TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Across the United States, natural gas is quickly becoming a popular option for power companies. According to the U. S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas production in the U.S. has grown every year since 2010.
While many states are tapping into reserves for natural gas, Florida has almost no natural gas reserves and no storage capability. The state receives almost all of its natural gas through two major pipelines, by 2017 a third pipeline will go online thus relieving the pressure on the two existing pipelines which are almost at capacity.
But how the third pipeline moved from idea to reality is raising some questions about the influence exerted by the state’s largest utility on the state commission in charge of regulating utilities.
Following his election in 2010, Governor-elect Rick Scott created a transition team to address issues facing the state and develop a plan to address them. On that team was Sam Forrest, Florida Power & Light's vice president of Energy Marketing & Trading. According to documents obtained by Eyewitness News, Forrest suggested the construction of a natural gas pipeline, noting that legislation would be required.
In the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers passed and Governor Scott signed HB 1083. The bill “declares underground natural gas storage to be in public interest,” and helped pave the way for FP&L’s pipeline proposal.
Under that plan a pipeline stretching from Alabama will deliver natural gas to Florida with FP&L as the main customer. The pipeline will be built by FP&L’s parent company NextEra Energy and Houston-based Sabal Trail Transmission. Under an agreement with Florida Public Service Commission, the agency in charge of utilities in the state, FP&L will be allowed to charge its customers for the fuel and fuel transmission costs once the pipeline is active.
Currently, only Texas uses more natural gas than Florida. Unlike Texas, Florida must import almost all of its natural gas and the new pipeline will help ensure that supply.
But the decision to allow FP&L to pass along its cost and secure the pipeline came as the company was spending more than $1 million in the form of campaign contributions to Scott’s
re-election PAC and the Republican Party of Florida. According to records obtained by Eyewitness News, FP&L has given at least $500,000 to “Let’s Get to Work” and the Florida Republican Party since 2013.
“It causes doubt in the public’s mind that decisions are being made in the public’s best interest,” said Ben Wilcox of Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan government watchdog group.
In a report released last month, Integrity Florida documented the significant muscle exerted by Florida’s for-profit utilities, finding more than $18 million in campaign contributions from 2004-2012. The report also detailed the close links between the PSC and former leaders of the utilities, including FP&L.
“These companies wouldn’t be giving these campaign contributions and making these lobbying expenditures if they weren’t achieving the results that they desire,” says Wilcox.
FP&L points out that none of the money donated to political campaigns comes from rate-payers. Instead, the utility says it is shareholders who pay for campaign contributions. The utility also said it approved plans for a new natural gas pipeline is in keeping with recommendations made by the PSC.