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 undisclosed interest – via First Lady – in Zika mosquito control company

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

Gov. Rick Scott and First Lady Ann Scott

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has an undisclosed financial interest in a Zika mosquito control company in which his wife, Florida First Lady Ann Scott, owns a multi-million dollar stake through a private investment firm she co-owns.

The company is Mosquito Control Services LLC of Metairie, LA. According to its web site, MCS “is a fully-certified team of mosquito control experts – licensed throughout the Gulf Coast, including Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.”

On June 23, Gov. Scott signed an executive order allocating $26.2 million in state emergency funds for Zika preparedness, including “mosquito surveillance and abatement, training for mosquito control technicians and enhanced laboratory capacity.”

It is not known whether MCS, whose services include monitoring and aerial spraying, stands to benefit from Florida government funds. Company manager Steven Pavlovich holds an active Florida “public health applicator” license with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services through April 2019, but MCS is not a registered state vendor. The Department of Health contracts with two other two mosquito control vendors.

MCS did not respond to two requests for comment.

Ann Scott’s large stake in MCS is via G. Scott Capital Partners, an investment firm that boasts $291 million of client assets. The firm manages several private equity funds and various “family accounts primarily comprised of trusts and family entities,” according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission records.

The Florida Bulldog reported in 2014 that Scott Capital, as it is known online, is operated by a trio of men who once worked at Richard L. Scott Investments, the private equity firm where Gov. Scott made millions for himself and his family putting together big-money investment deals when he was in the private sector.

Scott Capital posts its portfolio online. All nine listed companies are current and former investments of the governor and/or Mrs. Scott, including Mosquito Control Services, described as providing “mosquito abatement services primarily to municipalities.”

The SEC requires investment companies like G. Scott Capital Partners to file periodic disclosure reports. The firm’s most recent report, filed in March, shows that the three-employee, Connecticut-based firm caters to a handful of high net worth individuals – less than 25 – who invest directly and through various pooled investment funds.

A mosquito control investment

The firm’s latest fund is GS MCS, LLC, a Delaware company formed two years ago this month to recapitalize and take control of Mosquito Control Services. The current value of the fund is just under $10 million and the fund has nine beneficial owners, SEC records say. The owners’ names were not disclosed.

The managing director of G. Scott Capital Partners is Gregory D. Scott – no relation to Gov. Scott. He directs the firm’s investments, as he did when he led the private equity group at Richard L. Scott Investments from 2000 to 2012.

A screenshot from the web site of Mosquito Control Services LLC.

A screenshot from the web site of Mosquito Control Services LLC.

Gregory Scott owns 50 to 75 percent of the Delaware holding company that owns 100 percent of G. Scott Capital, according to the SEC. The First Lady owns the rest through the Frances Annette Scott Revocable Trust, which owns Tally 1, a Delaware company that in turn owns 25 to 50 percent of G. Scott Holdings LLC.

Gregory Scott has described Ann Scott, an interior decorator and owner of AS Interiors LLC, as a “passive investor” in G. Scott Capital.

Gov. Scott has not disclosed his ownership interest in his wife’s investments. Florida law, unlike federal law, does not require state public officers to disclose the assets or income of a spouse or minor child.

The governor’s office on Tuesday declined to discuss the matter or make Gov. Scott or the First Lady available for an interview.

The Republican governor, a multimillionaire, puts his personal investments in a “qualified blind trust” that his office has described as being overseen by “an independent financial professional.” Florida public officers who use such a trust to “blind” themselves to the nature of their holdings get in exchange immunity from prohibited conflicts of interest under a law that Gov. Scott signed in 2013.

FloridaBulldog.org has reported, however, that the person overseeing Gov. Scott’s trust is yet another former employee at Richard L. Scott Investments and that the trust has been ineffective in keeping the governor’s assets secret.

When Gov. Scott opened his current blind trust in 2014 – the second of his administration – he was required to disclose the assets he put into it. His current mix of assets is not known, but the Florida Bulldog reported last year that the blind trust has in the past coordinated stock transactions with the First Lady’s trust a family partnership.

The Solantic transfer

When Gov. Scott took office in 2011, he transferred tens of millions of dollars in assets to his wife, including a $62-million investment in the walk-in clinic chain Solantic. Mrs. Scott reportedly sold the family’s stake in Solantic that same year.

Gov. Scott’s transfer of his Solantic shares came amid an uproar about perceived conflicts of interest. Florida ethics laws generally prohibit public officials from having an ownership interest in companies that do business with the state or are subject to state regulation.

In 2013, Gov. Scott had an undisclosed ownership stake in Houston-based Spectra Energy when Florida’s Public Service Commission – five members appointed by Gov. Scott – unanimously approved construction of the controversial $3-billion Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline by a joint venture of Spectra and NextEra Energy, parent of Florida Power & Light.

The governor’s investment in Spectra became known about a year later when he filed a lengthy list of his assets as of Dec. 31, 2013 when he closed his original blind trust and opened a new one while qualifying to run for re-election.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in July 2014 that Gov. Scott’s list included 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.

The governor’s investments included numerous other oil and gas assets, including a $712,000 stake in Texas-based Energy Transfer and its affiliates and subsidiaries. Through other subsidiaries, giant Energy Transfer owns a 50 percent interest in the Florida Gas Transmission pipeline, which delivers nearly 65 percent of the natural gas consumed in Florida.

Gov. Scott has had other conflicting investments.

FloridaBulldog.org reported in February that in 2012 Scott owned a $210,000 stake in the private equity firm that owned 21st Century Oncology when the all-Republican governing board of taxpayer-supported Broward Health awarded the company an unprecedented 25-year, no-bid contract to supply radiation oncology services. The governor appoints Broward Health’s board members.

