Federal environmental regulators want more details about a proposed natural gas pipeline that will pass through Lake and Sumter counties, including a fuller explanation about why the project is needed in the first place.
In its initial review of Sabal Trail Transmission LLC’s project, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency questions whether alternatives exist to delivering natural gas to a South Florida power plant besides a 3-foot-wide pipe that stretches for 465 miles across three states.
Some project maps show it cutting straight across Sumter County and the southwestern corner of Lake County.
The EPA also wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, to explain the project’s effects on air and water quality along the route.
The 18-page letter, issued last week, was directed to the FERC because the latter agency is responsible for drafting an environmental impact statement about the $3 billion pipeline project. The ag ency is also the ultimate approval authority.
Representatives for Sabal Trail said they were working to answer the EPA’s concerns.
“The extent and nature of their comments were what we had expected for a project of this size, which covers three states,” company spokeswoman Andrea Grover said in a statement.
“Sabal Trail has met with and discussed the project with EPA officials on several occasions, so we are aware of their concerns and have been working to address them since before these comments were filed.”
Grover added that Sabal Trail would respond to the issues raised by the EPA in resource reports the company will file with FERC in June, and that the commission would also deal with them in the draft environmental impact statement, which is anticipated to be completed next spring.
Sabal Trail, a joint venture of Juno Beach-based Next Era Energy Corp. — which owns Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electrical utility — and Spectra Energy in Houston, says the pipeline would diversify the state’s sources of natural gas and would provide a delivery system secure from weather-related disruptions in the Gulf of Mexico.
To accomplish that, energy companies have developed a three-pronged approach.
In order to serve Sabal Trail’s pipeline, Williams Partners, owner of a pipeline network spanning more than 10,000 miles across the country, seeks permission from the FERC to expand 43 miles of its lines that cross Alabama.
Sabal Trail proposes to tie its pipe into Williams’ facility in Alexander City, in east central Alabama.
From there, Sabal Trail proposes to lay an underground pipeline through part of Alabama, southwest Georgia and on to the Orlando area, covering about 460 miles.
FPL then would construct a 126-mile pipeline stretching from that Orlando hub to its plant in Indiantown.
Taking up the assertion of diversifying sources, EPA regulators note in their letter to the FERC that two companies, Williams and Kinder Morgan, which feeds the Florida Gas Transmission Co. owner of an existing pipeline in Marion County through the Ocala National Forest, already pumps natural gas to the region from the northern part of the country.
Williams and Spectra also partner in a 745-mile pipeline that runs beneath the Gulf to deliver natural gas from Mobile to Tampa, where it is piped to other points in Central Florida.
EPA officials also point out that another project, a Spectra partnership with CenterPoint Energy, came on line in 2011. That effort expanded a 274-mile pipeline from eastern Louisiana to Mobile.
Looking offshore, the EPA observes that Port Dolphin has been cleared for development, and the FERC should discuss that as an alternative.
Port Dolphin involves a specialized ship that sits about 30 miles off the coast of Tampa. The vessel would convert liquid natural gas into vaporized natural gas and pump that to Port Manatee for distribution elsewhere in the state.
At peak, that project could provide about 1.3 billion cubic feet of natural gas a day — or roughly the amount that Sabal Trail says its pipeline would carry.
“It appears this alternative would give Florida Power & Light access to diverse sources from other countries, if plans for exporting the nation’s natural-gas supplies to other countries realize increased prices for the nation’s consumers,” the EPA’s letter states.
The report should also spell out other alternatives to the pipeline, the EPA recommends.
For instance, the agency calls attention to FPL’s own reports, which indicate the power company has realized “significant” energy savings through compliance with three federal policies that have been adopted since 2005.
A fourth measure, which could pass this year, would likely boost that efficiency even more, EPA officials write.
Moreover, FPL could reduce the demand for electricity by expanding a home weatherization program for low-income customers — which was a provision in the company’s goals for energy conservation that were provided to the state Public Service Commission.
The EPA cited a similar initiative launched in the Pacific Northwest 30 years ago. The utility that managed the program found that energy savings over the years amounted to the equivalent needed to power the state of Oregon, and that the utility “found it was cheaper to retrofit houses than build new generation capacity.”
Such success, the EPA continued, compels the FERC to demonstrate in its report “the necessity (of the Sabal Trail pipeline) versus the convenience of the proposed preferred alternative in context to the impacts upon Alabama and Georgia communities, property owners and ecosystems who will bear the risk and impacts but do not appear to benefit from the proposed action’s construction.”
Aside from the potential of other sources of energy, the EPA recommends or requests that the FERC put the Sabal Trail pipeline in the context of existing environmental regulations.
For instance, the EPA asks that energy regulators narrow the proposed right-of-way needed for the project from 100 feet to 75 feet through upland forests, in order to protect that habitat, and scrap a proposed route that shows the pipe traversing a closed landfill in Lowndes County, Ga.
The agency also wants assurance that the Sabal Trail pipeline adheres to the federal Clean Water Act because portions of it will be laid alongside a 10-inch-wide line that was installed by another company in the 1950s, long before the water-quality law was passed.
And in light of the tragicFinally, the EPA wants the report to incorporate the project’s compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. That would be a concern for residents near Dunnellon.
Environmental regulators seek to learn how much greenhouse gases and potentially hazardous pollutants will be emitted at such sites.