Florida has its own controversial pipeline and no one is paying attention.
Corporate greed, land seizures, arrests, corruption, protests. These are things one might have come to expect from the unfolding story of the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), a pipeline that has been protested for months at Standing Rock, North Dakota, and around the country, but a natural gas pipeline here in Florida’s own ‘backyard’ has shared in all of these themes. This pipeline is called Sabal Trail, and the fact that you’ve likely never heard of it is a shameful reflection of media negligence on a subject that affects everyone living in the Sunshine State.
Commissioned by Florida Power and Light and its parent company NextEra Energy to supposedly meet Florida’s growing power needs, the pipeline will begin in Alabama, run through Georgia, and terminate in Osceola County, Florida, near Orlando. FPL has commissioned Spectra Energy, a Houston company, to build the pipeline, and Duke Energy, another Florida energy company, has made significant investments. The three-foot-wide, 515-mile pipeline will be able to transport one billion cubic feet of natural gas, will cost three billion dollars, and will run underneath the Santa Fe, Suwannee and Withlacoochee rivers. The destination of the fossil fuel transported through the pipeline will ostensibly be a gas-powered FPL electric plant and a Duke Energy plant in Citrus County, however, many suspect that the natural gas is truly destined for foreign export.
Unlike the Dakota Access Pipeline, Sabal Trail does not run through any conspicuous Native-American burial grounds nor does it have the potential to contaminate a Native American clean water source. For these reasons, perhaps, Sabal Trail has not received the same national coverage that DAPL has garnered. Sabal does, however, pose a massive environmental threat to the entire state of Florida. Not only that, Sabal represents a despicable abuse of power by large oil companies and Florida politicians—all this in the context of an apathetic public and media.
The environmental threat posed by Sabal begins in Alabama, where the natural gas that will flow through the pipeline will be fracked. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process by which natural gas can be extracted from shale rock buried deep beneath the earth’s surface. In order to get the gas out of the rock, shale is blasted with chemically treated, pressurized water. Many are convinced, including myself, that water treated with chemicals used for fracking could mix with clean water from underground water tables at fracking locations, contaminating people’s drinking supply. In December, the EPA released a report titled “Assessment of the Potential Impacts of Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas on Drinking Water Resources,” which “found scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in some circumstances.” Back in 2015, a draft of the same report claimed there was no evidence of systematic contamination of water sources due to fracking, but the EPA’s final, peer-reviewed report removed that claim from the work. The report identified cases in which fracking would be more likely to impact local water sources and indicated that further research was necessary to understand the extent to which fracking affects water. Reports like this highlight how little we know about the damage fracking could be doing to our own resources. Since it has been demonstrated that fracking can cause harm to drinking water, why should we as Floridians remain uninterested and unconcerned about the construction of a pipeline that will bring us gas from such a questionable source? We shouldn’t allow another fracked gas pipeline, especially one that benefits so few, and has the potential to harm the drinking water of so many.
And Sabal Trail does benefit very few. None of the natural gas that will be fracked in Alabama will provide energy for Alabama or Georgia. All of the gas will flow directly through these two states and into Florida so that FPL and Duke Energy alone can profit off the resource. The conglomerate behind Sabal claims that Alabama and Georgia will benefit from the pipeline in the form of jobs, but one has to ask why more gas and oil sector jobs are needed when “the number of U.S. jobs in solar energy overtook those in oil and natural gas extraction for the first time last year,” according to an article titled “Clean-Energy Jobs Surpass Oil Drilling for First Time in U.S.” published by Bloomberg in 2016. Also, a graph, which was originally published by the U.S. Bureau of Statistics, in the same Bloomberg article also shows that, in 2015, there were 210,000 jobs in solar as compared to only 185,000 jobs in oil and gas extraction.
