Sierra Club files Florida Supreme Court suit to block FPL rate hike

FPL's Riviera Beach plant is among those fueled by natural gas.
FPL’s Riviera Beach plant is among those fueled by natural gas.

Sierra Club  filed a lawsuit Tuesday in the Florida Supreme Court to block Florida Power & Light’s rate hike for an energy plan that the environmental group says “bilks millions of customers and further locks the Sunshine State into an over-reliance on financially risky, climate-disrupting gas.”

On Nov. 29, the Florida Public Service Commission unanimously approved FPL’s $811 million base rate increase following a settlement between the company and  three customer groups. The rate increase took effect this month.

Prior to the rate increase’s approval, Sierra Club had submitted nearly 6,000 comments to the commission from Floridians who said the rate increase posed an economic hardship for them. The commenters also stressed that there’s no need for the gas-burning power plants in Florida.

Tuesday, FPL issued a statement calling the Sierra Club “an extreme group which takes extreme positions.”

The Sierra Club objects to FPL’s reliance on natural gas, which is used to produce about 70 percent of its electricity, while using solar energy to produce less than 1 percent.  It asserts that the Florida Public Service Commission violated Florida law in approving the rate increase.

Sierra Club officials said Florida law states that utilities may raise rates only after the PSC agrees that the increase is prudent and necessary to continue providing reliable, affordable power. To comply with Florida law, FPL was required to present the PSC—and the public—with substantial evidence to prove the gas plants were needed and were the least-cost option before building the plants or asking to raise customers’ rates to cover the costs.

FPL spokeswoman Sarah Gatewood said in a statement Tuesday:

“The Sierra Club is an extreme group that takes extreme positions, so while we are disappointed, we’re not surprised at the actions taken today by this Washington-based lobbying group.   Apparently they’re more interested in generating headlines and donations than working with the cleanest electric company in Florida and the only electric utility in the Southeast United States to already be in compliance with the EPA’s 2030 Clean Power Plan today.

“Rather than recognizing our innovative approach to running our business and the resulting significant benefits for all customers, including 1,200 megawatts of cost-effective new solar right here in Florida over the next four years, this out-of-state group is instead moving forward with more frivolous, expensive litigation that will cost all Floridians – not just FPL customers, but all Florida taxpayers,” Gatewood said.

“After a nearly year-long process that included more than 30 witnesses, countless hours of cross examination by attorneys for all parties, including the Sierra Club, and hundreds of thousands of pages of evidence, FPL and the Office of Public Counsel, which represents all customers, as well as other major customer stakeholder groups, reached a fair settlement that is clearly in the best interest of all of FPL’s customers – and the Florida Public Service Commission unanimously agreed.

“The settlement supports billions of dollars in planned investments to continue improving FPL’s electrical infrastructure, which is already one of the cleanest and most reliable in the U.S., while still keeping typical customer bills lower than they were in 2006 through 2020. We look forward to demonstrating those benefits yet again,” Gatewood said.

Sierra Club also criticized the $3 billion 515-mile Sabal Trail pipeline slated to be completed this year. It will  transport fracked gas to central Florida and then to FPL’s South Florida plants.

The pipeline’s construction threatens local waterways and wetlands and the fragile limestone surrounding the Floridan Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the world, the Sierra Club and others contend.

“There’s absolutely no justification for making families and businesses pay more of our hard-earned money just so FPL can line its shareholders’ pockets and pollute our air and water in the process,” said Sierra Club Florida Chapter Director Frank Jackalone.

Sierra Club Florida Chapter Chair Mark Walters said, “The PSC is supposed to make sure our energy sources are safe, reasonable and reliable. Instead, they’ve chosen to let FPL leave us vulnerable to price spikes when investments in solar and energy efficiency are proving to be safer and cheaper in states across the country.”

Floridians made it clear in November that they want more solar by voting down Amendment 1, a failed multi-million dollar attempt by FPL and other Florida utilities to mislead voters and hobble solar growth in the Sunshine State, Sierra Club officials said.

“FPL should take full advantage of our state’s clean energy potential instead of stubbornly building out dirty, unnecessary gas plants and pipelines that increase pollution and electric bills,” Walters said. “Renewable energy technologies are smarter, more cost-effective and safer than fossil fuels. FPL needs to stop propping up its stockholders at the expense of our communities and our natural resources.”

 

 

 

 

AARP, others call for utility regulation reform in wake of FPL rate hike

FPL's Riviera Beach plant is among those fueled by natural gas.
FPL said it needed the rate increase to pay for new natural gas-powered plants such as this one in Riviera Beach.

Since January, thousands of residential Florida Power & Light customers submitted signed petitions and comments and made phone calls to regulators asking them to not allow FPL to raise its rates.

