As LNG exports soar, a Florida community fights a proposed terminal

A historically Black neighborhood in Port St. Joe, Florida wants to revitalize its streets — and a potential LNG export terminal does not fit the plan.

Dannie Bolden walks through North Port St. Joe, Florida. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)
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PORT ST. JOE, Florida — Dannie Bolden strolls down a wide thoroughfare and points to places that are no longer there: barber shops, grocery stores, a live-music lounge. Laundromats, restaurants, a small hotel. Decades ago, the former main street in North Port St. Joe bustled with dozens of Black-owned businesses. The few that remain today are surrounded by vacant concrete-slab foundations and boarded-up buildings.

This was a thriving district,” Bolden, 68, recalls on a breezy December morning in this beachfront town on Florida’s panhandle. 

In recent years, Bolden and his neighbors have drawn up detailed plans to revitalize the historically Black neighborhood located in the northern part of the town of Port St. Joe. They want to add retail shops and affordable apartment units along this now-quiet boulevard. They also envision building a public swimming pool, restoring baseball fields, improving sidewalks and drawing in the many tourists who come to visit the area’s white-sand beaches and scallop-filled bay.

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The goal, he says, is to make this long-marginalized community a safe, vibrant and healthy” place to be. 

About a mile away, across the elevated highway, a very different vision for the future is getting underway. Plans to redevelop a 60-acre waterfront lot have sparked a local debate and spurred a legal fight in Washington, D.C. — one whose outcome could affect towns nationwide.

A Miami-based company is seeking to build a liquefied-natural-gas (LNG) facility on the site of a former paper mill. Nopetro LNG has proposed a small-scale” terminal, which would compress and chill fossil gas, load the product onto cargo ships, then send it to countries in the Caribbean and Central and South America. The $100-million-plus project would export about 3.86 billion cubic feet of LNG per year to start, with potential to expand.

City and county officials have expressed support for the project, as has Florida State Rep. Jason Shoaf (R), whose family owns the gas company that would supply the fuel. Proponents argue the facility would create jobs and generate tax revenue throughout Gulf County, an area that’s still recovering from the damage wrought by 2018’s Hurricane Michael, and where the year-round population is declining. For its part, Nopetro claims its clean-burning” LNG would improve air quality in the importing countries by replacing the petroleum they use now to generate electricity.

But neighbors in North Port St. Joe told Canary Media they worry a hulking industrial facility would contaminate the air and water in their backyard, at a time when they are still grappling with the toxic legacy of a previous industry. From 1938 to 1998, the St. Joe Paper Company made reams of bleached-white paper and cardboard boxes — all while dumping lead, arsenic and other toxins into the neighborhood next door. Residents also cited fears of an explosion, like the one that occurred in June of this year at the Freeport LNG-export facility in Texas.

For opponents, Nopetro’s project threatens to undermine their efforts to write a new narrative for their community.

We’re just at the grassroots of it all right now,” says Lynn Lewis, who lives in North Port St. Joe and is part of the Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation, the nonprofit organization leading the neighborhood’s redevelopment plans.

A Black man wearing jeans and a red pullover stands on a concrete pad near some small, damaged buildings
Dannie Bolden, a community leader in North Port St. Joe, stands on the site of a former grocery store on Martin Luther King Boulevard. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)

The LNG project is also raising bigger questions over how the federal government should handle the expansion of fossil-gas infrastructure — particularly as emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, are rising faster than ever. Fossil gas itself is primarily composed of methane, which can leak from extraction wells, pipelines, storage tanks and all along the chain of gas production and transport. 

In March, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which issues permits for large energy projects, determined that Nopetro’s proposed facility does not fall under the agency’s jurisdiction. As a result, it likely won’t undergo the agency’s comprehensive, yearslong process of environmental review and public participation. Instead, other federal agencies and state and local authorities will individually assess different aspects of the project.

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in September asking a federal court to reverse FERC’s decision. National environmental groups are considering submitting briefs supporting the legal challenge. 

They argue that, without FERC’s regulatory oversight, fossil fuel companies will have an easier time building similar LNG facilities nationwide — a development that would potentially boost emissions and slow the broader shift to renewable energy. It also means more cities could find themselves in a thorny situation like Port St. Joe, one in which developers’ promises of economic growth threaten to override concerns of public harm and environmental damage.