Apart from the suspect nature of fracking, Sabal’s chosen route raises many other environmental concerns as well. Sabal will go under rivers which feed the Georgian and Floridian aquifer systems and has the potential to contaminate drinking water. WWALS Watershed Coalition, an organization whose stated purpose is to protect the Withlacoochee, Willacoochee, Alapaha, and Little and Upper Suwannee Rivers, has reported in a statement published on November 14th that drilling mud from the Sabal Trail is already leaking into and contaminating the Withlacoochee River. WWALS believes that the leak may not be contained and that there may be leaks in other parts of the river as well. Parts of the Withlacoochee River flow into the Georgian aquifer system, from which residents of the state tap their drinking water. The pipeline also stands to threaten our drinking water here in Florida as the pipeline, currently under construction, will go underneath the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers as well. The Floridan Aquifer provides clean drinking water to millions of Floridians.
Sabal’s route also threatens to create dangerous sinkholes and could destroy some of Florida’s most beautiful natural springs. According to WWALS and other groups, the horizontal directional drilling being employed to make underground space for the pipeline could shift unsteady, sinkhole-prone limestone geology creating new sinkholes and exacerbating pre-existing ones. In June of 2016, an independent hydrologist named Peter Schreuder investigated the potential impact that the pipeline, if constructed, would have on the geology system surrounding the Suwannee River. His report, titled “Directional Horizontal Drilling (HDD) under the Suwannee River State Park: Hydrogeologic Issues of Concern,” found that there could “be a potentially massive occurrence of numerous sinkholes resulting in a catastrophic collapse of overburden materials into the underlying caves and springs along the river.” This report directly contradicts the Final Environmental Impact Statement that was necessary to get the permits necessary to construct the pipeline. Interestingly, according to WWALS, Schreuder’s report also supports another independent report by the hydrologist Dennis J. Price, P.G., who has never met Schreuder. Since scientists working independently of one another have found that areas in the path of Sabal are extremely vulnerable to sinkholes, shouldn’t, at the minimum, more research be conducted before the pipeline creates dangerous depressions?
But Sabal Trail Pipeline stands not only to pollute our water and create dangerous sinkholes, but it also stands to pollute our air by contributing to global warming. Methane, the kind of natural gas that will be primarily flowing through the pipeline, is 86 times more of a warming agent than C02, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Pipeline leakage is very damaging to the environment, and it is not a matter of if Sabal will leak, either. The pipeline will leak. All natural gas pipelines leak around two to three percent of their methane. This may not sound like a lot, but one must remember the Sabal Trail will be able to transport one billion cubic feet of natural gas. At that rate, two to three percent loss is not insubstantial. In fact, it is very polluting. To distract from this truth, big oil and gas companies will often argue that natural gas is a far cleaner alternative to coal, and while it is very true that methane burns cleaner than coal, the overall cleanliness of natural gas gets called into question when the gas is fracked and transported over long distances in pipelines. Because of leakage at fracking sites, leakage as gas is transported through pipelines, and leakage from occasional pipeline explosions, the overall cleanliness of gas pipelines is very questionable when compared to coal. Despite this, Sabal Trail’s website still claims that “natural gas is recognized as a very clean energy source.”
As mentioned briefly, gas pipelines tend to explode. One might think pipeline explosions are relatively rare, but they can be quite common. Because methane is lighter than air, if a pipeline does explode, the contents of the pipeline do not stay in the water like liquefied petroleum might, but instead bubble up and out of the water. However, such explosions are still extremely harmful. For instance, on May 31st, a pipeline managed by Spectra energy, the same company building Sabal, burst and released “3.9 million cubic feet of natural gas into the Arkansas River” according to an article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The gas did not mix with the water, instead bubbling out into the atmosphere. Though the water was seemingly spared, millions of cubic feet of methane still polluted the atmosphere.
Of all people, Floridians should know the dangers associated with climate change. Here in South Florida we live just a few feet above sea level, and Miami is on average only six feet above sea level. According to a fact sheet published by the World Resources institute, by the year 2060, Florida’s coastline could rise anywhere from nine inches to two feet, causing billions of dollars of damages. This alone undoes any short-term economic benefit Sabal might bring to Florida. If the construction of Sabal trail were really so vital to the stimulation of Florida’s economy, then big oil companies would not be ignoring the economic damage that the pipeline has capability of affecting in the form of environmental harm. No, the venture does not exist for any altruistic reasons, it solely exists to drive up profits for all invested.
