GRAPHIC/COASTAL PLANNING AND ENGINEERING INC.
Objections are beginning to surface to a proposed submersible floating natural gas port off Anna Maria Island that one elected official remarked has been running silent and under the radar.
Several federal and state permit applications already are in the pipeline for the Port Dolphin Energy Liquefied Natural Gas Deepwater Port, which would be built 28 miles west of Anna Maria Island in 100 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico.
The "port" would consist of two submersible mooring buoys about three miles apart, where tankers would convert their cargoes of liquid natural gas into vaporized natural gas. The system is designed to allow two vessels to be moored simultaneously with the objective of continuously offloading natural gas, according to project particulars published in the Federal Register.
Once vaporized, the gas would be pumped into a proposed 42-mile-long pipeline that would come ashore at Port Manatee, where it would continue over land for about 4 miles to the Gulfstream Natural Gas System and Tampa Electric Co., which would deliver it exclusively to Florida consumers.
Port Dolphin would not be visible from shore, according to Houston-based Port Dolphin Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Oslo, Norway-based Hoegh LNG.
But its impact could be felt for miles around and for years to come.
The Sun first reported on the proposed port on Aug. 1, 2007, but details of its potential effects on water and air quality, marine life, commercial and recreational fishing, navigation and other concerns were released just weeks ago in a Draft Environmental Impact Statement by the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Maritime Administration, the initial permitting authorities for the pipeline portion of the project (see related story).
Project threatens beach renourishment
"This could end the beach renourishment program," said Charlie Hunsicker, director of the Manatee County Conservation Lands Management Department, which oversees the county’s beach renourishment program. "Port Dolphin affects it with irreparable harm. I don’t see how Manatee County can have a viable beach renourishment project into the future."
Hunsicker made the comments about the Port Dolphin plan at a public hearing May 6 on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement at the Manatee Convention Center – ironically, he said, in the Anna Maria room.
He spoke shortly after the engineering firm that coordinates the county’s beach renourishment program discovered that the planned pipeline plows through the sand excavation area used by the county and Longboat Key.
"Manatee County was aware of the project, but reviewers were focused on onshore activities," he said, adding that they had no reason to know that the underwater pipeline would be laid through the fine, white sand used to renourish the beaches until Coastal Planning and Engineering unearthed the plan.
Manatee County’s seven miles of beaches and Longboat Key’s 12 miles are considered critically eroded by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, Coastal Planning marine geologist Beau Suthard told the panel.
He added that their need for sand, along with Pinellas County’s beaches to the north, has resulted in increased competition for dwindling resources.
Since the U.S. Dept. of the Interior’s Minerals Management Service could require up to a 1,000 meter (approximately 3,000 feet) buffer on either side of the pipeline, the county could be prevented from mining there and lose 40 years worth of sand, he said.
Searching for equivalent sand in what would likely be deeper water would require switching from a shallow water cutterhead dredging technology to the more expensive hopper dredging technology, he said.
The cost increase is estimated between $38-53 million over the next 40 years, or around $1 million per year. The estimated total cost increase for Longboat Key is $4 million.
The county’s beach renourishment program is funded through the tourist tax, but that is barely enough to keep up with current needs, much less an increased cost, Hunsicker said.
As a result, finding a new sand source may require taxing Anna Maria Island residents, he said. Longboat Key residents already are taxed because their technology is more expensive since their source is farther away from their location.
Longboat Key town commissioners met on May 5 and sent Longboat Key Public Works Director Juan Florensa to the hearing to express their concern about the impact on sand resources.
"It’s not our intent to kill the project, but to find a route that would avoid impacting taxpayer dollars," he said.
"Our path crosses only one sand borrow area and takes up less than 1 percent of that area," responded German Castro, Project Development Manager for Port Dolphin in Tampa. "The impact is negligible."
The proposed pipeline route is also problematic for the Gulfstream Natural Gas System, which operates an open access interstate transmission pipeline that extends underwater from Mobile Bay, Ala. to Port Manatee, then over land to Palm Beach County.
The company cannot prevent other companies like Port Dolphin from using its pipeline, Gulfstream spokesman Christopher Stockton said, comparing the pipeline to a railroad track used by various railroad lines.
Port Dolphin’s pipeline would be a non-open access"pipeline for its exclusive use.
While economic competition may be a factor, Gulfstream says it objects to both the proposed Port Dolphin pipeline route, which comes within 25 feet of Gulfstream’s onshore pipeline, and Port Dolphin’s proposal to connect with Gulfstream’s onshore pipeline for other reasons.
"They’re proposing to tap our line, but we would like them to tap it in a particular place offshore instead of on land because of safety and environmental issues," Stockton said.
During construction of the Port Dolphin pipeline, an accident 25 feet from the Gulfstream pipeline, which has natural gas flowing through it, could be disastrous, he said.
"As the source of 35 percent of the state’s natural gas pipeline capacity, Gulfstream is critically concerned with the safety to its system which could be compromised by the Port Dolphin proposal," Gulfstream’s lawyers wrote in a letter to the Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration on April 21.
"Gulfstream opposes and protests the proposal to allow its narrow right-of-way in the Port Manatee area to be used for the unneeded construction and operation of the proposed Port Dolphin pipeline. And Gulfstream will not agree to the point of interconnection selected by Port Dolphin."
Port Dolphin responded in a May 6 letter to the Maritime Administration that its "proposed onshore route, which crosses and briefly parallels Gulfstream’s main line within Port Manatee property, is consistent with commission policy and precedent. The commission prefers routes in which two or more pipelines are co-located and often share rights-of-way, and the Draft Environmental Impact Statement follows this well-settled policy. Gulfstream’s suggested interconnection with Port Dolphin under the Gulf of Mexico is not in the public interest.
“The offshore interconnection would eliminate all possible onshore interconnections, including the planned interconnection with TECO/Peoples Gas, the interconnection with Gulfstream, and a possible interconnection with Florida Gas Transmission Co. in Manatee County," Port Dolphin’s lawyers wrote.
Manatee County’s engineering firm has recommended that Port Dolphin build its pipeline within the existing Gulfstream pipeline corridor to avoid the route taking the pipeline through the county’s beach sand mining area, an option opposed by Gulfstream.
"A second alternative would consist of tapping into the Gulfstream pipeline well offshore, thus eliminating the need to traverse potential State of Florida sand resources with a new pipeline," Coastal Planning wrote, the plan which Gulfstream prefers.
Elected officials mobilizing
Elected officials began to mobilize after the May 6 public hearing, which none attended.
"They have been extremely low key with this, under the radar," said state Sen. Mike Bennett, adding that he would begin investigating alternate routes for the pipeline to keep the cost down for the beach renourishment program. "There’s always another alternative. It’s who’s going to pay the expense."
"The idea doesn’t seem conducive to our county. It’s so close to the tip of the Island," said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore, who added that she intends to contact the county’s state and federal legislative delegations.
"We definitely have some concerns," agreed Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann, who notified the county’s environmental department. "There are several issues we are going to raise."