Despite that, the five-member Florida Public Service Commission unanimously approved a settlement deal Tuesday that allows FPL to increase its base rates by $811 million through 2020.

Now some are calling for reform of Florida’s utility regulation system, while others assert that the Office of Public Counsel, which represents all ratepayers, should not have been a party to the settlement.

The PSC approved a settlement agreement announced Oct. 6 by FPL, the Florida Retail Federation, the South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association and the OPC.

Not including franchise fees and local taxes, which vary from city to city and can be substantial,   the bill for a customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours a month will jump from $91.56 to $102.97 in 2020.

Following the vote, AARP Florida’s state director Jeff Johnson, said consumers are not being heard, and residential ratepayers need an independent public counsel dedicated to their interests.

AARP’s  Advocacy Manager Jack McRay said the group with 2.8 million members in Florida is “exploring all options” as to what the next step should be.

FPL spokeswoman Alys Daly said Wednesday that FPL’s typical residential customer bill is $40 lower than the national average.

“Our typical business and residential bills are expected to remain lower than they were in 2006 for at least the next four years.  AARP members who are served by FPL are paying less for their electricity than the majority of AARP members who live in other parts of the country and at the same time, our customers have cleaner and more reliable service,” Daly said.

“We invest more than 3.5 billion a year – far more than our earnings – in infrastructure to deliver our customers with top-ranked reliability and bills that are among the lowest in the nation,” Daly said.

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami,  said the rate increase serves “as further evidence of the need for reform in Florida away from a monopoly system overly controlled by a small handful of giant utilities.”

Florida Public Counsel J.R. Kelly said as for any calls for reform, “That is a decision for the Legislature.  Our office has always strived to provide the best legal representation for all ratepayers of the regulated utilities (electric, water, wastewater and gas), and we will continue to do so.”

Kelly has said the settlement was fair and far less than FPL’s original $1.3 billion request. In addition, among other positives such as more solar power plants, FPL is now required to begin terminating hedging activities for natural gas prices, a practice which has cost all Florida ratepayers more than $6 billion over the last 14 years.

AARP’s Associate Director for Advocacy Zayne Smith said the 6,700 petition signatures and 769 individual comments submitted to the Florida Public Service Commission were the biggest ever response from AARP members in any Florida rate case.

The Sierra Club also encouraged consumers to submit comments throughout the process that began in January and Monday it submitted 5,768 comments in bulk. Many of them explained the hardship posed by any rate increase and argued that there isn’t a need for more gas-burning power plants.

The other six parties who participated in the rate case, including AARP and the Sierra Club, did not sign on to the agreement.

Nathan Skop, a former PSC commissioner who represented Alexandria and Daniel Larson of Loxahatchee in the rate case, said Wednesday that by agreeing to the settlement, the Office of Public Counsel compromised its position to “advocate on behalf of Florida ratepayers.”

“The Larsons believe that the Office of Public Counsel should not have been a signatory to this terrible settlement which completely contradicts what OPC argued at hearing,” Skop said.

OPC originally said FPL’s rates should be reduced by more than $800 million, but later revised that and said the reduction should be more than $300 million.

“Had OPC not agreed to the settlement and remained neutral, it would have sent a clear message that the settlement was not in the public interest and forced the Commission to approve the settlement or decide the FPL rate case.  OPC agreeing to the settlement gave the Commission the pretext to approve the settlement and issue gushing praise on what a great deal it is.  Clearly this is not the case.  A comparison to the 2010 settlement clearly illustrates how bad a deal the current settlement really is,” Skop said.

In 2010, FPL received a $75.5 million increase after regulators slashed its $1.2 billion request.

In 2013, a $350 million, or 8 percent base rate increase, took effect after FPL reached a settlement with large power users in late 2012, and the PSC also granted FPL another $620 million rate increase for new power plants. OPC was  left out of the 2012 settlement, the first time that ever occurred. OPC said the settlement was invalid without its signature. Kelly  took the issue to the Florida Supreme Court, but ultimately lost.

 

Groups file petition to block construction of FPL natural gas pipeline

Turtles bask along the Suwannee River, where a proposed pipeline could run underground.
Turtles bask along the Suwannee River, where a proposed pipeline could run underground.

Gulf Restoration Network, Flint Riverkeeper, and the Sierra Club filed a petition Wednesday seeking to block construction of a $3.2 billion pipeline slated to bring natural gas to Florida Power & Light’s South Florida plants next year.

The action was filed in federal court in Atlanta against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its issuance of five Clean Water Act permits that would allow construction of the 515-mile Florida Southeast Market Pipelines Project, including the Sabal Trail pipeline.

