PORT ST. JOE, Fla.—Not long ago, this rural coastal town in the Florida Panhandle was home to a thriving Black community, with locally owned shops and restaurants and plentiful jobs at the nearby paper mill.
Their community fell into decay after the paper mill closed in 1999, but today residents have big plans for restoring and uniting it, finally, with the white side of town.
They envision a reinvented Martin Luther King Boulevard, the main thoroughfare here, with mixed-use development, extended sidewalks and a new Black history museum. They had crafted a redevelopment plan with the community’s beachy location making tourism and real estate opportunities the centerpiece.
To support their dream, the residents had secured three grants from the Environmental Protection Agency, together totaling $850,000, for health and housing needs, repairs after Hurricane Michael in 2018 and a legacy of pollution left by the paper mill. They just garnered another one in April from the Biden administration, aimed at finding nature-based solutions for frequent flooding affecting the community.
“Because of what we see happening on the other side of town, we know it’s possible,” said Dannie Bolden, an activist who works tirelessly for the community. He grew up here and now is vice president of the North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition, a local group aimed at redeveloping the community. He has a round face, warm smile and gray goatee.
But elected officials and a Miami-based energy company, Nopetro Energy, have other plans: a liquified natural gas plant on the same 60 acres, now vacant and weedy, where the paper mill once stood.
The LNG plant would involve three enormous refrigerators that would cool natural gas to an extreme minus-260 degrees Fahrenheit, turning the fossil fuel into a liquid. The LNG then would be loaded into shipping containers and trucked a crucial quarter mile—1,300 feet—to a dock, where a crane would hoist the containers on cargo ships destined for the Caribbean and Latin America.
The 1,300 feet is a crucial detail because it has enabled Nopetro to move forward with the plant without any oversight from federal regulators, sparing the energy company a lengthy and costly environmental review process that would have involved the public, said Tyson Slocum, energy program director at Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group in Washington.
Instead, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission 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.
“If you look at the details of Nopetro’s design, they clearly worked with lawyers to intentionally design and orient their LNG terminal specifically to evade FERC oversight,” he said. “This is why this case is so insane. FERC is mangling common sense and the plain statutory language. It’s insane that we’re even having to file this lawsuit.”
Slocum believes the commission, by granting the exemption, is establishing a precedent that opens a legal loophole, making way for similar LNG plants nationwide. His organization has sued in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit for a review of the decision.
Meanwhile, in Port St. Joe, the proposed LNG plant has generated widespread opposition, among Black and white residents, but has benefited notably 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 the massive interstate pipeline that would provide natural gas for the plant. Shoaf’s father, Stuart Shoaf, is president.
In Port St. Joe, all redevelopment plans have come to a halt in the city’s Black community so that residents can devote everything toward preventing the LNG plant’s construction, Bolden said.
“Our cultural burden for environmental injustice was already at the highest that we thought it could be,” he said, “and now they’re going to put this on top of that?”
“This community deserves better,” said Lynn Peters-Lewis, who also grew up here and moved back after retiring from a career at IBM in New York City. She lives on Peters Street, named for her grandfather. “I would like these elected officials to think deeper, embrace new ideas, be transparent about what they do and think and listen to what people who elected them want.”
LNG’s Gulf Coast Build-Out
Across the country 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, said Morgan Johnson, senior staff attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“This industry and its build-out are really benefiting from a weak regulatory framework,” she said. “These are communities, many of which have already been really hit hard and hit uniquely hard with extreme weather events and recovering from hurricanes and storm after storm, and so for these projects to be slated in these vulnerable communities is problematic.”