This is a small-scale facility that still presents large-scale problems for the community,” Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s Energy Program, says of the Florida project.

A push to clean up past pollution meets a new industrial challenge

While Nopetro’s plans have been in the works for at least two years, residents in North Port St. Joe say they only learned of the proposal a few months ago, just as they were starting to feel optimistic about their neighborhood’s future. 

In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded more than $850,000 in grant funding to assist the Pioneer Bay nonprofit in restoring and redeveloping the community, which is surrounded by two brownfield sites tied to the old paper mill. A portion of the grants will help improve unsafe housing conditions and clean up the contaminated, unstable soil atop which dozens of houses are built.

One such place is Chester Davis’ childhood home on Battle Street. 

On a recent overcast morning, Davis trudges through the yard, the grass mushy beneath his shoes. Cinder blocks prop up the one-story residence with yellow siding and dark green shutters. The cracked driveway juts upward like tectonic plates pushing together. He says that, when his mother bought the house in the early 1960s, she didn’t know the paper company had formed this area by filling in a swamp with leftover pine bark, lime grits” and other mill waste.

A Black man wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap stands near a damaged yellow house with green shutters and a green shed
Chester Davis returns to his sinking, vacant childhood home in North Port St. Joe. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)

After she passed away, that’s when the house literally started to sag,” says Davis, 72, who is a local pastor and president of the North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition, an organization working to fight blight in the neighborhood. The yellow house, like many homes scattered among these grid-patterned streets, now sits vacant.

As the St. Joe Paper Company dumped debris and chemical-laden wastewater into the ground, the mill’s smokestacks rained down pollution from above. Residents recall dust so thick they could wipe it from car windshields. Minnie Likely, 75, remembers playing outside as a child and white ash landing on her tongue, its aftertaste acidic. Over a cup of coffee in her kitchen, she says she witnessed many local women developing cancer over the years, which she and other neighbors suspect is linked to the mill.

Yet if the paper mill caused harm while it was operating, its closure 24 years ago brought a different set of problems. Hundreds of people lost their jobs at the factory and supporting facilities. Gulf County, of which Port St. Joe is the county seat, lost its major economic engine. Unemployment soared to 20 percent around that time, and many jobseekers left town.

Today, the county’s unemployment rates are at record lows, thanks to the growing tourism industry and a boom in new-home construction following Hurricane Michael. On the drive along St. Joe Bay, from the mainland up a narrow 20-mile peninsula, the exposed wooden frames and drywall of future vacation properties appear as abundant as the bare limbs of hurricane-stripped pine trees. Back in town, restaurants and boutiques outfitted with Christmas decorations line Port St. Joe’s small downtown district.

A walk around North Port St. Joe, however, makes clear that the recent recovery has largely bypassed this neighborhood. That’s why this spring, when the EPA awarded the grant money, local leaders were hopeful the funds would kick-start economic development here, including along the old main street, which is now named Martin Luther King Boulevard. 

Two side-by-side images showing streets in different parts of town. The street on the left is well kempt, the right is not
Reid Avenue in downtown Port St. Joe, left, is shown beside Martin Luther King Boulevard in the town's northern section. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)

We wanted to redevelop because [the community] had never been truly a part of Port St. Joe,” Davis says. It has always been separated by railroad tracks.”

In July, Davis and others hosted a team from the ReGenesis Institute in Spartanburg, South Carolina to share ideas. The grassroots group used a $20,000 EPA grant in 1998 to begin a planning process in two blighted, polluted and predominantly Black communities in Spartanburg. That ultimately led to nearly $300 million in government, private and philanthropic investments in environmental cleanup, affordable housing, health facilities and green spaces. Community activists in North Port St. Joe were eager to launch something similar at home. 

Not long after the visit, Bolden and his neighbors say they found out about Nopetro’s proposal. The news didn’t come from anyone local, but from Slocum in D.C., who read of Nopetro’s plans in FERC filings. All of a sudden, I get a call saying they’re going to put this liquefied-natural-gas facility out there,” Bolden recalls. And no one in the community knew about it.”

Fracking boom drives push for small-scale” LNG in Florida and beyond

Nopetro was first established in 2007, with offices in Coral Gables and Tallahassee, Florida. Before it began eyeing LNG, the company provided fueling infrastructure for trucks and buses that run on compressed natural gas, which is stored in a gaseous state. In 2015, Tom Ward, who co-founded the pioneering fracking company Chesapeake Energy, joined Nopetro’s board of directors and invested in the company. (Nopetro did not return multiple requests for comment.)

