Georgia awash in natural gas plans

The massive storage tanks along a bend of the Savannah River five miles below historic Bay Street illustrate America’s schizophrenic embrace of natural gas.

Mothballed for nearly two decades, the Elba Island facility re-opened in the late 1990s to handle liquified natural gas shipments from the Middle East and the Caribbean. It expanded twice over the next decade to sate the Southeast’s appetite for energy.

Now, Elba’s owners want to reverse course and export a tidal wave of natural gas drilled primarily in Pennsylvania and Texas. In addition, Atlanta Gas Light (AGL) wants to build a pipeline from Coweta County north to Dalton. Another pipeline from Alabama through Southwest Georgia and into Florida is currently under federal review.

Credit, or blame, for the natural gas boom goes to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting chemical-laced fluid underground at great pressure to split shale and release the gas inside. A half-million wells, spread across 35 states, have made the United States the world’s largest producer of natural gas.

Georgia doesn’t gush a commercial drop. But Atlanta’s expected population growth, and Elba’s export potential, has put the state squarely in the crosshairs of pro- and anti-fracking advocates. The Sierra Club, for example, recently filed a protest petition with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) opposing exports through Elba.

Steve Willis, a Sierra Club official on the Georgia coast, said exports could drive up domestic prices while adding to fossil fuel use.

“Fracking in the U.S. has created a glut of extremely cheap gas and people think that’s great,” Willis said in an interview in Savannah. “But if they start exporting from Elba, electricity and home heating costs will go through the ceiling. And more carbon will be released into the atmosphere which means a worse future for the planet and mankind.”

Gas backers say gas is much cleaner than coal. Federal rules increasingly mandate a move away from coal to cleaner-burning energy sources including gas, solar and wind. Natural gas supplied 42 percent of Georgia Power’s energy last year, nearly double the amount two years earlier.

“We have such plentiful supplies in the U.S. and the expectation of relatively low natural gas prices going out to 2040,” said Rayola Dougher, senior economic adviser for the American Petroleum Institute in Washington. “The world needs the gas and we can sure offer it to them for a good price.”

Exporting to countries with a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States, like Canada or Mexico, is a relatively straightforward process. But nearly three dozen terminals, most in Louisiana and Texas, have applied or are expected to apply to export to countries that haven’t signed such agreements with the U.S. So far, only seven terminals have received permission from the Energy Department.

Georgia companies are split on the surge of gas production. Textile and flooring companies in north Georgia like Mohawk and Shaw, for example, support the proposed Dalton pipeline that will bring a steady supply of energy especially during peak-use winter months. But chemical companies and others that already consume a lot of gas worry that exports will drive up prices.

“Very competitively priced energy is one of the chief reasons for the resurgence of manufacturing in this country,” said Roy Bowen, president of the Georgia Association of Manufacturers.

Elba Island

Shell, the global oil and gas giant, and Kinder Morgan, a pipeline and terminal company based in Houston, plan to spend $1.5 billion upgrading Elba Island for exports. The companies have already received federal approval to ship gas to free-trade countries and await a green light to transport to non-FTA countries.

The gas would roll down the pipeline that connects Atlanta (and the nation’s main north-south Transco pipeline) to Savannah, get liquified and then go downriver and out to sea on hulking tankers. Construction could begin by mid-2015 with exports flowing by 2017.

River pilots and terminal operators complain that the LNG ships slow traffic along the busy Savannah River which leads to Georgia’s main port. Ships must stay at least two nautical miles from an LNG tanker.

In 2006, the wake from a passing ship caused a 940-foot LNG tanker unloading gas at Elba to break free of its moorings. No spill occured, though.

“Savannah and Georgia are on track to take on a lot bigger risk,” said Ellis of the Sierra Club.

Richard Wheatley, a Kinder Morgan spokesman, said via e-mail that “our design, construction, operation and maintenance practices meet or exceed federal requirements.”

Dalton Expansion Pipeline

Recently, and with little fanfare, AGL and pipeline builder Williams Partners unveiled a 106-mile line running through Coweta, Carroll, Douglas, Paulding, Bartow, Gordon and Murray counties. They’ll tap into the Transco pipeline that runs from Louisiana to New Jersey.

AGL will connect to the line in Bartow County; Oglethorpe Power will be served at its electric generating plant in Murray County.

“Power plants, historically, have been fueled by coal, but because of clean-air rules they are now being fueled by gas, especially in the Southeast” said Chris Stockton, a Williams spokesman.

Construction on the half-billion dollar project could begin by mid-2016 with completion a year later. The pipeline will transport enough gas to meet the daily needs of 2 million homes. A FERC environmental review is underway. Public meetings begin June 9 in Newnan; others will be held in Carrollton, Dallas, Cartersville, Calhoun and Dalton.

Stockton says 90 percent of the proposed route will piggyback existing utility corridors, mostly power lines. Once the route is final, Williams will pay landowners for rights to run the pipeline across their property. If they refuse, eminent domain could be invoked.

Bartow County alone could receive $300,000 a year in ad valorem taxes, Stockton said.

Boyd Austin, the mayor of Dallas, met recently with pipeline officials and came away satisfied the project will have minimal effect on Paulding County. The line shouldn’t come any closer than 2.5 miles west of Dallas along a Georgia Power transmission line.

“It will provide jobs for our people hopefully and get infrastructure in place for future development,” Austin said.

Sabal Trail

An old natural gas line runs across Sandra Yarbrough Jones’s 25-acre homestead near Moultrie in Southwest Georgia. Houston-based Spectra Energy, along with the company that owns Florida Power and Light, proposes another one.

“They want to lay this new one within 50 feet of the old one, so that puts it right into my backyard,” said Jones, a fourth-generation farmer. “It’ll take out my garden, my citrus trees, tomatoes, broccoli, squash, eggplants and onions. We also grow camellia trees.”

The 465-mile Sabal Trail gas line has stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition in Georgia where it would cross nine counties en route to Florida. The $3 billion pipeline project would start in Alabama and bring an additional 1 billion cubic feet of gas per day to Florida.

Public hearings have already been held. Spectra, which says it wants to diversify Florida’s energy options while insulating customers from weather-related disruptions, is shooting for a May 2017 completion date.

Environmental groups have asked FERC to investigate Spectra’s proposed route; its effect on drinking water and air pollution; the potential for explosions; and threats to wildlife and wetlands.

The pipeline should “go along established routes where it would make a lot more sense and impact a lot less private property taken by eminent domain,” said Steve Caley, a senior attorney with GreenLaw in Atlanta, which represents environmental groups challenging the pipeline.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently questioned the pipeline’s route and the need for the project.

“We have been evaluating our primary route, as well as possible alternatives” Andrea Grover, a Spectra spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “During the consideration of all route options, Sabal Trail attempts to minimize, to the extent practicable, landowner, community and environmental impacts.”