Many environmental advocates say massive investments in new LNG infrastructure like liquification facilities and export terminals represent a poor strategy in the global transition toward cleaner energy because they lock in fossil fuel dependence. They say as the LNG industry expands it likely will be nearly impossible to prevent temperatures from rising above the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold scientists say is necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
North Port St. Joe
In Port St. Joe, a series of railroad tracks forms the boundaries of the Black side of town, called North Port St. Joe, segregating the community from the beachy shops and restaurants attracting tourists on the other end of town. The vacant site of the former paper mill represents another boundary, further isolating the community from St. Joseph Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
“The name North Port St. Joe tells you it has always been segregated,” said Pastor Chester Davis of Philadelphia Primitive Baptist Church, who grew up here and has lived here most of his life. A Vietnam veteran, he wore a vibrant T-shirt featuring an American flag, eagle and other patriotic symbols that contrasted sharply with his quiet demeanor. His church, a tiny white block structure, has about 60 members.
North Port St. Joe’s history traces to the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the community’s original residents settled here for the local fishing, turpentine and lumber industries. The St. Joe Paper Company, as it was called at the time, opened the paper mill in 1938, manufacturing products like liner board and corrugated cardboard boxes. Today the St. Joe Company, as it now is known, is among the state’s top landowners, with business interests in real estate and timber. The company still owns the paper mill site where the proposed LNG plant would be located, but is a separate entity from the St. Joe Gas Company.
The paper mill predated EPA regulations and spewed fly ash and other emissions into the air while discharging arsenic, lead and other hazardous chemicals into the soil and water, according to an amicus brief filed by Earthjustice, an environmental advocacy group, in support of Public Citizen’s lawsuit over the FERC exemption. Untreated wastewater was discarded into an unlined impoundment and then St. Joseph Bay. The air smelled horribly, and the bay water at the site grew discolored and unsuitable for swimming.
Perhaps most alarmingly, St. Joe Paper Company dumped mill waste like wood chips, tree bark and other debris into nearby timberlands and wetlands, according to the Earthjustice amicus brief. The company then leveled the land, divided it into lots and sold the properties to unsuspecting North Port St. Joe residents.
Today the homes adjacent to the vacant paper mill site where the LNG plant would be built continue to sink and sag, with large cracks creeping from damaged foundations, as the buried waste decomposes and settles. The neighborhood spans a few blocks and consists of newly renovated homes and old ranch-style houses that are in very poor shape, a community center, playground, restaurant and food pantry. The St. Joe Company did not respond to requests for comment.
Nonetheless, Davis remembers his childhood in North Port St. Joe fondly.
“Each family took care of each other. That’s the way I saw it as a child,” Davis said. “It was a well-taken-care-of community, because we were self-supporting. The only thing we did not have in the ‘50s was a bank. We had all the motels and places to eat and service stations. We had a few offices that were considered doctor’s offices and dispensaries.”
After the mill closed, many North Port St. Joe residents were left with few options, and the community languished. Eventually, to revive the community, some of the residents formed several organizations including the Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation, aimed at addressing local challenges like poverty, disenfranchisement and loss of population. The residents held public meetings and raised funds with next to no help from local officials, they say. Port St. Joe City Manager Jim Anderson said leaders have invested millions of dollars in recent years in local improvements, including in North Port St. Joe.
The North Port St. Joe residents dreamed of cleaning up their contaminated land, situating their homes on solid ground and integrating Port St. Joe once and for all. The future seemed bright.
Instead, the community was in for a shock.
For Years, Locals Knew Nothing
While monitoring major legal filings before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington two years ago, Slocum, the energy analyst at Public Citizen, noticed one from Nopetro asking for a jurisdictional exemption that would make way for the LNG plant in Port St. Joe, Florida.
Slocum said he immediately recognized the filing as significant, and his organization protested it. But a year later FERC dismissed the protest and granted Nopetro the exemption.
“We knew the wheels were in motion to eventually appeal this,” Slocum said. “So then we started reaching out to the local community to find out if people were concerned.”
Slocum tracked down a telephone number for Dannie Bolden of the North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition and dialed the activist.
“‘I want to speak to you about the proposed liquified natural gas export terminal,’” Slocum recalled saying.
“‘What are you talking about?’” he remembered Bolden saying.
