ORLANDO, Fla.—A proposed liquified natural gas plant in the Florida Panhandle that had drawn litigation and widespread local opposition will not move forward, the company behind the plan said this week.
The proposal had triggered a lawsuit in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit over what one consumer advocacy group said was a legal loophole that would limit federal regulatory oversight at the LNG plant and make way for similar plants nationwide.
Inside Climate News reported on the loophole in May, although the company said the decision not to move forward was made earlier.
“In 2022, Nopetro Energy conducted due diligence on a site for a proposed natural gas plant in Port St. Joe,” Ed Hart, senior vice president of supply at Nopetro Energy, based in Miami, said in a statement via email. “Many months ago, after completion of that process, Nopetro Energy decided to no longer pursue the opportunity, purely due to market conditions.”
Nopetro had called for the LNG plant to be constructed on 60 acres adjacent to the historically Black community of Port St. Joe, a rural coastal town some 100 miles from Tallahassee. A groundswell of residents, Black and white, raised concerns, most notably that the plant would not be compatible with local plans to revitalize the Black community, called North Port St. Joe.
Even though Nopetro said the decision not to move forward was made months ago, residents only learned of the decision this week, because of a local newspaper article. Aside from providing the statement, Nopetro did not respond to a request for comment this week on why the company had not notified residents earlier. Nor did the company respond in May, before or after Inside Climate News reported on the community’s protest against what residents thought was a pending proposal.
“My first reaction when I heard about it was, ‘Thank God,’” said Dannie Bolden, a local activist for North Port St. Joe. “This really encourages me to believe in people power, the ability of the community to come together and be able to take charge and challenge things that they think are improper or unhealthy for residents of the community.”
The LNG plant would have involved three enormous refrigerators to cool natural gas to minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit, turning the fossil fuel into a liquid. The LNG then would have been loaded into shipping containers and trucked a crucial quarter mile—1,300 feet—to a dock, where a crane would hoist the containers onto cargo ships destined for the Caribbean and Latin America.
The 1,300 feet was a crucial detail because it enabled Nopetro to move forward with the plant without federal oversight, sparing the company a lengthy and costly environmental review process that would have involved the public, said Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group that sued over the plant.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission had found that because the LNG would be trucked rather than piped directly onto the ships waiting at the dock, the plant was outside the commission’s jurisdiction.
Slocum said the group would continue with its litigation in hopes of closing the loophole for good. Oral arguments are expected this fall, and a decision could come in early 2024.
“It’s probably prudent for them to pump the brakes and hit pause on this because our lawsuit throws everything into flux,” he said. “I don’t see anything in this latest development that shuts and locks the door on Nopetro building an LNG facility in Port St. Joe. I think it just has hit pause for an indefinite period of time, which is great cause for celebration.”
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Despite the widespread local opposition, the plant notably had benefited from the quiet but deliberate support of state Rep. Jason Shoaf, a local Republican. Shoaf is vice president of the St. Joe Gas Company Inc., which connects to a massive interstate pipeline that would have provided natural gas for the plant. Shoaf’s father, Stuart Shoaf, is the gas company’s president. Rep. Shoaf did not respond to a request for comment about Nopetro’s decision not to move forward.
Nationwide LNG exports are booming. Until 2014, the United States did not ship any LNG overseas. Last year the country became the world’s top exporter, with eight terminals now operating and more on the way. The exports have been pushed by the oil industry, which has experienced declining domestic demand even as production has soared. The exports also have helped European countries wean themselves from Russian gas. LNG takes up 1/600th of the volume of natural gas, making the liquid form of the fossil fuel more economical to ship.
Many of the export terminals are clustered along the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Texas, in Black and Latino communities that already are home to a concentration of polluting oil and gas terminals and petrochemical plants—the same communities that are the most vulnerable to climate change impacts like hotter temperatures, rising seas and more damaging hurricanes. Bolden, the local activist for North Port St. Joe, said residents will not give up their campaign against construction of the LNG export terminal.
“We would like to see no LNG in the Panhandle. That is our hope,” he said. “So our work will be to continue to work with Public Citizen and many other environmental groups to make sure that there is no LNG facility in the Florida Panhandle.”