not confident safety concerns are being addressed in this manner.”

Back in the U.S., Spectra owns or co-owns eight natural gas pipelines, including the 745-mile Gulfstream Natural Gas, which runs beneath the Gulf of Mexico from lower Mississippi and Alabama to Tampa Bay. All but two of those pipelines – Gulfstream and the 67-mile Big Sandy pipeline in eastern Kentucky – have reported at least one incident since 2006.

Spectra Energy's pipelines

Spectra Energy’s pipelines

In 2014, the U.S. pipeline administration investigated a frightening episode in Searsmont, Maine involving the Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline, a joint venture of Spectra, Emera and ExxonMobil. The 684-mile pipeline transports natural gas from offshore Nova Scotia to markets in the northeast U.S.

The event happened at a pipeline compressor station, which helps move gas through a pipeline by keeping it under sufficient pressure, shortly before midnight on Dec. 31, 2013. Neighbors told a Bangor Daily News reporter they heard a roaring noise that was so loud it caused nearby homes to shake and some residents to flee.

“TERRIFYING EXPERIENCE”

“It was absolutely the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had,” Susan Totman told the newspaper.

Federal pipeline regulators said the noise, which lasted more than a half-hour, was caused by the release of gas jetting from a valve in an emergency shutdown system that was unintentionally opened. About 70 million cubic yards of gas were released, says an agency report on the incident.

The pipeline operator was later found to have violated federal regulations by failing to timely inform them of the accident. Last month, on July 24, regulators imposed a $34,500 fine that company officials did not contest.

Other Spectra pipelines have had problems, too.

Agency records list three incidents in 2010 involving equipment failure and excavation damage along Spectra’s East Tennessee pipeline that caused $238,000 in property damage. In 2013, the company received a warning letter after inspectors found four probable safety violations.

Spectra’s Southeast Supply Header is a 286-mile pipeline that funnels natural gas through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to the Gulfstream pipeline and on to Florida. Records show that a construction-related equipment failure near Hazlehurst, Miss. in January 2010 caused $562,000 in property damage and led to $200,000 in safety violation fines.

But Spectra’s longest and most troubled pipeline is the Texas Eastern Transmission.

In 1989, Spectra and its Texas Eastern limited partnership paid a $15 million fine and entered into a consent decree with the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl) contamination at numerous cites along the pipeline in 14 states.

Texas Eastern had used the banned substance and suspected carcinogen in its compressors as a fire retardant, and over time it had leaked into the pipeline system. The $500 million PCB cleanup cost included the assessment of 462 sites for contamination, installing 707 groundwater monitoring wells and removing and disposing of 600,000 tons of contaminated soil, the EPA said in a 2002 announcement that the cleanup had been completed.

Texas Eastern also paid Pennsylvania $218.6 million in penalties and costs to clean up 19 sites in that state where PCBs were dumped.

In 1994, a buried Texas Eastern pipeline in Edison, N.J. ruptured and ignited “sending flames several hundred feet in the air,” according to a National Transportation Safety Board report. Heat from the burning gas set fire to an apartment complex more than 100 yards away, destroying several buildings.

Dozens of people were injured and more than 100 families were left homeless, but there were no fatalities. Damage was estimated at $25 million. The probable cause of the rupture: mechanical damage to the pipe that created a crack that metal fatigue caused to grow to critical size.

Gov. Scott’s pipeline investment gets a boost from Florida environmental regulators

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott

State regulators are quietly backing the award of a crucial environmental permit to a company that wants to build a controversial $3-billion natural gas pipeline in North Florida. The company’s investors have included Gov. Rick Scott.

Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), overseen by the governor, published a notice of its intent to issue an Environmental Resources Permit to Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, a joint venture of Houston-based Spectra Energy and Florida Power & Light parent, NextEra Energy.

The July 10 notice also says the DEP intends to grant an easement that would allow Sabal Trail to use “submerged state lands” to help construct the pipeline. Some of those lands are beneath the Suwannee, Santa Fe and Withlacoochee rivers, where the 36-inch pipeline would be buried.

The Board of Trustees of Florida’s Internal Improvement Trust Fund owns the submerged lands, according to DEP’s notice. The board is comprised of the governor and Cabinet – Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and state chief financial officer Jeff Atwater.