Bolden can be challenging to speak with because he often is called away by residents who need his help. On the phone that day with Slocum, he said knew nothing about any LNG plant in Port St. Joe. He asked for a little time and after hanging up, he said he reached out to state Rep. Jason Shoaf, who Bolden had a working relationship with.
“‘This is not going to happen,’” Bolden said the state representative told him. “‘That’s just people making stuff up.’”
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But when Bolden called Slocum back the next day, Slocum emailed Bolden a letter Shoaf had sent FERC back in 2021 in support of the plant and local jobs Shoaf said the plant would create.
“He just basically lied to us,” Bolden said of the legislator. “I felt like we were basically disregarded as a community.”
Shoaf did not respond to requests for comment.
U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, a Republican from Panama City, similarly sent a letter of support for the plant to FERC.
Even though North Port St. Joe residents just were learning of the proposed LNG plant in 2022, the plant had been in the works since 2020, when Nopetro had negotiated a gas supply agreement and lease with the St. Joe Gas Company and St. Joe Company, which was acting as an agent of the Port Authority, Slocum said.
Nopetro did not respond to requests for comment.
Local officials have said they did not know about the plant either, and North Port St. Joe residents are now working with the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a non-profit group specializing in open access to public records, to better understand what local officials knew and when.
“If it is so positive and beneficial to the community you would expect they would not be shy about promoting that to the community and letting the community know,” said Michael Barfield, director of public access initiatives at the Florida Center for Government Accountability.
The LNG plant would have a big impact on Port St. Joe. The U.S. Department of Energy has authorized Nopetro to export up to 51.75 billion cubic feet of the fossil fuel a year, including shipments from the port here and elsewhere in Florida, including in Panama City and Tampa. This means the energy company could liquify natural gas in Port St. Joe and either export it from the dock here or truck it to another port, generating hazardous cargo shipments and traffic congestion for this small town.
LNG facilities release air pollutants that are dangerous for human health, including particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide. In Port St. Joe the plant would include on-site burning of various pollutants, Slocum said. There also would be heavy ship traffic to and from the port, which would affect the fragile St. Joseph Bay, Public Citizen says.
The site also would be vulnerable to hurricanes and storm surge flooding. Hurricane Michael, one of the most powerful tropical storms ever to strike the United States, made landfall in 2018 some 12 miles away near Mexico Beach. North Port St. Joe avoided the worst of the damage, but the hurricane laid bare underlying problems like sinking, deteriorating homes and a lack of property insurance, as many homes here have been passed down through generations.
As word spread about the proposed LNG plant, opposition grew. A community meeting in January drew 150 Black and white residents to the local Centennial Building, built in 1938 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the framing of Florida’s constitution, prompting organizers to pull in extra chairs to accommodate the sizable crowd in this small town.
Slocum flew down from Washington and gave a presentation that included public records his organization had obtained showing that local officials actually believed the plant’s “first phase” would generate a mere 12 jobs, although a county administrator previously had told the local newspaper the number could be higher if related port and transportation jobs were considered.
County officials already had agreed to send a letter of support to the St. Joe Company, but during the meeting a county attorney said the letter only was intended as a request for information. City officials have not expressed support or opposition for the project. Anderson, the city manager, told ICN that leaders want more information from Nopetro.
During the meeting some residents voiced concerns about whether the plant fit with the community’s vision for the future, and whether the industrial project would represent a step backward for the community’s tourism-based growth and development.
“I have kids here. I have a family here, and I have been in this place all my life,” Charles Gathers, a local pastor, said during the meeting, according to the local newspaper. “We had to live with the paper mill, and during the time I was a young boy, I saw all the chemicals and all the stuff they were putting into the community.”
“So now,” Gathers said, in reference to the proposed LNG plant, “I’m one of the ones who think that’s a bad idea.”
Public Citizen Files Suit
There are two main ways for loading LNG onto cargo ships. The first involves pipes and pumps that move the fossil fuel into an insulated storage tank and then directly onto the ships. The second relies on shipping containers that can be transported by trucks, ships and rail cars. The Department of Energy says exporting LNG using shipping containers creates a virtual pipeline for countries lacking infrastructure or that are not near a port that can receive large tankers. This makes LNG more accessible for islands, for instance.