The petition seeks an expedited review of the Corps’ decision.

Pipeline officials had no immediate comment.

This project would transport fracked gas across 699 waterbodies, lakes, rivers, and streams and harm 1,958 wetland systems in  Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.

In addition, the project would include five compressor stations contributing significant amounts of air pollution. Despite widespread local opposition to the project, state and federal agencies are continuing to proceed.

Last week the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its final approval  for construction to begin on to the southernmost portion of the pipeline, consisting of 126 miles from Central Florida to Martin County. FERC has not yet given the northern portion, known as Sabal Trail, the final go-ahead.

If built, the fracked gas pipeline would extend throughout Florida and southern Georgia over an area that provides drinking water to approximately 10 million people. Pipeline construction alone poses a threat to local water resources as the process threatens to release hazardous materials and drilling mud into the aquifer, polluting the drinking water, and resulting in rapid transmission of drilling mud over great distances, the groups said.

The lawsuit alleges the Corps failed to provide proper notice and public participation. The lawsuit further charges that the planned pipeline fails to avoid, minimize or mitigate the adverse environmental impacts.

“Communities in Florida and Georgia have clearly stated that they do not want this dangerous fracked-gas pipeline polluting their water or their neighborhoods. We have collected 25,000 signatures in opposition to the pipeline, but the Army Corps is just not listening,” said Johanna DeGraffenreid with Gulf Restoration Network. “The public has continually been left out of the decision making process for this project and that is unacceptable. Our water and communities are too important to risk for an unnecessary pipeline.”

Steve Caley, Legal Director at GreenLaw, said “the Floridan Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the world which supplies drinking water to millions of people in the southeastern United States, has a close connection to the water bodies and wetlands that will be negatively impacted or destroyed by the Southeast Market Pipelines Project.  Given the threats this Project poses to this critical water supply, the Corps’ failure to follow clearly established law by transparently evaluating and disclosing for public review and comment how those negative effects will be mitigated is particularly egregious.”

Eric Huber, managing attorney for the Sierra Club, said, “Essentially what happened is the Corps stated FERC addressed mitigation while FERC stated the Corps would do it. As a result, neither agency analyzed the issue and the public had no chance to review and comment on it. To make matters worse, the Corps was aware of several less damaging routes but did not choose them, causing unnecessary destruction to wetlands through the heart of southern Georgia and Florida.”

 

Port of PB to tell Army Corps not to seek funds for deepening project

A ship loaded with steel rebar comes into the Port of Palm Beach last year.
A ship loaded with steel rebar comes into the Port of Palm Beach last year.

A proposed $88.6 million dredging and expansion project at the Port of Palm Beach’s harbor is off the table for now, but a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chief’s Report  stating that the improvements are needed will remain open until 2021.

Thursday the Port of Palm Beach Commission voted to accept executive director Manuel Almira’s recommendation that the port notify the Corps  it does not want to pursue the Lake Worth Inlet navigational improvement project that would have widened two channels and  deepened the inlet to 39 feet.

Almira said this past week the port received a request for the Army Corps asking if the Corps should include the project in its 2017 funding request to Congress.

The port’s tenants have all said they do not need a deeper inlet, as long as the inlet can be maintained at a 33-foot depth, Almira said.

The expansion has been widely opposed by residents of Palm Beach, Riviera Beach, Palm Beach Shores  and environmental and marine groups who  it would change the face of the area and could harm fishermen, divers, boaters, manatees and sea grasses.

In 2014, the Palm Beach Civic Association formed the Save Our Inlet Coalition to oppose the plans. The coalition said the Corps’ environmental impact statement was seriously flawed.

Thursday, Lisa Interlandi, an attorney with the Everglades Law Center who represents the Save Our Inlet Coalition, The Sierra Club, Florida Wildlife Federation, and the Center for Biological Diversity told the commission, “I’m glad to hear there is not support for the larger project.”

However, Interlandi said she would like for port officials to completely abandon the project. It’s difficult  to move forward with the chief’s report still open, placing the project on standby, she said.

Interlandi pointed to a recent study by the National Marine Fisheries Service which found dredging at the Port of Miami severely damaged reefs.

Commission Chairman Wayne Richards said that when the corps presented the project, it was made clear the port could pick and choose what needed to be done, and it has several areas of significant concern.

“We just had a major maintenance dredge project here that was very successful,” Richards said.

While the port has turned away vessels recently that were too large,  it’s an urban port surrounded by municipalities which have grown up around it, Richards said.

“How do you co-exist harmoniously?” Richards asked. “An $88 million project does not make sense and never made sense to us.”

