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A Times Editorial

Gas pipeline posturing should not go too far

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000

The Pasco County Commission's objection to a natural gas pipeline is more tactical than practical. It gives the county a bargaining position, but the decision last week to file a formal objection with federal regulators shouldn't be construed as a legitimate attempt to keep the Williams Buccaneer Natural Gas Pipeline outside the county.

Even opponents acknowledge the inevitability of the line running 46 miles across Pasco County.

But, history indicates tangible benefits to a formal objection. Seven years ago, the county publicly balked at Florida Gas Transmission running a pipeline through the county. It acquiesced after negotiating a package requiring the company to: use only top grade pipe; install additional shut-off valves; and pay for improvements to a deteriorated road, additional firefighting equipment, a county-hired independent expert to monitor construction, and the county's legal bills.

Florida Gas Transmission also agreed to move the route farther south to avoid the busy State Road 54 and U.S. 41 intersection in Land O'Lakes. A similar concession from Buccaneer to avoid the heavily populated areas in central Pasco would be welcome. One alternative suggested by residents calls for running the pipeline along the same right of way used by Tampa Bay Water.

That would bring the pipeline north, away from the population center in Land O'Lakes. It is an idea worth considering, and a Buccaneer spokesman said the company is now evaluating the suggestion. We encourage it to do so. Though Buccaneer may cite added costs of the new route, it likely would be offset in part by eliminating the expense of acquiring land through the Land O'Lakes business corridor.

Similarly, Buccaneer should resurrect its original route and keep the pipeline away from the Country Place mobile home park on State Road 54 near Odessa. Though the Starkey family plans to develop the portion of its ranch near the park, rural pasture land should not take precedence over 440 mobile homes and the people who live in them.

Buccaneer should be commended for its willingness to consider previously expressed community concerns. It will fund a county inspector for the pipeline, encase the line in concrete and bury it at least 4 feet deep, one-third deeper than the state requirement.

The commission's public posturing failed to recognize some of Buccaneer's benefits. It promises $3-million in annual tax payments in an industry-starved county. At first glance, the figure is unrealistically high compared with the approximately $290,000 in tangible tax paid by Florida Gas Transmission in 1999. Buccaneer, however, points out it will be taxed on 46 miles of pipeline, compared to 17 miles for Florida Gas, and plans to build a processing plant on 68 acres, which accounts for nearly half the annual tax bill.

The proposed pipeline through Pasco is a $1.5-billion project to bring natural gas from Mobile, Ala., to Florida. The 674-mile pipeline would cross the Gulf of Mexico, come ashore at Anclote Key, stretch across Pasco and end near the East Coast.

The demand for natural gas in Florida is expected to double in the next decade, driven by electric utilities that want the fuel for future power plants. Electricity plants powered by natural gas are environmentally safe and cleaner than facilities fueled by coal or oil.

One of the partners in Buccaneer is Duke Energy, a North Carolina corporation that also will be a customer. It will buy natural gas for its planned electricity plant in New Smyrna Beach, a so-called merchant plant that will wholesale its electricity to other utilities.

Pasco County is correct to acknowledge the safety concerns of its residents who don't want another gas pipeline through a heavily populated area. But, it also shouldn't attempt to block an efficient and relatively inexpensive power source needed for Florida's future.

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