A Scott spokeswoman has said the governor wasn’t aware that 21st Century had sought the Broward Health contract prior to its award in January 2012 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.

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.”

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.

You don’t need X-ray vision to see through Gov. Rick Scott’s blind trust

By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org 

Gov. Rick Scott, right, and blind trust executive Alan Bazaar

Gov. Rick Scott, right, and blind trust executive Alan Bazaar

Governor Rick Scott keeps his $127.8 million stock portfolio in a blind trust intended, by law, to prevent him from having knowledge or control of his investments and to eliminate conflicts between the governor’s public responsibilities and his private interests.

But Florida’s qualified blind trust statute, a little-noticed part of the large 2013 ethics reform bill signed into law by Scott himself, isn’t doing its job. While veiling the governor’s assets from the public, the blind trust fails to keep him blind to his investments.

There are at least two reasons why: disclosure requirements in federal securities law that can undercut blind trust secrecy, and weak conflict-of-interest rules in Florida that don’t require public officers like the governor to disclose assets they own or control when held in their spouse’s name.

For example, on June 25 Scott and the trustees of his blind trust told 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 is a publicly traded holding company whose Gemma Power Systems subsidiary builds and operates power plants in Florida and elsewhere.

The report filed by Scott and his trustees at New York-based Hollow Brook Wealth Management also disclosed that the governor continued to own 4.2 percent of Argan – or 606,124 shares – worth nearly $23.7 million at Tuesday’s closing stock price of $39.06.

The public report says, “No other person is known to have the right to receive or the power to direct the receipt of dividends from, or the proceeds from the sale of, the shares of common stock that are the subject of this filing.”

This wasn’t the first time Scott made millions on a private stock deal while in office.

In March 2014, FloridaBulldog.org reported that the governor and First Lady Ann Scott recently had collected $17 million selling hundreds of thousands of shares of Argan held by the blind trust and other entities. The story also reported about other large transactions involving several other companies whose stock Scott owned.

Scott’s Argan stock sales included at least 140,000 shares held by the blind trust – then worth $2.5 million – which also retained 523,000 shares. The two other selling entities: the F. Annette Scott Revocable Trust and the Richard L. and F. Annette Scott Family Partnership, in which Scott has acknowledged he was a beneficial owner.

Scott’s June filing does not break down the number of Argan shares sold then by each entity in five trades made June 15-19. But on more than one occasion the blind trust, the first lady’s trust and the family partnership have coordinated transactions – buying or selling large numbers of shares on the same day, at the same price or in similar proportions.

SCOTT ‘HAS NO KNOWLEDGE OR CONTROL’ OF BLIND TRUST

Scott’s office would not elaborate. Spokeswoman Jackie Schutz released a statement Tuesday saying the blind trust is “under the control of an independent financial professional” and that the governor “has no knowledge or control of anything that is bought, sold or changed in the trust.”

Nevertheless, trustee Hollow Brook Wealth Management’s chief executive is Alan Bazaar who worked for Scott from July 1999 to January 2010 as managing director and portfolio manager at Richard L. Scott Investments. Hollow Brook is also an “investment adviser” to the Scott family partnership and the revocable trust in Mrs. Scott’s name.

Further, Scott and Bazaar were partners in a company that in 1999 invested in Cyberguard, a Deerfield Beach computer security firm. The company’s board of directors included then-Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne, who later went to prison for corruption, and Fort Lauderdale lobbyist and Scott confidant William D. Rubin.

To date, Gov. Scott is the only public officer in Florida to use a state qualified blind trust to shield his assets and obtain the safe harbor it provides from prohibited conflicts of interest, according to the Florida Commission on Ethics.

Keeping his securities portfolio in the blind trust means Scott does not have to identify his individual securities on his annual financial disclosure form. Instead, his form describes his biggest single asset as simply “Governor Richard L. Scott 2014 Qualified Blind Trust.”

While the state form does not detail his blind trust holdings, mandatory reports he must make to the SEC about his large stock transactions do. But they aren’t the only way information about Scott’s stock holdings have gone public.

Companies must file reports identifying their biggest shareholders. For example, Argan’s May 16, 2015 report to the SEC in advance of its annual meeting listed Richard L. Scott as a principal stockholder who then owned 965,255 shares, or 6.6 percent of the company.

pipelineGov. Scott also has made public information about the contents of his blind trust.

In June 2014, while qualifying to run for re-election, Scott closed his original blind trust, made public a list of his blind trust assets, then immediately put those assets back into a new blind trust.

The maneuver presented a snapshot of Scott’s stock holdings as of Dec. 31, 2013. Among other things, it revealed Scott was heavily invested in energy companies, including those that control the two existing natural gas pipelines serving Florida.

Also disclosed was Scott’s $108,000 investment in Spectra Energy and its affiliate DCP Midstream Partners.

Spectra is currently seeking regulatory approval to build the $3 billion Sabal Trail Transmission, an approximately 500-mile pipeline to run from Alabama and Georgia into North Florida and south to Orange County. The underground pipeline would supply fuel to the state’s new gas-fired power plants.

The Florida Public Service Commission, whose five members were appointed by Scott, unanimously approved Sabal Trail in the fall of 2013, before Scott’s stake in Spectra was publicly known.

Last month, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it intended to award a key environmental permit and easement for the controversial Sabal Trail project that’s majority-owned by Spectra Energy.

FP&L and Duke Energy, also partners in the project, have contributed $1.4 million to Let’s Get to Work, the political committee branded with Scott’s campaign slogan, according to federal records. They also gave a combined $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.

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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