“This is a significant step on behalf of the Port of Palm Beach to work with our neighbors and greater marine community,” Richards said.

A major  reason for the proposed expansion has been the  safety of ships while attempting to maneuver where the 400-foot-wide channel  narrows to 300 feet.

Richard Pinsky, a consultant and lobbyist hired by the port, said he is confident that funds will be available to keep navigation safe, but that a conversation with the harbor pilots needs to take place.

 

 

 

 

Richrds said, “This is a significant step on ehalf of the port ofPalm Beach to work with our neighbors and greater marine community

Sabal Trail pipeline’s adverse impacts will be mitigated, agency says

The Withlacoochee River is among those the pipeline could affect.
The Withlacoochee River, which originates in Central Florida’s Green Swamp,  is among those the pipeline could affect.

A $3.2 billion natural gas pipeline slated to supply Florida Power & Light’s South Florida plants would have some adverse environmental impacts, but those impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels with proposed mitigation measures,  federal regulators said Friday.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s staff  released the final environmental impact statement for the Southeast Market Pipelines Project. If approved, the 685-mile pipeline will originate in Alabama and include the separate but connected  Hillabee Expansion, Sabal Trail and  Florida Southeast Connection projects. It will include six new compressor stations as well.

The project has been widely opposed by environmental groups and residents of the communities on the route. They have raised concerns that the pipeline will harm the Floridan Aquifer which supplies water to millions of people in Florida and Georgia, could damage wetlands, scenic rivers and wildlife habitat and poses a safety hazard to residents.

“The Sunshine State should not be relying on dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure.  No mitigation plan can truly account for the damage to a community if a hazardous incident occurs.  As of 2014 there were over 700 pipeline incidents that had been reported, and many more that have gone undocumented.  When will our agencies learn that our water, wetlands, and communities are not for sale to the highest bidder?”  said Johanna de Graffenreid, Coastal Campaign Organizer at Gulf Restoration Network, New Orleans.

Steven Caley, an Atlanta-based GreenLaw attorney representing Sierra Club and several River Keepers groups,  said of FERC, “They’ve never seen a pipeline they didn’t like.”

Caley questioned how the FERC staff can say the pipeline will be environmentally sound when it has not even seen the mitigation plans.

“They’ve had thousands of comments and have had several experts weigh in from the parties who have gone to the time and expense of giving them analysis on the effect the pipeline could have. They basically have ignored everything. They have not given any credence to anything anyone has said,” Caley said.

“But instead they have relied completely on everything Sabal Trail has given them. FERC has shown it is nothing but a lapdog. They get all their funding from the natural gas industry, so what do you expect?” Caley said.

Juno Beach-based FPL and parent company NextEra Energy officials have said they expect the pipeline to be in service by mid-2017. It will bring gas from a Central Florida hub to FPL’s Martin County plant, then to its plants in Rivera Beach and at Port Everglades.

A 480-mile portion of the pipeline, the Sabal Trail Transmission Project, is a joint venture of a subsidiary of Juno Beach-based FPL’s parent company, NextEra Energy Inc., and Houston-based Spectra Energy.
The southern 126-mile leg is proposed by Florida Southeast Connection, another NextEra subsidiary.

The conclusions and recommendations in the EIS are those of FERC staff, with input from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps will also present its own recommendations and conclusions.

FERC said the main reasons for its conclusions are:

    • each Applicant would minimize impacts on the natural and human environments during construction and operation of its facilities by implementing the numerous measures described in their respective construction and restoration plans;
    • the majority of the proposed facilities would be collocated within or adjacent to existing rights-of-way;
    • all of the proposed facilities would be constructed and operated in compliance with federal standards, requirements, and thresholds including U.S. Department of Transportation materials requirements and Environmental Protection Agency air emissions standards;
    • a high level of public participation was achieved during the pre-filing and post application review processes and helped inform our analysis;
    • environmental justice populations would not be disproportionately affected by the SMP Project;
    • the horizontal directional drilling crossing method would be utilized for most major and sensitive waterbodies, the majority of other waterbodies would be crossed using dry crossing methods, and the Applicants would be required to obtain applicable permits and provide mitigation for unavoidable impacts on waterbodies and wetlands through coordination with the USACE and state regulatory agencies;
    • we would complete Endangered Species Act consultations with the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service prior to allowing any construction to begin;
    • we would complete the process of complying with section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and implementing the regulations at 36 CFR 800 prior to allowing any construction to begin; and
  • environmental inspection and monitoring programs would ensure compliance with all construction and mitigation measures that become conditions of the FERC authorizations.

The FERC Commissioners will take into consideration staff’s recommendations when they make a decision on the Projects.

Here are links to the EIS documents: