Gas pipelines to go under, through coral reefs
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - (KRT) - Ocean Cay stands about 60 miles off southeast Florida, a smudge of sand and pine trees at the southern tip of the Bimini islands. Over the next three years, AES Corp. plans to triple the size of the island to 276 acres, dredge a port for tankers and construct a natural gas processing plant.
Using industrial barges anchored off Fort Lauderdale, the company intends to drill a pipeline route under fragile coral reefs to bring the gas from the Bahamas to Florida.
Natural gas has become the most popular fuel for power plants because it produces far less air pollution than oil or coal. In the race to serve the state's growing market, three international energy companies are competing to set up processing plants in the Bahamas and lay undersea pipelines to bring the gas to Broward and Palm Beach counties.
But along the proposed land routes in Broward, Martin and Palm Beach counties, residents fear a pipeline explosion. Bahamian environmentalists accuse the companies of selecting their country for the gas processing plants because it has weak environmental laws. And government officials in the United States are struggling to evaluate the risks of leaks, explosions and construction accidents.
"This is a technological feat that hasn't been tried before," said Walter Jaap, research scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute, an arm of state government. "Very deep water, strong currents. It's very cutting edge - or beyond the cutting edge - of what's been done."
Stretching across more than 500 miles, the Bahamas archipelago has served for centuries as a haven from U.S. laws. Once used as a base for pirates, the islands have attracted Confederate blockade runners, Prohibition-era bootleggers and modern-day tax evaders and money launderers.
While no one is accusing the pipeline companies of doing anything illegal, environmentalists say the natural gas proposals would return the Bahamas to its historic role as a place to get away with things that can't be done elsewhere.
"These companies come over here because they know we have lax environmental laws, and they can do whatever they want and get away with it," said Sam Duncombe, director of ReEarth, a Bahamas environmental group. "Why build a pipeline? Why not go straight to Florida and build the LNG facility there?"
AES Corp., El Paso Corp. and Tractebel North America Inc. plan to obtain gas in Algeria, Trinidad or other gas-producing countries. They would cool it to 259 degrees below zero to transform it to a liquid that takes up less space than gas, making it easier to transport. Tankers would carry it to the Bahamas, where regasification plants would heat it up and shoot it through pipelines to Florida.
The companies say they chose the Bahamas because it has substantial vacant land next to deep-water ports - a feature not found in Florida. They say the decision had nothing to do with the Bahamas' smaller regulatory agencies or inexperience with the energy industry.
"We think this is a good opportunity for the Bahamas," said James Ebeling, director of business development for Tractebel. "This project will demonstrate that the Bahamas is a good place for capital investment. It's a vote of confidence for the government and the people."
It is unclear how many pipelines would be built. Authorities
in the United States and the Bahamas could approve all three
projects, or one or two, or none. Executives with the companies
say they think the market could probably support only one at
With a population of only 300,000 or so, the Bahamas cannot field the brigades of lawyers, engineers and scientists that would review such plans for the U.S. government and the state of Florida.
At the U.S. end, pipeline plans would be reviewed by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Army Corps of Engineers, Mineral Management Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, Florida Department of Environmental Protection and several other agencies.
In the Bahamas, the proposals will undergo their primary review with the Bahamas Environment, Science and Technology Commission. It has a professional staff of five.
In the United States, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission will prepare environmental impact statements for each pipeline, place them in public libraries, post them on the Internet and distribute them to anyone who asks. The commission has held several public hearings.
In the Bahamas, there have been no public hearings. Consultants hired by the pipeline companies are preparing the environmental assessments, although an independent consultant will review their work for the government. Two companies have submitted their assessments, but the government has refused to make them public.
A copy of the AES environmental assessment concludes that "the project will have minimal impact on the water and air resources."
"All these things are being thrown at us, and none of it has been laid out publicly," said Margo Blackwell, director of the Bahamas Environmental Research Center, who has tried unsuccessfully to obtain the environmental impact assessments. "We're concerned about pollution. We're concerned about safety. We don't know how they intend to come through our reefs. We feel strongly that the regulations being required by Florida and America are not the regulations that we have here."
Leslie Miller, the Bahamas minister of trade and industry, said the government will hold public hearings - but only after it decides which pipeline to approve.
"We haven't reached that point yet," Miller said. "The government will make the determination after careful consideration of whether the proposal is safe and should go ahead. The environmental impact is paramount and is much more important than any residual financial benefits."
Each pipeline system would generate 200 to 400 construction jobs and 40 to 60 permanent jobs in the Bahamas, diversifying an economy more dependent on tourism than Florida's. But government officials say they must take great care not to allow industrial enterprises to ruin the archipelago's clean beaches and clear water.
"I think the government is torn," said Pierre Dupuch, an independent member of Parliament. "They want investment here, but they're asking the same questions I am. We're in the tourist business. We sell beauty and relaxation in this country. And we don't want a gas leak to destroy that."
Elma Garraway, permanent secretary for the Ministry of Health, which encompasses the environmental commission, could not be reached for comment despite repeated phone calls. Elliston Rahming, spokesman for Prime Minister Perry Christie, asked for a list of questions. After receiving them, he could not be reached, despite repeated phone calls.
Keod Smith, the member of the Cabinet responsible for the environment, acknowledged: "We haven't had anything like this before, so we're kind of on a shoestring."