And profits are the name of the game. The environmental damage that Sabal will wreak is only one part of a greater story of abuse. Apart from the natural destruction the pipeline is causing, the companies and politicians behind the venture have been engaged in greedy and questionable behavior since the beginning. Back in 2013, when Spectra Energy was attempting to get the necessary permitting to begin construction of the pipeline, Governor Rick Scott passed two bills specifically designed to speed up Spectra’s permitting process, according to the Miami Herald. This was despite the fact that Scott owned 107,000 dollars worth of stock in Spectra and an affiliate company, DCP Midstream Partners. Scott’s investments under normal circumstances would be seen as a conflict of interest, but because Scott’s investments were made as part of a blind trust, he was and is legally off the hook. In a blind trust arrangement, an investor selects a trustee to make investment decisions on his behalf. The investor is not permitted to know which companies his trustee is investing in, thus supposedly eliminating any conflict of interest. However, Rick Scott’s trustee was a former employee of Scott’s private investment firm Richard L. Scott investments, which raises questions about Scott’s impartiality in the decision to invest in the company behind Sabal.
But Scott’s involvement doesn’t end there. According to the same Miami Herald article, in 2013 the Florida Public Service Commission, whose five members were appointed by Scott, made the key decision to approve the constructions of Sabal Trail in Florida despite the controversy that existed around it. This is the same commission, by the way, that approved an 800 million dollar FPL rate increase this year even though FPL made a 1.3 billion dollar profit last year. The Public Service Commission, which is supposed to uphold the interests of the Florida Public, seems instead more interested in conceding to Scott and FPL.
Of course, FPL and Spectra don’t need Scott in order to be greedy. In February of this year, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave Sabal Trail Transmission the right to eminent domain, giving the companies backing the pipeline the ability to seize property in the path of the project in exchange for compensation.
Naturally, however, not everyone wants a pipeline that will transmit flammable gas served up by a company with a less than perfect track record running through their backyard. Jeb and Bob Bell were two such landowners from Georgia. The Bell brothers were given 100 acres of land for growing timber by their mother who, at the time, was dying from cancer. Thankfully, she survived the cancer, but lived long enough to see the property threatened by big oil and power companies.
According to a Newsweek article, when Sabal Trail Transmission LLC, a joint venture by Spectra Energy, NextEra Energy, and Duke Energy, told the Bell brothers to surrender some of their land for an easement through their property, they said no, arguing that they didn’t want a potentially explosive pipeline near their residence, a claim that seems more than reasonable since, in April, a Spectra Energy Pipeline exploded in Pennsylvania severely burning a man, according to StateImpact, a reporting project of NPR. In response to the Bells’ decision to refuse Sabal Trail Transmission their desired easement, the conglomerate sued the brothers, who countersued on the grounds that Sabal Trail employees trespassed on their land in an attempt to survey it. The Bell brothers lost their countersuit and are now being forced to pay 47,000 dollars to compensate Sabal Trail Transmission for its court expenditures. That is $47,000 the Bell brothers don’t have. The conglomerate, it seems, is attempting to make an example of the Bell brothers to anyone considering denying Sabal Trail Transmission property easements. Since the time the Bells were issued the charge, they have contemplated forfeiting their life savings and have started a crowdfunding effort to raise the money on the website GoFundMe.
Apart from the Bell Brothers, Sabal Trail Transmission has filed 160 eminent domain lawsuits as reported by Newsweek. Many owners feel that they aren’t getting fair market value for their properties. In Osceola County, Florida, an easement is slicing directly through property that was planned to be used for the construction of 2,400 homes. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Gerald McGratty, a court appointed receiver to the property, claims he was only offered $600,000 for the property. McGratty believes the proposed path of the pipeline would cost him $13 million in damages alone.
