Protest to target Sabal Trail, other pipelines as Trump departs
It hasn't drawn the same kind of national and global attention as Keystone or Dakota efforts, but the Sabal Trail Pipeline slated to begin transporting natural gas to Florida Power & Light's South Florida plants in June has been fought by environmental groups for the last few years.
And on Sunday, opponents of the 515-mile Alabama-to-Florida $3.2 billion steel pipeline say they will line the West Palm Beach route President Donald Trump's motorcade will take from Mar-a-Lago to Palm Beach International Airport. They will also be carrying signs against the controversial Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines in North Dakota and Nebraska.
The inclusion of the Sabal Trail may seem too late, as, unlike Keystone, the North Florida project is permitted and under construction. Yet it underscores a persistent uneasiness about the "side effects" to natural gas as an energy source. Dakota is expected to be operational no later than June also.
Natural gas emits cleaner emissions in its use to generate electricity. But its foes raise concerns about decidedly not green and economically wasteful impacts: pipelines cutting through pristine forests and waterways, fracking to capture it and even costly hedging and other financial practices.
Michelle Kendall, 49, of Loxahatchee, organizer of an activist group called Indivisible — The Resistance, said she and other protesters plan to gather along a 1.7-mile stretch of Southern Boulevard from the bridge to the airport exit probably around 8 to 11 p.m.
"President Trump commented that the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone Pipeline were not 'controversial', and implied that we, the people, did not care," Kendall said, referring to the president's comments last week. "The U.S. Army has announced that they will allow the [Dakota pipeline] to go forward under Trump's executive order. Here in Florida, we are being threatened by yet another pipeline, the Sabal Trail Pipeline, which would be critically detrimental to our water, lands, and ecology."
Electric utilities say natural gas as a substitute for imported petroleum is a win-win. Natural gas releases cleaner emissions when burned to make electricity. And it's largely a domestic source, lessening dependence on foreign oil.
"Our investment in natural gas-fueled power plants has prevented more than 95 million tons of carbon emissions over that same period and has drastically reduced our use of foreign oil from 40 million gallons a year to less than 1 million gallons a year," FPL spokesman Dave McDermitt said Friday.
But to access it, you need pipelines.
For years, FPL, headquartered in Juno Beach, has sought its own natural gas pipeline to bring the fossil fuel to its power plants, instead of having it transported by the state's two major pipelines. FPL officials have said the new pipeline will enhance reliability and allow for growth.
FPL says natural gas, about 70 percent from fracked sources, and the remainder from offshore, accounts for 71 percent of the fuel it uses to run its power plants.
Sabal Trail is actually a piece of a larger pipeline network.
The project consists of three connected segments collectively called "Southeast Market Pipelines Project": Transco's 45-mile expansion of its line in Alabama, Sabal Trail's 515 miles of new construction in Alabama, Georgia and Florida, and Florida Southeast Connection's 126 miles of new construction in Florida. That last leg of pipeline, owned by FPL parent NextEra Energy, will go to FPL's Indiantown plant and then connect with FPL's existing system.
In about four months, it will bring fuel to FPL's plants in Indiantown, Riviera Beach and Port Everglades, and to a new plant in Okeechobee when it opens in 2019.
"U.S.-produced natural gas is good for the environment and good for Florida consumers," FPL's McDermitt said. "FPL's use of natural gas to generate power has resulted in lower bills for FPL customers, saving $8 billion in fuel costs since 2001."
Sabal Trail Transmission LLC is a joint venture of Houston-based Spectra Energy Corp., NextEra Energy, Inc., and Duke Energy, Charlotte, N.C. Plans call for the pipeline to supply a new Duke Energy Florida plant starting in 2018.
The 685-mile pipeline will have the capacity to deliver approximately 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day to the Southeast U.S. market, supplying natural gas-fired power plants, natural gas distribution companies, manufacturing plants and other industrial users.
Sabal Trail has drawn protests over the last four years from those who have concerns about its impact on the environment, including the fragile limestone Floridan Aquifer, water supplies, endangered species, wetlands, neighborhoods, schools and the possibility of a gas leak or rupture once it's completed.
