Tensions mount over proposed LNG plant
Community tensions regarding the potential construction of a liquified natural gas plant in Port St. Joe were on full display at the city’s regular session meeting on October 18.
There, members of the community raised their concerns after representatives from the city, county, port authority and St. Joe Natural Gas Company attended an October 14 fact finding meeting with representatives from Nopetro LNG LLC, the Miami-based corporation looking to construct the plant.
“There were three representatives from Nopetro there. I was the only elected representative of the city at that meeting,” said Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett.
“We were trying to get educated on what they wanted to do in our community, because we had no prior knowledge.”
Officials said the meeting, which was closed to the public, was held so local leaders could learn more about Nopetro’s intentions for the facility, which they are proposing to build on the former St. Joe Paper Mill site off of Highway 98.
Buzzett said it was the first meeting any city official had had with the company.
At the city’s October 18 meeting, several citizens took to the podium, questioning the transparency of Nopetro’s process and lacking public hearings.
“If they wanted to meet with you guys, they should have come down here like I had to do,” said a local pastor, Charles Gathers. “… If they were concerned about doing things the right way, they would’ve come down here to one of these meetings so all the people could hear what they had to say.”
City Manager Jim Anderson stated that public hearings with city residents would be required under Florida law after an application for the land development order was received for the project by the city. No application to this effect has been made at this time.
“This would be classified as a large-scale development. So what would happen is they would have to fill out an application for development. Then what would happen is it would go before the planning board, which will give a recommendation, then to the big public hearings,” he said. “… There will be at least two public hearings (noticed) and two separate boards looking at it.”
Discussions surrounding the proposed Liquid Natural Gas plant have ramped up lately in Gulf County, largely due to a legal challenge to a Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruling stating the agency would not have oversight over the project should it be constructed.
The lawsuit, which was filed on September 27, is organized by D.C. based nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen. It confronts a March ruling by FERC, which was upheld again in July, declaring the proposed plant to be outside the scope of their jurisdiction due to its unique design.
Advocacy group holds informational meeting with members of the community
On the same day local officials met with Nopetro, some members of the community gathered at a meeting hosted by the North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition and the Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation, where presentations were made by Public Citizen.
At that meeting, Tyson Slocum, Public Citizen’s director for energy, discussed the organization’s belief that federal oversight over the project would provide a greater degree of transparency and a more comprehensive environmental review.
LNG facilities of this nature do produce byproducts that would need to be disposed of properly, and a certain degree of air pollution is to be expected, Slocum said. These facts struck a nerve with several residents of surrounding neighborhoods, who are still dealing with the environmental ramifications of the St. Joe Paper Mill.
In 2002, portions of Port St. Joe were declared Brownfield sites, which the EPA defines as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”
Over the last year, the community has received $850,000 in grant funding from the EPA to clean up the area and spur redevelopment. Now, some residents are wary this might affect their redevelopment efforts.
“In this area, we have been affected by plants and that type of industry,” said Gathers. “I’m all for clean business coming in and producing things, but I don’t want the people to suffer because some people are more concerned about the finances part of the equation than they are the people.”
“I don’t want it to affect the momentum we have going.”
Buzzett said in the October 14 meeting, Nopetro presented plans for safely disposing of byproducts from the facility. A certain degree of air pollution monitoring would be performed by the state.
Slocum recommended locals take these concerns to their local governments and encourage them to wait until after there were answers to Public Citizen’s lawsuit to issue permitting.
“It is imprudent for you to move ahead issuing permits to this until the federal court has an opportunity to hear oral arguments on whether or not the federal government has jurisdiction over the siting of this facility,“ he said.
City commissioners expressed they have not taken any actions in support of or opposing the proposed plant at this time, and they stated they do not plan to take decisive actions on the project until a development order application has been made and public hearings have been held.
Further, the city commissioners emphasized they do not wish to be lumped in with the county commissioners.
“The St. Joe company has been involved in it. The county has been involved in it, but the city has never been involved,” said Commissioner Scott Hoffman. “Now, the city then has a situation where we’re being asked all these specific questions about a program, and we knew nothing about it.”