At this point, one might be wondering how Sabal Trail could be more exploitative, but the conglomerate behind Sabal never seems to disappoint in this regard. Sabal Trail Transmission has taken a role in marginalizing minority communities. Democratic lawmakers in Georgia have raised concerns about Sabal Trail pipeline’s route through Albany and Dougherty counties, which are low-income predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Concerns have also been raised over an industrial compressor station facility located right in the middle of one such black neighborhood. Industrial compressor stations, used for pressurizing gas to flow down pipelines, are notoriously noisy. And with the established unreliable safety record of Spectra Energy pipelines and their associated environmental risks, residents’ quality of life in these counties stand to be affected. It seems plausible, also, that low income community members would face deteriorating property values. Yes, all along the route of this pipeline, communities are being harassed by big oil, but there is also resistance.
From the beginning, many organizations have been working together to stop the pipeline. Environmental and political organizations like the WWALS Watershed Coalition, the Sierra Club, SpectraBusters, and Our Santa Fe River inc. have been involved in protecting Florida’s environment by organizing protests and legal actions against the conglomerate behind Sabal. While these groups have won many small victories, they have not been able to halt the construction of the pipeline.
Permanent camps have sprung up in the path of the pipeline, where protesters selflessly put their lives on hold while they attempt to put a halt to Sabal’s progress. The largest of these camps is in Live Oak, Florida, along the Suwannee River, from which protests are constantly being organized. Just this month, on January 14th, the camp planned a mass act of civil disobedience, as the pipeline was scheduled to cross underneath the Suwannee River and hundreds appeared to show their solidarity with the camp. However, many of those who attended learned of the event through social media sites since news coverage has been so sparse.
Opposition to the pipeline has been constant, but those who want the pipeline stopped lack numbers relative to the protests taking place at DAPL and, importantly, media attention. In Gilchrist County, Florida, 14 protesters were arrested after a man locked himself to a tanker truck delivering water for construction to a Sabal Trail site. The protesters say they were arrested without cause, since only one in their party behaved in an illegal way. But at the time these arrests occurred, they were hardly covered in Florida, let alone nationally. I find it shameful that for weeks I could only find one story on the arrests. The story came from the website Gainsville.com until, at last, the Miami New Times picked it up and ran an article on it. While national coverage has remained frequent on DAPL, media coverage–outside of the limited coverage Sabal receives in the three states which it runs through–has added up to effectively nothing.
But despite the media’s choice to ignore Sabal, the pipeline can still be stopped. There are a multitude of ways in which one can get involved. The camp in Live Oak, properly titled Sacred Water, is in desperate need of donations, supplies, and, most importantly, individuals willing to travel to the camp to protect Florida’s water. The Green Party of Florida has also been involved in organizing protests in major cities across the state, including weekly protests in front of one of FPL’s headquarter buildings in Miami, and needs more activists, both partisan and nonpartisan. The many organizations opposing the pipeline, such as WWALS and Spectrabusters, need vigilant citizens who live along the route of the pipeline to keep Floridians informed about Spectra construction and environmental violations. These organizations are also are in constant need of donations. There are also pending legal suits against Sabal that could mean the difference between the pipeline’s completion and its abandonment. Those bringing the cases need help in moving the court dates forward as Sabal Trail is being constructed rapidly, with the pipeline scheduled to be finished in May.
Please, more involvement is needed. I myself have been involved in protest actions in my hometown of Miami and, more recently, at Sacred Water camp. I have seen endless devotion from my friends in Miami and around the State. I have witnessed, at a protest in Live Oak, state police arresting friends simply for trying to protect our water. And while I have been endlessly inspired by the efforts of my fellow water protectors, I fear nowhere near enough is being done to stop a pipeline that, if completed, would be a tragedy for Florida. Sabal Trail stands as the embodiment of apathy toward Florida’s unique environment, an environment that must be preserved if Florida is to remain environmentally stable and economically competitive. The pipeline also represents a corporate overstretch by a ‘legalized monopoly’ on energy production, and the corruption of some of Florida’s highest status politicians. It must be stopped.