FPL selected Spectra Energy to build and operate Sabal Trail in July 2013.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in July 2014 that Gov. Scott owned a $53,000 stake in Spectra Energy, and a $55,000 stake in DCP Midstream Partners, a natural gas limited partnership 50 percent owned by Spectra Energy. As detailed in a state financial disclosure form, the governor’s portfolio included several million dollars invested in the securities of more than two-dozen entities that produce and/or transport natural gas, including several, like Spectra, with substantial Florida operations.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST PROHIBITIONS

The governor and other public officials in Florida are generally prohibited by state ethics laws from owning stock in businesses subject to their regulation or that do business with state agencies. The law also prohibits them from having an interest in companies that would “create a continuing or frequently recurring conflict” between their private interests and the “full and faithful discharge” of their public duties.

Sabal Trail pipeline project map

Sabal Trail pipeline project map

As described in paperwork released by the department, issuance of the environmental permit would constitute certification that the pipeline project is in compliance with state water quality standards and consistent with Florida’s Coastal Zone Management Program.

DEP says it will issue the permit and easement unless an affected party files a petition seeking an administrative hearing by Friday, August 7. A spokesman for one environmental group, the Georgia-based WWALS Watershed Coalition, said it intends to file a petition by the deadline.

The Sabal Trail Transmission is proposed as a 474-mile natural gas pipeline to run from Alabama and Georgia to a hub in Central Florida, south of Orlando. The Florida leg, 257 miles long, will traverse a dozen counties in north Florida.

Florida Power & Light intends to use the pipeline as a dedicated supply of fracked natural gas to fuel a new generation of gas-fired power plants in locations that include Port Everglades.

According to the DEP, the project will affect 408 acres of wetlands and other surface waters. The notice says some wetland vegetation should re-establish fairly quickly, but “forested areas may take 2-50+ years to re-establish to pre-construction conditions.”

Sabal Trail applied for the permit, water quality certification and authorization to use the sovereign submerged lands on July 31, 2014.

PIPELINE ‘CLEARLY IN THE PUBLIC INTEREST’

“The department has determined…the applicant has provided reasonable assurance that the construction, including the direct, secondary and cumulative impacts, will comply with” state laws and rules, says the notice signed by Jeff Prather, director of the DEP’s central district. “The applicant has also demonstrated that the construction…is clearly in the public interest.”

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is the lead federal agency responsible for reviewing the project and preparing an environmental impact statement. FERC has accepted public comments in its ongoing review of the project. A decision could come as early as November.

Gov. Scott was heavily involved in the state’s early backing of the Sabal Trail pipeline project. In May and June 2013, he signed into law a pair of bills intended to speed up permitting. Later that year, his appointees on the Florida Public Service Commission approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline.

At the time, however, Scott’s ownership interest in Spectra Energy was not publicly known. Like tens of millions of dollars of the governor’s other assets, his Spectra shares were placed in a Florida blind trust.

Blind trusts are supposed to eliminate conflicts of interest by “blinding” public officials and the public to their specific assets. And a spokesman for Scott said the governor “had no knowledge of his Spectra investment because his decision to invest was made by a trustee of the blind trust.”

But Scott’s trustee wasn’t a disinterested manager. It was Hollow Brook Wealth Management and chief executive Alan Bazaar, a trusted former employee of the governor’s private investment firm, Richard L. Scott Investments.

Scott lifted the veil on his assets briefly in June 2014 after he closed his original blind trust and immediately opened a new one and placed all of his assets back into it. The maneuver served to insulate the governor from criticism about financial transparency in advance of last year’s election, but it also revealed the governor’s large personal bet on natural gas firms like Spectra and Energy Transfer Equity LP, entities with significant pipeline interests in Florida.

Energy Transfer’s subsidiaries include a joint venture that owns Florida Gas Transmission, the state’s largest natural gas pipeline and a major state vendor. Scott also has a financial interest in Florida’s other major natural gas pipeline Gulfstream, through his investments in Spectra and the large pipeline operator Williams Cos.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Energy Transfer Equity LP, run by Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren, is pursuing a multi-billion dollar deal to acquire Williams.

In his most recent financial disclosure, Scott valued his units of Energy Transfer as worth $311,000 on Dec. 31 2013. He also reported a $400,000 stake in a pair of entities owned by Energy Transfer, Regency Energy Partners LP and PVR Partners LP.

Energy Transfer boss Warren has been a big political supporter or Gov. Scott. In Nov. 2013, two days after former Gov. Charlie Crist filed to run against Scott, Warren contributed $50,000 to Let’s Get to Work, a political committee backing Scott. In March 2012, an Energy Transfer subsidiary gave $25,000 to Let’s Get to Work.

On Sunday, The New York Times ranked Warren third among those who have given the most money in the 2016 presidential race. Warren’s $6 million in contributions all supported former Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry.

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