County looks to project for jobs, economic development, tax base
County officials have voiced support for the project, citing that it is expected to bring jobs to the area and greatly raise the local tax base.
At their regularly scheduled meeting on September 27, the Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted to send a letter of support for the facility to The St. Joe Company.
Though, at the meeting, in making a recommendation to the board, County Administrator Michael Hammond stated the move resulted from discussions with the St. Joe Company, not with Nopetro.
“It’s still in the early stages, but we want jobs, we want industry, and we want tax base, and I think this solves all of those three problems,” he told the commissioners.
Hammond explained that while the county’s knowledge of Nopetro’s plans in Port St. Joe was relatively recent, it was not the first time they had been approached about an LNG facility on the St. Joe Company’s piece of land.
“I want to say about five years ago we met with the St. Joe Company and had a long discussion about the potential to bring a large LNG plant… to Gulf County there on the mill site or on the canal,” said Hammond. “Discussions went way up in the state government, and it was decided that that would be a great thing to do.”
Liquefied natural gas is natural gas that has been cooled down to liquid form for ease and safety of non-pressurized storage or transport. It takes up about 1/600th the volume of natural gas in the gaseous state.
LNG produces 40% less carbon dioxide than coal and 30% less than oil, which makes it the cleanest of the fossil fuels.
The United States is the world’s largest exporter of natural gas, with an increasing amount of it having been condensed into LNG.
“The wave of the future, and again, this is the wave of the future for our lifetime and probably a couple lifetimes, is natural gas,” said Hammond.
Research has shown it is among the safest of the fossil fuels to produce and transport, though it is not devoid of risks. In July of this year, there was a large explosion at an LNG facility in Freeport Texas, which Freeport LNG attributed to “human error.” These vapor cloud explosions are rare, but some argue local infrastructure would not be prepared to handle an event of that magnitude.
The Port St. Joe facility, if constructed, would filter natural gas brought in by the St. Joe Gas Company for impurities and water before cryogenically cooling it, transporting it via truck to the port, 1,400 feet from the proposed site, and shipping the LNG overseas.
Officials are not sure exactly how many jobs the facility could bring in, but Hammond said the number could be significant, though he indicated many of these jobs would likely be in ancillary industries, similar to the St. Joe Paper Mill.
“I don’t know what the final number is going to be. But it’s going to be substantial,” he said. “I mean, 25 (jobs) would be substantial in Gulf County, and I think it’s going to be closer to 100.”
“…It’s going to benefit the gas company. It’s going to benefit the port. It’s going to benefit the container haulers.”
Slocum stated at the meeting on October 14 in Philadelphia Primitive Baptist that a similar facility currently being constructed by Eagle LLC in Jacksonville was only expected to bring in around eight to 12 full time employees. This figure does not take into account ancillary jobs.
The plant’s proponents also emphasized that the plant might provide the push needed to begin efforts to revive the city’s port.
“And then what is the spin off for the port?” Hammond asked. “I mean, if it triggers the dreading, what are the ancillary things to that? And if it starts the railroad? I mean, what are the ancillary things to that?”
The County’s Economic Development Director Jim McKnight, who helped to facilitate the meeting between the local officials and Nopetro LNG, said that from what he has heard of the project so far, he feels it would be beneficial to the local area.
But he expressed that he is not ready to sign off on it yet.
“I’ve liked what I’ve heard, but we still have a lot of homework to do,” said McKnight. “And there’s still a lot of things that need to get done on their end.”
At this point in time, there is no guarantee the company will move forward with applying for permits to build in this area.
“We’re trying to get answers so we can supply that information to the city and to the residents and have some knowledge about this possibility that may be coming and may not be coming,” said Hoffman.
“There is a process. It’s been around for many, many years, it’s governed by statute of the state of Florida. That’s what we follow. We’re not trying to jump ahead of that timeframe.”
Anderson, who was present at the October 14 meeting with Nopetro, said that the company indicated to the city it was possible they would apply for a development order by the second or third quarter of next year, but not beforehand.
Nopetro did not respond to multiple requests for interview in time for publication of this article.