Trail of terrors: Is Florida’s new pipeline an omen of a gloomy energy future?

click to enlarge WARNING SIGNS: A natural gas pipeline in Louisiana’s Rattlesnake Bayou, circa 1972. - Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Archives
Wikimedia Commons/U.S. National Archives
WARNING SIGNS: A natural gas pipeline in Louisiana’s Rattlesnake Bayou, circa 1972.

Imagine a big scar bisecting much of the length of the Florida peninsula, slicing through fields and swamplands at widths upwards of 100 feet.

Underneath that scar would lie a 3-foot-wide pipe that carries methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide — though it burns cleaner than oil — from Alabama to Florida, where power companies would use it to generate electricity for their customers.

The Sabal Trail Natural Gas Pipeline broke ground earlier this year. Despite facing passionate opposition from environmental circles, the project has been slow to grab headlines among Florida media outlets.

Activists are trying to change that.

In St. Petersburg last week, they voiced their concerns about Sabal’s environmental impacts at a rally outside Duke Energy’s St. Petersburg offices. Their outrage centers on the land destruction, water pollution and discouragement of renewal energy the project might bring.

“As a Florida native, I’m absolutely disgusted by the idea of our land being torn up for natural gas,” said protester Megan Weeks, who attended the rally from Orlando.

The reason the protesters chose to stage an action outside Duke’s offices is that the energy giant is a project stakeholder, and some of the natural gas that travels through the pipeline would help power a Duke plant in Citrus County. Florida Power & Light will also use the gas that’s piped into the state at a rate of about 1 billion cubic feet per day.

With state and federal approval, and with buy-in from companies like Duke, the project is now under construction, and if completed would cover more than 500 miles from Alabama to Florida. It would bring natural gas collected by hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — from the Midwest and West to parts of the state, including the Tampa Bay area.

Activists compare the project to a similar pipeline project that has been drawing raucous protests in North Dakota.

The power utility industry is pursuing more opportunities to use natural gas because it’s currently cheaper than oil and nuclear power, and more profitable than renewable energy. That’s why environmentalists say protesting the pipeline helps get their bigger point across: that fracking isn’t acceptable.

“It’s not just this pipeline. It’s the entire fracking, oil, gas, fossil fuel industry,” said Frank Jackalone, Florida state organizing director for the Sierra Club.

Natural gas constitutes the majority of energy resources consumed in Florida. With cheap natural gas, there could be little chance of major utilities evolving their business models into ones in which solar, wind and other renewable sources make up more than their current 1 or 2 percent.

“Sabal Trail Pipeline is fundamentally the project that Florida Power & Light’s business model is built on for the next 20 years,” Jackalone said. “It is essential for what FP&L wanted to do. And Duke Energy is profiting as well.”

The pipeline “will take them to an extreme point of reliance on natural gas,” he said of utilities.

The pipeline’s potential direct impact on the region’s ecosystem is also a huge concern. Tearing up the land to embed the pipeline underground could lead to dire consequences.

The pipeline would run through Florida’s aquifer, springs, wetlands and rivers. Pipelines often leak and pollute these bodies of water, some of which provide drinking water to Floridians.

The parent company that owns Sabal Trail Transmission, Spectra Energy, has had multiple explosions along its pipelines, which makes some people concerned for their safety as well as that of their property (the pipeline cuts through multiple swaths of private property).

There’s also the impact a leaky pipe could have on the untold volumes of drinking water stored underground — especially since the limestone aquifer in which it’s stored can cause the pipes to corrode.

Florida’s porous limestone aquifer also makes it vulnerable to sinkholes, especially when construction crews are boring through it.

Jackalone and others are concerned that there’s not going to be nearly as much interest in Florida’s pipeline as there is in North Dakota’s, but activists do hope to demonstrate somewhere along the pipe’s route.

They are also hoping a lawsuit will stall the process for long enough that federal regulators can take another look at its potential impacts and deny the project’s permitting. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission may not have given serious enough consideration to the project’s impact on climate change, something it is expected to do.

Anti-Sabal activists have allies in much of Florida’s Congressional delegation, including Gwen Graham, a panhandle Congresswoman (and daughter of popular former governor and U.S. Senator Bob Graham), who opposes the project.

Former governor Charlie Crist, who has a good chance of winning a Congressional seat in a district that includes St. Petersburg, voiced his support for the protesters’ cause last Saturday, so he’d likely join the list of Florida legislators who oppose the project.

And Florida pols wouldn’t be alone.

Crist noted that Georgia’s conservative legislature voted overwhelmingly to oppose land easements for Sabal Trail Transmission — a result that’s not likely to be repeated in Florida’s pro-big business legislature unless something big happens.

Crist urged the activists not to give up, to “keep talking.” 

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