Since the mid-2010s, FERC has established through a series of decisions that the commission lacks authority over export terminals that do not connect to a pipeline, or that do not load LNG directly onto cargo ships, like in Port St. Joe.
In 2022, a number of advocacy groups, including the Suwannee Riverkeeper, Kissimmee Waterkeeper and Our Santa Fe River Inc., all in Florida, filed a petition for rulemaking before FERC asking that the commission reverse the precedent. The groups said that while exempted facilities like the one in Port St. Joe must comply with the same federal laws as non-exempted facilities, there is no lead federal agency to ensure compliance. There also is no public involvement in the siting and construction process. The petition also pointed out that in Florida, LNG is not regulated, and there are no state or local agencies to provide that kind of oversight.
“All you have to do is get a local land use permit, which is either granted by the city council or the local zoning board, and that process sometimes doesn’t even require public notice,” said Slocum, whose organization was not involved in the petition for rulemaking. “How can a local government marshal the resources to review the impacts that an LNG terminal would have?”
After Public Citizen filed its lawsuit challenging the FERC exemption in Port St. Joe, the commission responded with a brief stating the plant was outside its jurisdiction because “the facility would not be located at the point of export and because LNG could not be directly transferred to vessels for export.”
“What Public Citizen now demands is a sweeping change in agency policy,” the brief stated. “So even if the journey by truck from facility to port is less than a mile, the Commission has consistently declined jurisdiction in such instances – and reasonably did so again here.”
The FERC brief went on to say the Port St. Joe plant would be subject to the same statutes and regulations as other LNG facilities. For instance, exports would fall under EPA regulations and requirements under the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Hazardous Materials Transportation Act. Delivery of natural gas to the plant would be covered by Department of Transportation regulations and require oversight from the Florida Public Service Commission.
Oral arguments in the federal case are expected this fall, and a decision could come early next year.
‘We Gotta Win’
Port St. Joe is situated near the Panhandle’s midsection, just up from the point where Cape San Blas juts into the Gulf of Mexico. A sliver of a peninsula extends from the cape back around to the west, encircling St. Joseph Bay and providing some protection for Port St. Joe from the undulating gulf. Cargo ships docking here for LNG shipments would be forced to navigate a narrow inlet between the peninsula and mainland into the sensitive bay.
Much of the area revolves around the bay. Large gulf-front homes on stilts attract vacationers and residents alike for the good life in sunny Florida. Boating and fishing are the main draws, and restaurants serve up local seafood like the area’s iconic oysters. The closest Starbucks is 47 miles away in Panama City.
Bolden said North Port St. Joe is one of the few predominately African-American communities along the Gulf Coast where Blacks own the land.
“There are a lot of great and wonderful people who are welcoming and have a spirit and love when it comes to the community itself,” he said.
For many residents here, the proposed LNG plant represents another defeat in the ongoing battle for equal footing with their neighbors on the other side of town.
“It’s a killer for us,” said Peters-Lewis, the New York retiree. “It’s a beautiful area. Nobody wants that industry here. We don’t want that LNG up and down the highway.”
Adds Davis, the pastor: “For me, LNG represents a destruction of what we have overcome from the paper mill.”
The North Port St. Joe residents are working to build opposition to the LNG plant within their community. They hope to persuade local officials to stop the plant. Nopetro will have to apply for a development order with the city, which would initiate a process that would involve the public. Anderson, the city manager, said the energy company has not applied for that development order yet. He said city officials do not support or oppose the project.
“We want to make an educated decision about any type of business that wants to come into our community,” he said.
Bolden said he feels like the community is being watched. He believes what is happening here is important.
“We want to let people know that what’s about to happen in North Port St. Joe could become the norm across the country,” he said. “We believe that we’re in the epicenter, and we are in the middle of a battle that if we don’t win it, it could impact other communities. So we gotta win it. We can’t afford to let this go. We gotta win.”