Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Sabal Trail, Eclipseville, & ocean auctions

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission recently approved the first phase of the Sabal Trail Pipeline, a 515-mile natural gas pipeline that will transport a billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from central Alabama, through Georgia, to northern Florida. When it is completed in 2021, Sabal Trail will be one of three Southeast Market Pipeline projects that are supposed to increase natural gas capacity in Florida.

The approval means the controversial pipeline is officially operational after a hard-fought battle between the oil and gas industry and pipeline opponents. For years, environmental activists and local communities have attempted to stop it from being constructed because it will go through fragile wetlands and over the Floridian Aquifer, a 100,000-square-mile porous limestone aquifer that provides drinking water to millions of people. The three companies working on Sabal Trail construction — Spectra Energy, Duke Energy and NextEra Energy, which owns Florida Power & Light — have acquired 2,300 parcels of land for easements from more than 1,550 landowners. Many of these were obtained through eminent domain, a legal process that allows companies to take land by force.

Last August, the Army Corps of Engineers approved three permits for the energy companies to discharge dredged material into wetlands on the premise that they offset it by buying credits for wetland preservation elsewhere. Environmental groups sued the Corps over the permits and pipeline climate impacts in the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta. FERC was grilled over its environmental assessment for the pipeline projects, but this latest approval letter made no mention of that lawsuit, which is still pending.

Even more concerns about the pipeline were raised late last year when a section of it leaked drilling mud discharge into Georgia’s Withlacoochee River, which flows into Florida and the Suwannee River. Sabal Trail Transmission Company (the joint venture of the three energy companies) said it was contained, but activists worried the bentonite clay in the discharge could harm aquatic life.

Opposition against Sabal Trail gained some attention earlier this year: SpectraBusters, a network of activists, has been organizing against it for a long time and became a strong voice for the movement. There were also protests and rallies across Florida, as well as at various locations along the pipeline’s route. One group planned a mass sit-in after 16 people were arrested at a protest. Another time, two protesters climbed 250 feet inside the 36-inch wide pipeline and lodged themselves in there for hours before they were removed and arrested.

All of this occurred during and after the months-long Dakota Access Pipeline protests in North Dakota. Sabal Trail protesters continually said they were energized by the climate justice movement the Standing Rock Sioux protest started, which resulted in a short-lived victory when the Army Corps denied an easement to pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners. This year, the environmental study done for the pipeline was also ruled inadequate, but oil is already flowing through the pipeline and won’t be shut off before a new environmental study is done.

Similarly, gas started pumping through Sabal Trail’s connecting pipelines in Alabama in mid-June, and service to Florida started in early July. Without much oversight, the pipeline plans flew through the state government and the Army Corps, part of a larger push to turn Florida into a natural gas powerhouse. The state has added 3.4 gigawatts of natural gas capacity since 2016, the highest of any state. Another 3.9 gigawatts are expected to be added over the next few years. Energy companies say it will bring cheaper energy to Florida, and since Florida’s geology can’t handle underground natural gas storage, pipelines provide an easier solution.

The fact that these pipelines are running while lawsuits and environmental impact assessments are going on is concerning. But the problems plaguing FERC, the Army Corps, and the oil and gas industry are only becoming more complicated. The Trump administration still hasn’t appointed commissioners to FERC. One is acting commissioner now, but at least three need to be appointed for it to function. Without the agency working properly, investors and energy executives are getting worried about money and jobs. On top of that, pipeline opponents are getting bolder, building everything from chapels to solar panels to cabins along routes across the country.

Despite the Trump administration’s push to forge ahead with fossil fuels and achieve what the president calls “energy dominance,” these protests — beginning with Dakota Access — spurred an awakening in communities around the country, shifting how many people understand and view energy projects.

That awareness is trickling down to unexpected places like rural Georgia and southern Louisiana: students, environmentalists, farmers, and religious organizations are learning more and fighting back against eminent domain claims, inadequate environmental assessments, and poorly planned energy projects. Time will tell how these agencies and companies react, but the movement is still picking up speed. Unfortunately, though, oil and gas flow faster.

Stories worth your time

Writer Reniqua Allen explores the migration of black millennials to the South in recent years in her opinion piece in The New York Times. It’s filled with fascinating statistics, sharp analysis, a fresh perspective on what it means to be young and black, and the opportunities and challenges the South offers. “I headed to Hattiesburg, Miss., to visit a church for L.G.B.T. worshipers, where I was greeted by a tattoo-covered, nose-ring-wearing lesbian minister and spoke to a young black couple who had driven from Alabama,” she wrote. “It seemed like a different South was emerging. Maybe even a South I could one day call home.”

The Washington Post offers an interesting take on the dynamics of cultural and economic ties to coal. The story uses Boone County, West Virginia to illustrate that dynamic.

During the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, the small farming town of Hopkinsville, Kentucky will be 11 miles from where the sun, earth, and moon form a nearly straight line. This Mental Floss story offers a glimpse into how the town has been preparing for tourists, dubbing itself “Eclipseville,” and follows the journey of eclipse chasers.

News flying under the radar

Dominion Energy plans to build two wind turbines off the coast of Virginia, which could expand into a larger wind project in the future. If it is completed, it would be the second offshore wind farm in the U.S.

In August, 73 million acres off the coasts of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas will be auctioned off for oil and gas leasing, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management wants to reduce the royalty rate.

The South Carolina solar industry is weighing in on an international trade case that could put hefty tariffs on solar module imports. Companies sent letters to Sen Lindsay Graham and others asking them to oppose the request.

In case you missed it, Southerly was mentioned by Catherine V. Moore in her Columbia Journalism Review story about Appalachian and Southern new media initiatives that are bucking the traditional narrative of the region.