Thousands of residents along the route have also objected, and in 2013 formed SpectraBusters, an umbrella group of several dozen allied organizations, including Sierra Club, Greenlaw, Food & Water Watch, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and Suwannee Riverkeeper.
Miles of 36-inch steel pipe are being installed beneath 699 bodies of water including the Withlacoochee, Suwannee and Santa Fe Rivers and Reedy Creek. All told, the project's construction is projected to disturb more than 13,000 acres or land, much of it pristine woods and farmlands. The typical right-of-way for the pipeline is 100 feet wide.
Sabal Trail has required the purchase of more than 2,300 parcels of land for easements from more than 1,550 landowners.
In October, about a dozen protesters held up signs and chanted outside FPL's Juno Beach headquarters. That same month, protesters in the small town of Live Oak east of Tallahassee blocked a road to slow down the project's construction trucks. In November it was reported that 14 protesters were arrested in rural Gilchrist County west of Gainesville at a Sabal Trail construction site.
The project's journey through the approval process was fraught with ups and downs, but ultimately it was OK'd by the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission and other agencies.
During the process, both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Audubon Florida "flip-flopped" on the project, with the EPA ultimately signing off on it and Audubon taking a neutral position.
In a related issue, in 2015, the Florida Public Counsel brought to light the fact that FPL has lost more than $4.2 billion since 2002 due to a practice known as hedging on natural gas purchases. Hedging allows companies to lock in prices in long-term contracts.
FPL had been purchasing 60 percent of its natural gas through hedging rather than on the open market. In June 2016 the Florida Public Service Commission said that FPL and the state's three other investor-owned utilities must reduce the amount of fuel purchased through hedging by up to 25 percent in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
Sabal Trail spokeswoman Andrea Grover said the pipeline is on target to begin operating at the end of June.
As Sabal Trail nears completion, 97 percent of the route has been cleared and graded, 75 percent of the pipe has been placed in the ground, and cleanup has started on over 36 percent of the route where the pipeline has been completed, Grover said.
A look at the history of the Sabal Trail pipeline
Sabal Trail hasn't drawn the same level of public scrutiny and protest as the Keystone or Dakota pipelines, but it has both environmental impact and economic importance.
Oct. 6, 2009: The Florida Public Service Commission rejects a $1.5 billion, 300-mile pipeline proposed by Florida Power & Light. It would have run from Bradford County to Martin County. The PSC tells FPL to re-bid the project.
Dec. 10, 2012: FPL proposes a multi-billion dollar natural gas pipeline that would run from Alabama to Martin County, and says it is seeking bids from companies interested in building what would become the state's third major pipeline.
Oct. 24, 2013: Florida Public Service Commission gives its okay for FPL to charge customers for the pipeline's fuel and transportation costs beginning in 2017.
Oct 6, 2015: After saying it strongly supported the pipeline, Audubon Florida announced it was taking a neutral stance.
Oct. 26, 2015: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tells the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission the pipeline needs to be re-routed to avoid adversely affecting drinking water supplies in the Floridan Aquifer, environmentally sensitive wetlands, conservation areas, geologic formations and certain low-income communities.
Dec. 11, 2015: A different division of the EPA known as water protection, reverses the stance after meeting with Sabal Trail officials and receiving additional information about mitigation plans.
Feb. 2, 2016: Sabal Trail receives a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to construct and operate the interstate natural gas pipeline project. This approval authorizes Sabal Trail to proceed with final preparations to commence construction.
Aug. 12, 2016: FERC gives permission for construction to start on the pipeline's 126-mile southern portion known as Florida Southeast Connection LLC. The company is a subsidiary of FPL's parent company, NextEra Energy, Juno Beach. The Commission is funded through costs recovered by the fees and annual charges from the industries it regulates.
Sept. 22, 2016: The Sierra Club, Flint Riverkeeper and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper file a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia challenging FERC's approval of Sabal Trail and the entire 685-mile Southeast Market Pipeline project. The groups contend FERC failed to analyze the climate impacts of the project and the power plants it would serve and also failed to adequately analyze alternate routes that would have fewer impacts on the environment and communities of color. Oral arguments are scheduled for April 18.
June 2017: The pipeline is projected to begin operating.