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Gas pipeline slated to supply FPL’s plants faces opposition

A proposed $3.5 billion natural gas pipeline is either essential to Florida’s energy future or a looming disaster that has the potential to damage the iconic Suwannee River and the state’s fragile limestone Floridan Aquifer on its way to Palm Beach County and the Treasure Coast.

Those are some of the opposing viewpoints surrounding the Sabal Trail, Florida Southeast Connection and Hillabee Expansion Project. Combined, the projects involve the construction and operation of over 650 miles of natural gas transmission pipeline and related facilities such as five massive compressor stations in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

In recent months, concerns have been raised about the safety record of Spectra Energy, a Houston-based company in a joint venture Juno Beach-based NextEra Energy to develop the pipeline. NextEra is the parent company of Florida Power & Light Co.

On top of that, the Southern Natural Gas Co., owned by the energy company Kinder Morgan, says that Sabal Trail’s plan to crisscross its pipeline in 47 places is excessive and unnecessary.

“The significant number of crossings continues to raise concerns of safety risks during construction and during continued operations of both the Sabal Trail and Southern pipelines,” Southern Natural Gas Co.’s attorney Margaret Coffman said in a July 24 filing with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The company is seeking a technical conference with FERC, said Kinder Morgan spokesman Richard Wheatley said last week.

The 36-inch pipeline, if approved by the FERC and other agencies, would be Florida’s third major pipeline. It would carry as much as 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.

The pipeline is slated to begin providing fuel for FPL’s Riviera Beach, Martin County and Port Everglades plants by May 2017. The project is winding its way through the complex approval process.

In May Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility, bought a 7.5 percent ownership stake from Spectra. That leaves NextEra with 33 percent and Spectra with 59.5 percent. Like officials at NextEra and FPL, Duke Energy’s vice president of commercial transmission said Sabal Trail is essential to meet the increasing energy needs of Florida’s growing population and economy.

In 2006 Spectra was formed when Duke Energy spun off its natural gas business in the U.S. and Canada.

In July the project reached a milestone as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection said it intends to issue an environmental resource permit for the pipeline that will allow the use of submerged lands.

On Aug. 7, the WWALS Watershed Coalition, a grassroots organization active in Georgia and northern Florida, filed a petition asking DEP for an administrative hearing about the permit it wants DEP to deny. The residents assert the project has the potential to damage the Withlacoochee and Suwannee rivers, lead to the formation of new sinkholes which could potentially result in pipeline failure and altered underground water flow.

DEP’s notice states that construction will impact more than 400 acres of wetlands and that restoring the wetlands could take from two to 50 years, but it found the project to be in the public interest.

“Why should we accept any risk when the pipeline is completely unnecessary?” said John Quarterman, the coalition’s president. It advocates for the conservation of the Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, Little and Upper Suwannee River watersheds in south Georgia and North Florida.

“A few years ago FPL said it would need 17 percent more energy, then brought it down to 13 percent. A little bit of energy efficiency and conservation would make it unnecessary to add any power,” Quarterman said.

Spectra spokeswoman Andrea Grover said Sabal Trail has been in discussions with DEP for almost a year and conducted civil and environmental survey work, including looking for threatened and endangered species and taking into account water body crossings and wetlands and minimizing those impacts.

The permit will require mitigation for wetlands and water quality to minimize those impacts.

FPL spokeswoman Sarah Gatewood said that without increasing Florida’s natural gas pipeline capacity in the near future, there will not be enough capacity to meet Florida’s growing electricity needs. FPL signed contracts with Sabal Trail and Florida Southeast Connection for about 400 million cubic feet a day of capacity beginning in 2017, increasing to 600 million feet per day in 2020.

Other major issues raised by those along the proposed route include concerns about four-story compressor stations the size of small warehouses in their quiet, rural communities.

In comments filed with FERC, hundreds of Albany, Ga. residents, are asking for the pipeline and compressors to be moved outside of their county and the state of Georgia. The residents say the compressors will be noisy and affect air quality as well as property values.

Grover said Spectra has moved the station’s location once to affect fewer landowners, and that FERC has strict standards regarding noise and decibel levels. The company has listened to residents’ concerns at more than 50 meetings along the route.

Residents along the route worry about safety and point to an incident in Maine on Dec. 31, 2013, where a pressure valve blew at a Spectra compressor station, sending gas 100 feet into the air. No injuries were reported.

In the last nine years, the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration noted 25 incidents that resulted in more than $12 million in property damage just along Spectra’s Texas line.

In July Canada’s National Energy Board ordered Spectra’s Westcoast Energy to submit a plan addressing its “management system failures” It has filed Spectra a total of $122,300 for violations that could impact worker safety and infrastructure.

Grover said Spectra’s safety record is better than the industry average. During the past five years, it has received 2 percent of the enforcement actions from the pipeline administration PHMSA and operates 4 percent of the nation’s gas pipelines, based on mileage.

DEP spokeswoman Lori Elliott said the department’s Office of General Counsel is reviewing the petition for sufficiency. Should the petition be deemed sufficient, the petition would be forwarded to the Division of Administrative Hearings for a hearing to be set. The assigned administrative law judge will issue an order setting the dates for the final hearing.

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