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.”

Push to block Sabal Trail gas pipeline looks to enlist U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

By Jake Galvin and Dan Christensen, Florida Bulldog.org 

Sabal Trail pipeline opponents handed out signs and leaflets in Live Oak on April 21. Photo: John S. Quarterman

Sabal Trail pipeline opponents handed out signs and leaflets in Live Oak on April 21. Photo: John S. Quarterman

In an escalating effort to block the controversial Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline, opponents are asking the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to examine allegations that information about potential environmental hazards was overlooked during the regulatory process.

“There is significant evidence … of sinkholes, springs and the underground transmission of water for many miles that were not included in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Final Environmental Impact Statement,” said U.S. Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr., D-Ga., in a May 27 letter to the Corps.

FERC is the lead agency to review the $3 billion Sabal Trail project. In February, it approved construction through north Florida’s underlying Karst terrain – areas characterized by sinkholes, caverns, underground streams, springs and similar features – after determining it “would not result in a significant impact on the environment” or “significantly affect public safety.”

“We have found no evidence that Karst hazards such as sinkhole development pose a safety or integrity risk to interstate transmission of pipeline facilities,” says FERC’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Bishop’s letter, citing substantial local opposition to Sabal Trail, urged The Corps to “perform a site inspection to determine the actual proximity of active sinkholes and other features of the aquifer and cave systems to the proposed pipeline route, as well as underground transmissivity for greater distances.”

Bishop expressed additional concern about possible wrongdoing by FERC itself – including a violation of the Clean Water Act by approving the project prior to the issuance of state water quality certifications.

The Army Corps has not responded yet, Bishop’s office said last week.

Sabal Trail filed a 130-page reply to Bishop with the FERC on June 6. The reply contends that Sabal Trail’s examination of environmental risks was thorough, and that “no new information” has been presented that would require an additional site inspection.

“Based on both applicable regulations and the fact that the issues raised in the letter have already been comprehensively addressed, Sabal Trail believes that a supplemental EIS is not required,” says the reply.

Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Spectra Energy, NextEra Energy, parent of Florida Power & Light, and Duke Energy. It wants to build and operate a nearly 500 mile natural gas pipeline to run from from Alabama through southwest Georgia then south to near Orlando. Sabal Trail would create thousands of jobs as well as a new supply route to supply steady flow of fuel for a new generation of natural gas-fired power plants.

Gov. Scott owned stock in Sabal Trail builder

FloridaBulldog.org previously has reported that Florida Gov. Rick Scott has been both a key Sabal Trail backer and a stockholder in the project’s majority owner, Spectra Energy.

In 2013, Scott signed into law a pair of bills designed to speed up permitting for the project. Later that same year, the Scott-appointed Florida Public Service Commission unanimously approved construction of Sabal Trail as the state’s third major natural gas pipeline.

The Suwannee River in Live Oak. Photo: Jake Galvin

The Suwannee River in Live Oak. Photo: Jake Galvin

In 2015, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which reports to Scott, decided that Sabal Trail had provided “reasonable assurance” that construction would comply with state law, that state water quality standards would not be violated and that the project was “clearly in the public interest.”

In Georgia, however, Sabal Trail has met resistance.

In March, the Georgia House quashed a measure to grant Sabal Trail necessary easements to drill underneath state rivers, effectively stopping any construction of the pipeline until after the Legislature reconvenes in January. At the local level, several counties and cities where the pipeline is to run have passed resolutions against Sabal Trail.

Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC aims to provide an estimated 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to Florida markets that it says will lower energy costs to consumers. Yet pipeline opponents say they fear potential damage should construction damage fragile geologic structures that facilitate the movement of groundwater or a ruptured pipeline due to new sinkhole formation.

The WWALS Watershed Coalition, whose name is an acronym for the watersheds of the Withlachoochee, Willacooche, Alapaha, Little and Upper Suwannee rivers, has spearheaded environmental opposition to Sabal Trail.

Geologist and WWALS member Dennis Price said that during the permitting process he submitted a report on FERC that flatly contradicted Sabal Trail’s assertion that there are no sinkholes within 750 ft. of their proposed pipeline.

According to Price, however, there are literally thousands of sinkholes all along Sabal Trail’s proposed route through north Florida.

“Many, many sinkholes occur in retention basins throughout the karst regions of Florida. These occur in shallow excavations as well as deep excavations,” Price said in an interview. “Our worry is that excavation for pipe lying across the Falmouth cave system and the boring depth under US (Route) 90 will result in collapse into the cave system. ”

WWALS President John S. Quarterman said sinkholes could be devastating to a pipeline during construction or long after. “The sinkholes may form when they’re constructing it or maybe after a month, or two, or maybe a year. It’s just a matter of time.”

Rep. Yoho says Sabal Trail is safe

Sabal Trail is proposed to run through five counties that Congressman Bishop represents. It would also run through an adjacent district to the south represented by U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Gainesville.

While a trio of north Florida counties – Hamilton, Suwannee, and Marion – sent letters to the Army Corps requesting a site visit and a supplemental environmental impact statement, Yoho believes Sabal Trail is safe and should move forward.

“Once completed, this project will help fulfill the future requirements of Florida’s growing energy needs for years to come while protecting our sensitive environment,” he said in a prepared statement written after he took part last month in a WWALs hosted hike.

Yoho, however, did not respond to requests for additional comment.

Another hiker, farm owner David Shields, lives about a quarter of a mile from a proposed pipeline compressor station. Such stations pressurize natural gas at intervals along the route to keep it flowing through the pipeline. Shields said he was concerned about what he’s read about compressor station safety and sinkholes in Sabal Trail’s report to the FERC.

“I wish someone would care more about my bottom line as a homeowner and a business owner, rather than this company that’s not from Florida,” he said.

Recent safety problems at Spectra Energy properties elsewhere have given Shields and others cause for concern.

On April 29, a Spectra Energy pipeline exploded in Salem Township, Pennsylvania, incinerating a house and sending a man to the hospital with third-degree burns. The explosion forced a rerouting of natural gas deliveries in the eastern United States and raised natural gas prices.

One year earlier, Spectra’s Texas Eastern Transmission pipeline exploded spectacularly under the Arkansas River in Little Rock.

“Its all been eye opening.,” said Shields. “You see movies and documentaries but now, for me, its real. Just the other day my children were playing in the field… within minutes I could lose everything.”

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.

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