Hundreds attend meeting hosted by those opposing the facility’s construction
Organizers of a meeting opposing the construction of a proposed liquefied natural gas facility in Port St. Joe had to pull out extra chairs to accommodate the crowd of locals who gathered to hear their case.
All in all, about 150 people gathered in the Centennial Building on Jan. 14, including representatives from the city and county governments.
“It was encouraging to see so many members of the community coming out and engaging in civil discourse,” said Tyson Slocum, a representative from Public Citizen, a progressive non-profit consumer advocacy organization and think tank based in Washington D.C.
Slocum was the keynote speaker at the event.
“… I think what we heard today is that the community did not know about this and is upset that they did not know about it,” he continued.
The proposed plant would be constructed by Miami-based Nopetro LNG, LLC on land owned by the St. Joe Company off of Highway 98 in Port St. Joe — the site of the former St. Joe Paper Mill. Nopetro’s efforts stirred up tensions in the Gulf County community in the last several months of 2022 after it was widely circulated that the company had been declared exempt from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s jurisdiction.
Nopetro’s 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 to its liquid state, transporting it via truck to the port, about 1,400 feet from the proposed site, and shipping the LNG overseas.
The plant “would consist of up to three liquefaction trains that would liquify up to 3.86 billion cubic feet per year of natural gas for export,” according to Nopetro’s petition with FERC.
Public Citizen, along with several representatives from the local community, have filed a lawsuit seeking to ensure federal oversight over the proposed project.
The lawsuit, which was filed on Sept. 27, 2022, confronts a March, 2022 ruling by FERC declaring the proposed plant to be outside the scope of their jurisdiction due to its unique design.
Slocum told the Star in September that “(Public Citizen’s) goal here is not to stop this facility. Our goal is simply to say that this is a major fossil fuel infrastructure development for Port St. Joe, and we believe that FERC erred in deciding that this proposed natural gas facility is not subject to FERC jurisdiction.”
The Port St. Joe project jumped out at the organization, Slocum said, because they feel it has the potential to be “precedent-setting.”
“I had concerns that this could create a national loophole that if they’re allowed to be granted this exemption, I think you’ll see similar facilities pop up around maybe even in this area, because get going through the FERC jurisdictional process is time consuming, and it’s expensive, because it’s so thorough.”
Slocum and Public Citizen argue that federal regulatory practices offer a fairly large deal of transparency, which he said many residents feel is lacking.
Representatives from Nopetro met with city, county, port authority and St. Joe Company officials in a closed-door fact finding meeting in October, 2022. But city and county officials emphasize that this is the only meeting they have had with the company.
Officials and members of the community have called on Nopetro to hold public hearings. These hearings are a required aspect of local permitting for this type of construction and are expected down the line, should the project move forward.
Conflicting views of a future economy
But beyond Public Citizen’s lawsuit, discussions within the community have called into question whether locals consider an industrial facility of this type to be in accord with the future they envision for Port St. Joe.
This was displayed clearly at the Jan. 14 meeting, where several locals voiced that they feared focusing on industrial development would be a step backwards in the area’s development.
“I have kids here. I have family here, and I have been in this place all my life,” said local pastor Charles Gathers. “… We had to live with the paper mill, and during the time I was a young boy, and I saw all the chemicals and all the stuff they were putting into the community.”
“So now I’m one of the ones who think that’s a bad idea, and we don’t need to go that way. There’s too many unknowns.”
In 2002, portions of Port St. Joe were declared brownfield sites as a result of contamination from the shuttered St. Joe Paper Mill. The EPA defines brownfields 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 that the reintroduction of industrial activity might affect their redevelopment efforts.
“I think any time you’re talking about the economic benefit of this facility, you’ve got to have a net economic benefit analysis,” said Slocum. “There are competing industries that could be negatively impacted. In my experience, once you have an LNG facility here, you’re going to get other LNG facilities here. It’s not going to be Nopetro LNG and then a hotel and then a nice restaurant.”
But representatives from the county argue that along with increasing the tax base for both the county and city and bringing in at least a dozen jobs, the proposed plant represents a potential opportunity to diversify the local economy.
“Instead of slamming the door shut on everything, let’s see what’s out there and what the possibilities are,” County Commissioner Patrick Farrell told the Star after the Jan. 14 meeting.
“People have kids or grandkids that are going to have to move out of here unless they want to wash dishes, or wait tables or clean houses. That doesn’t make a stable community. That makes a transient community.”
Records obtained by Public Citizen show that in a conversation held between Gulf County Economic Development Director Jim McKnight and County Administrator Michael Hammond, McKnight indicated that the plant’s “first phase” was expected to bring in 12 jobs.
But Hammond told The Star last year that the number could be much larger if ancillary industries, such as port or transportation-related jobs, are included in the figure.
“And then what is the spin off for the port?” Hammond asked in October 2022. “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 letter of support for Nopetro’s LNG plant
In September, 2022 the Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted to send a letter to the St. Joe Company, expressing their willingness to “(offer) full support to The St. Joe Company and the community and various business leaders in their effort(s) (leading) to establishing the construction and operation of an LNG plant in Gulf County.”
The letter continues to say “…in this ongoing process of recruitment, development and ideally operations, we would respectfully request the The St. Joe Company and its proposed cooperative partners… assist the Gulf County (BOCC) and administration in providing informational town hall meetings to educate the residents of Gulf County on the many economic benefits of this technology and operations and the public health and safety aspects as well environmental impacts with the construction and operation of an LNG plant.”
At the Jan. 14 meeting, Slocum and other attendees called into question whether the county had been early in voicing their support of the project, pointing out that at the time, county officials had yet to meet with representatives from Nopetro LNG.
But County Attorney Jeremy Novak told those gathered that the letter was sent as a request for The St. Joe Company to help the county pursue further information.
“It encourages the St. Joe Company to invite these potential energy companies to come here and educate the public on the benefits, possibly the burdens or the negative impacts, on the community,” Novak said.
“Just as you are doing today, providing information to the public, they’ve also… invited everyone to come here and have these discussions before them. It’s a general letter of support… encouraging economic development, job growth, and to encourage the dialogue that you’re having with the public today.”
Officials from the City of Port St. Joe have not publicly declared support or opposition to the project at this point in time.
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.
Research has shown it is among the safest of the fossil fuels to produce and transport, though it is not devoid of risks.
Slocum said in his presentation that “in addition to greenhouse gasses, liquefaction facilities release air pollutants that are hazardous to human health, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide.”
In June of last year, there was a large explosion at an LNG facility in Freeport, Texas, which an investigation revealed was the result of a malfunctioning valve. These vapor cloud explosions are rare, but some argue local infrastructure would not be prepared to handle an event of that magnitude should one occur.
What happens next?
At this point in time, there is no guarantee Nopetro will move forward with applying for permits to build in this area.
A licensing agreement between the St. Joe Company and Nopetro LNG LLC expired on Dec. 31, 2022, and according to representatives from the St. Joe Company, there is no existing contract between the companies at this time.
However, Hammond stated that to his knowledge, the project was still expected to move forward into permitting and that discussion between Nopetro and the St. Joe Company are ongoing.
Among the project’s next steps would be applying for a development order from the city. Port St. Joe City Manager Jim Anderson, previously 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 2023, but not beforehand.
Nopetro did not respond to multiple requests for interview in time for publication of this article.