Construction is underway on the new 515-mile Sabal Trail natural gas pipeline that will travel about 86 miles through four east-central Alabama counties. The line will also go through southwest Georgia and north Florida to provide natural gas to Florida Power & Light customers in south Florida.
The bulldozers and pipe are on the ground in Tallapoosa, Chambers, Lee, and Russell counties. They are a welcome sight to local officials who see new tax revenues and little concern from Alabama residents.
Environmentalists, however, are continuing a so-far failed effort to stop the pipeline. They say it poses a threat to drinking water sources, environmentally sensitive wetlands and sink-hole prone areas, and has roused public opposition in Georgia and Florida.
The Sabal Trail pipeline is the first major addition to Alabama’s thousands of miles of gas and oil pipelines since the leak of 330,000 gallons of gasoline from an interstate transmission line in Shelby County in early September. That incident brought headlines and new attention to a mostly underground system that stays largely out of sight and mind.
Lawsuit Fights Pipeline
A trio of environmental groups is holding out hope that their lawsuit challenging federal regulators’ approval of the project will be successful. The suit was filed Sept. 22 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on behalf of the Sierra Club, Flint Riverkeeper and Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. It alleges the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), in okaying the construction of the pipeline, did not adequately assess climate impacts and alternate routes that would be less disruptive to the environment and to minority communities.
That case is being managed by GreenLaw.org, an environmental legal group in Atlanta. Lead attorney Steve Caley said, “Since we don’t anticipate the court would set the briefing schedule until 2017, we are planning to move for expedited consideration by arguing the pipeline owners are already starting to cut down trees and plow through wetlands and waterways. That work would destroy environmental areas that could not be restored, causing irreparable harm to the area.”
Caley added, “That’s what we are going to try to do, but whether the court will grant us a hearing, I do not know.”
The companies partnering on the Sabal Trail Transmission, LLC — Spectra Energy, Duke Energy and NextEra Energy – received a FERC certificate of public convenience and necessity in February to construct and operate the Sabal Trail interstate natural gas pipeline project. FERC issued permits in mid-August that allow the Army Corps of Engineers to discharge dredged and fill material into bodies of water such as wetlands. The permit requires the Sabal Trail partnership to offset the environmental impact by purchasing credits from federal- and state-approved wetlands mitigation banks.
Kevin Jeselnik, staff attorney for the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, said, “We are still fighting, but (the pipeline) has FERC approvals, state approvals, and Army Corps approval.”
Jeselnik said his group charges that the Corps’s environmental impact studies on the proposed route were “fairly superficial and did not look at the impact on the minority citizens in southwest Georgia. We also are concerned about the location of the line and potential dangers from sinkhole-prone land.”
A lawsuit filed in August by Alabama Rivers Alliance partner Gulf Restoration Network (GRN) and two other environmental groups failed to get an expedited hearing. Those plaintiffs decided to dismiss their case to concentrate on the current one.
“Communities in Georgia and Florida have clearly stated that they do not want this dangerous, fracked-gas pipeline polluting their water or their neighborhoods,” said GRN’s Johanna deGraffenreid. “We collected 25,000 signatures.”
Sierra Club spokesperson Merilee Malwitz-Jipson said much of the gas transported through the new pipeline will be extracted from shale fields, particularly the Marcellus shale formation in northwest Pennsylvania. The Sabal Trail, she said, “increases Florida’s reliance on fracked natural gas and the harmful emissions that come from it.”
The gas would originate from various sources, according to Andrea Grover, director of stakeholder outreach and a spokesperson from the Sabal Trail partnership. Grover said, “It is possible gas is coming from Pennsylvania. It is estimated that the United States currently has well over 100 years supply of natural gas coming from the various basins.”
Construction in Alabama
She said gas would travel from its origin – Texas, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and elsewhere – through the interstate pipeline system to an existing natural gas pipeline hub in Alabama’s Choctaw County before being routed through an existing pipeline owned by Transco to the Sabal Trail starting point in Tallapoosa County, northeast of Alexander City.
“Originally, the plan was to build from the Choctaw hub to Orlando, but we found we could shorten our new construction by using some of the existing Transco pipeline that runs through Tallapoosa County ,” Grover said.
The project will use 494 miles of 36-inch diameter and 21 miles of 24-inch diameter carbon steel pipeline to carry up to 1.1 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day.
A large compressor station is being constructed in Tallapoosa County to pressurize the gas and provide its initial push toward Florida. Two existing compressor stations are being expanded in Choctaw and Autauga counties to help handle the additional natural gas moving from southwestern Alabama toward the start of the Sabal Trail.
Few protests about construction occurred in Alabama, according to news reports and interviews with elected officials in some of the affected Alabama counties.
At a public meeting in October 2015 at Central Alabama Community College in Alexander City, only one landowner was present to object to the pipeline crossing his property, according to a transcript of the session. And Tallapoosa County Probate Judge Bill English said this week that he has heard no public reaction to the pipeline proposal. “We will see some increased tax revenue as a result of the construction. It seems to be a good deal to get tax benefits and a relatively modest number of jobs,” English said.
Much of the Sabal Trail pipeline in Lee County will travel through County Commissioner Robert Hamm’s district. The line will cross the nearby Tallapoosa River by drilling horizontally 75 feet below the riverbed, according to Grover.
Hamm said, “Initially we had concerns about the line’s safety, but once we figured out the company had a good safety record, we saw people wanting it to come through their property because they were paying very well. Sabal Trail’s representative did a good job of educating everybody, which helped keep incorrect rumor mills from getting started.”
Spectra Energy’s safety record has been questioned by environmental groups, in particular referencing a pipeline rupture in May 2015 that lost almost four million cubic feet of natural gas into the Arkansas River. There were no injuries, however, and the gas, from a 63-year-old auxiliary pipeline, dissipated within a few days. Spectra Energy spokesperson Grover said the incident was caused by strong river currents during near flood-stage river conditions that washed away the riverbed under and over the pipe so it had no support for one of its segments. “The properties of this backup pipeline and its condition prior to the incident were not a contributing factor to the event,” she said in an email.
Spectra Energy’s website says its five-year reportable incident rate is half the natural gas industry average, 0.15 incidents per 1,000 miles per year versus the industry average of 0.36.
The Sabal Trail pipeline could provide natural gas to nearby industry along the route. Hamm said, “We could tap into the gas line to benefit our industrial park if we get a large amount of industry in there.”
In Russell County, where the pipeline will cross some 30-40 feet under the Chattahoochee River, Probate Judge Alford Harden said, “We haven’t heard the first peep out of anybody about this project. The pipeline company made two or three presentations, but nothing came up from any landowners or residents.”
Sabal Trail partners will pay significant ad valorum taxes annually to the counties it traverses. Grover said the estimated payments each year will amount to $1.1 million to Tallapoosa County, $620,000 to Chambers County, $885,000 to Lee County, and $667,000 to Russell County.
According to Grover, the economic benefits to Alabama during the construction phase will include 1,112 construction jobs, $37,240,486 from job creation and $49,685,416 additional funds contributed by non-directly related construction activity.
In addition, the permanent economic impact and operations in Alabama are expected to include 94 permanent jobs after construction is completed, $2,953,302 from job creation and $4,907,082 additional funds contributed by non-directly related construction activity.
The Sabal Trail (the name references the Florida state tree, the sabal palmetto) construction is intended to be complete in May 2017, Grover said.