"We in the Bahamas hold our environment to be very important to us," he said. "And we don't take lightly anything that would be invasive to our environment."
Only four such plants operate in the United States, partly because of public anxiety about the fuel. Liquefied natural gas storage tanks exploded in Staten Island, N.Y., in 1973, killing 40 workers. A liquefied natural gas plant exploded in 1998 in the central China city of Xian, killing 11.
But experts say such accidents are rare. The four U.S. regasification plants have never experienced a fatal accident, said Mark Robinson, director of the Office of Energy Projects for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
U.S. experts say there is also little risk of a tanker
accident. While an oil tanker spill could create a major marine
disaster, a liquefied natural gas tanker leak would probably
just release gas that would vaporize and burn slowly with a low
flame, like a gas grill, said Cmdr. Mike Rand of the Coast
Guard's Marine Safety, Environment and Security staff. There
have been no major accidents, he said.
As the pipelines approach Broward and Palm Beach counties, they would pass through the only coral reefs in the continental United States.
South Florida's reefs provide homes for lobsters, sea turtles, sponges, groupers and many other creatures. They attract tourists to fish, snorkel and scuba dive, generating about $884 million a year for Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, according to a recent study.
AES, Tractebel and El Paso have prepared elaborate plans for protecting the reefs. They would thread the pipelines under some reefs and route them through gaps in others. Even so, experts say many things could go wrong:
A storm could dislodge barges and drag them across the reefs, destroying hundreds of corals, said Walter Jaap, research scientist at the Florida Marine Research Institute. When Tropical Storm Gordon hit in 1994, it dragged a Turkish freighter across two reefs off Fort Lauderdale, dislodging 588 corals.
As they bore horizontal passages under the reefs, the drills risk a sudden escape of lubricating mud, an accident known as a "frac-out." When AT&T drilled a passage for fiber-optic cables off the Virgin Islands, an escape of drilling mud smothered large areas of seagrass, conch, sponges and coral. The company paid $1.8 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department.
The work could stir up so much sediment that the corals would be deprived of light, which could kill them.
"You're going to be using heavy equipment and doing industrial operations," said George Henderson, senior scientist with the Florida Marine Research Institute. "It will damage the reefs. The question is whether they will keep the damage to the minimum extent possible, and is the mitigation sufficient."
Don Bartlett, project manager for AES, said the company has studied previous accidents to find ways to minimize risks to the reefs. For example, the company plans to put floats on cables, so if a cable is dropped it won't drag on the reef.
"We feel extremely confident that we can do things in a way
that's least impactive to the reef system," he said.
On Aug. 19, 2000, a natural gas pipeline exploded near Carlsbad, N.M. A fireball soared 500 feet, and the intense heat turned sand into glass. Twelve people camping near the Pecos River were killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the disaster on lax federal oversight and bad maintenance by El Paso. Its report said El Paso had never inspected the entire interior of the 50-year-old pipe, allowing corrosion to develop undetected.
Now El Paso proposes to lay a pipeline from Grand Bahama island through the Port of Palm Beach, continuing along the Beeline Highway to a Florida Power & Light Co. plant near Indiantown. El Paso said it had learned from the Carlsbad explosion and "implemented an aggressive, comprehensive approach to pipeline integrity that addressed the full range of known risks, including internal corrosion."
The Palm Beach County and Martin County commissions both oppose the pipeline. In the affluent Caloosa, Fla., neighborhood, which lies along the route, residents have organized to fight.
"They're all upset," said George Gasparini, president of the Caloosa Homeowners Association. "This is not a safe project. You're placing it right next to a highway, right next to an airport. What if a truck goes off the road and hits it? If we ever had a pipeline burst, it would burn down this end of the county."
Since 1986, 59 people have been killed in explosions of natural gas transmission lines in the United States, according to the federal Office of Pipeline Safety.
Aaron Samson, project director for AES, said the Carlsbad explosion involved an old pipeline that couldn't be inspected by internal devices called "pigs" that travel through pipelines looking for corrosion and other problems. All new pipelines can be inspected by this method, he said.
AES and Tractebel propose to route their pipelines through south Broward County, starting in Dania Beach, Fla. While opposition is less vocal than in Palm Beach County, several dozen people have shown up at public hearings to oppose the pipelines.
In trying to win public support, the companies point to natural gas's reputation as a clean fuel. They say the pipelines would provide an incentive to FPL to switch to natural gas at its heavily polluting, oil-fired plant at Port Everglades.
But local support or opposition may not make much difference.
The power to approve the pipelines rests with the Federal
Energy Regulatory Commission. And because few people want to
live near pipelines, oil refineries or other major energy
installations, the commission has the authority to override
AES and Tractebel have received preliminary approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The companies still need to pass lengthy environmental reviews in the United States and win approval from the Bahamas.
The El Paso pipeline may be the least likely to get built. Experiencing severe financial difficulties, the company is selling off assets and departing the liquefied natural gas business. While company officials insist they are going forward, El Paso remains the only contender that has not yet filed an application with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. "Ultimately, you're never going to get a pipeline built where everyone will say,I'm happy it's in my back yard,'" said Mark Robinson, director of the regulatory commission's Office of Energy Projects. "But if we're going to have the infrastructure we need, we have to site that infrastructure somewhere."
Copyright South Florida Sun-Sentinel