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Date of Issue: July 08, 2009

Impact statement due on port, pipeline

A final environmental impact statement on Port Dolphin’s proposed deepwater natural gas port and pipeline is due this month.

The Port Dolphin Energy LLC proposal calls for a deepwater natural gas port about 28 miles off the coast of Anna Maria Island. Ships carrying liquefied natural gas from other areas will anchor next to buoys at the deepwater port in the Gulf of Mexico, where the LNG will be converted into gas and fed into a pipeline running from the deepwater port into Tampa Bay to Port Manatee. The pipeline will continue several miles inland, where it will connect with other gas pipelines.

Port Dolphin, a subsidiary of an Oslo, Norway, company, proposed the pipeline in an application to the federal government in March 2007. The application has since been under review by a series of federal agencies, in cooperation with Florida departments, but the principal reviewer is the U.S. Coast Guard.

Last April, the Coast Guard released a draft environmental impact statement finding that the project posed small but potentially significant risks and raising the following concerns:

• Collisions and noise can disturb whales.

• Lighting from construction of the offshore port could impact sea turtles, as could collisions, noise, entanglement and debris.

• An increase in noise, traffic, debris and lighting might have impacts on Everglades National Park and the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.

• Liquid natural gas might be released in an accidental collision, mechanical failure, fire, severe storm, explosion or aviation accident.

• Emissions during operation of the port and pipeline might negatively impact air quality and would generate greenhouse gasses.

• Increases in boat traffic could lead to increases in collisions with manatees.

Locally, however, much of the attention paid to the pipeline has been from government officials concerned about protecting beach-quality sand for future renourishment projects.

Once the pipeline is placed, sand along the route will be off-limits for renourishment.

In mid-June, the county, Longboat Key and Port Dolphin announced a possible solution to renourishment concerns — advanced removal of quality sand before the pipeline is placed.

A formal agreement for the compromise is to be presented to the county commission later this month.

“We have everybody working on details right now,” said Port Dolphin spokesman Wayne Hopkins.

Meanwhile, environmental groups such as ManaSota-88 are monitoring the progress of the project and awaiting the final impact statement.

“We have not taken any formal action to oppose the project,” said ManaSota-88 executive director Glenn Compton. “We are watching the proceedings carefully at this point.”

Port Dolphin maintains the pipeline will help Florida utilities move away from a reliance on coal, will supply clean-burning natural gas to meet 15 percent of the state’s needs — or a million homes a day.

“Natural gas has a role to play in the energy mix,” Hopkins said, adding that gas is more than 50 percent cleaner than coal and “substantially cleaner than oil.”

Compton, however, said the emphasis on developing another major project that relies on importing foreign non-renewable fuel is misguided.

“Energy conservation and increased energy and fuel efficiency is preferable to all forms of non-renewable fuel sources,” he said.

Hopkins said Port Dolphin understands the importance of increasing renewable energy uses, but that natural gas is a natural partner for “when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.”

Local enthusiasm for the project, including among county commissioners and business leaders, is primarily tied to the economics of the project.

“People are correctly raising questions,” said Hopkins. “All the questions are good and we are happy to deal with them. But we have continued to have a lot of support for building the project.”

Port Dolphin maintains the project will generate $42 million in economic benefits during construction, including the creation of 82 jobs and $1.5 million in local and state revenue taxes.

Over the life of the project — about 20-30 years — Port Dolphin estimates the economic benefits will total more than $85 million, as well as spur competition that could reduce energy costs for consumers.

“No doubt jobs are important, as is the money generated from the project,” Compton said.

He added, “Port Dolphin will have to demonstrate that the benefits of the pipeline clearly outweigh the risks to the citizens of Manatee County.”

Most significantly, Compton said, “the potential for a gas leak and an explosion cannot be ruled out.”

Hopkins responded, “In terms of safety, we are always very concerned about safety. This project is 28 miles offshore and it poses no threat to anybody onshore.”

The liquefied natural gas that tankers will haul to the deepwater port is not volatile and will not explode, but it is flammable and can burn, according to Hopkins.

Any fire, he said, would be contained to the deepwater port area.

But, he added, “There has never been an LNG accident.”

Once in the pipeline, the gas is no different than that in existing underwater pipelines or in land-based lines, Hopkins said.