Around that time, fracking and horizontal drilling were unleashing unprecedented volumes of oil and gas from shale formations. The United States, flush with fossil fuels, began building facilities to export fossil products to overseas markets. Many of those terminals now operate near communities of color along the Gulf Coast.

By turning fossil gas into a liquid, companies can move greater volumes by ship. During liquefaction, an energy-intensive process, gas is chilled to -260 degrees Fahrenheit and impurities are removed. Since the lower 48 U.S. states began exporting LNG in February 2016, volumes have soared from near zero to an average of 9.7 billion cubic feet per day in 2021. In the first half of this year, exports hit 11.1 billion cubic feet per day — more than any other country.

The majority of America’s existing and planned LNG-export terminals are large-scale facilities that sell fuel to the global commodities market. But in recent years, policymakers from Florida and other Gulf Coast states have sought to expedite the development of small-scale” LNG-export facilities, which have relatively modest production capacities and serve specific markets, such as providing fuel for LNG-powered cruise and cargo ships, or sending supplies to places like Puerto Rico that are looking to replace diesel-burning power plants.

Not only small islands but also small countries in Central America, like Panama and El Salvador, are turning toward LNG for power generation,” says Anne-Sophie Corbeau, a global research scholar at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy. From an environmental standpoint, it does make sense” to burn LNG instead of oil in a power plant, she says, given that the super-cooled fuel produces little nitrogen oxide, virtually no sulfur dioxide and relatively less carbon dioxide than diesel fuel.

Producing LNG, however, still releases harmful pollutants that can damage people’s lungs, trigger asthma attacks and contribute to soot and smog. Gas flaring from production sites emits planet-warming methane, which can also leak from pipes and infrastructure. A recent report from the Environmental Integrity Project suggests the 24 new and expanding U.S. LNG-export projects underway — including Nopetro’s planned facility — could together emit more than 90 million tons of greenhouse gases annually. That’s about the same emissions impact of running 18 million gasoline-powered cars for a year.

An aerial view of a small verdant community next to the ocean and a large abandoned industrial parcel
An aerial photograph shows the streets of North Port St. Joe beside the barren site of the former paper mill. (North Port St. Joe Project Area Coalition)

In December 2020, Nopetro took a key first step toward exporting LNG. The developer filed an application with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy, requesting long-term authorization to export up to 51.75 billion cubic feet per year of LNG to emerging markets. Port St. Joe appeared in the filing as one of multiple locations from which the company could potentially source its LNG for export. 

The federal office granted Nopetro’s request in March 2021. A month later, the company petitioned FERC for a declaratory order” stating that a planned facility in Port St. Joe would not be subject to the agency’s jurisdiction — and thus not required to undergo the FERC review process. The move eventually brought the proposed project to the attention of community advocates, who are leading to the opposition movement springing up along the shores of Port St. Joe.

Florida project raises questions about FERC’s regulatory role 

Under Nopetro’s proposed design, the company would source fossil gas from the St. Joe Natural Gas Company, which already supplies gas to the area via lateral lines of the Florida Gas Transmission pipeline. Nopetro’s facility would liquefy the fuel and load containers of super-chilled LNG onto trucks, which would then drive about a quarter of a mile from the LNG facility on the old paper mill site to a general-use dock operated by the Port St. Joe Port Authority. 

Because the LNG would not be piped directly to the shore, Nopetro argued that its facility doesn’t require FERC’s oversight under Section 3 or Section 7 of the Natural Gas Act. (Put simply, Section 3 applies to LNG terminals located at the site of import or export. Section 7 applies to projects that involve transporting gas between states, including via pipeline.)

As FERC commissioners mulled over Nopetro’s petition, leaders of St. Joe Natural Gas Company expressed their support, though they didn’t broadcast it publicly. In June 2021, Stuart Shoaf, the company’s president, and his son Jason Shoaf, the Florida state representative who is also the company’s vice president, filed separate letters to FERC endorsing Nopetro’s petition.

Nopetro’s facilities would bring many valuable career opportunities to the Port St. Joe area, which is much needed,” Jason Shoaf wrote, adding that the project would help the town achieve full recovery” from Hurricane Michael. (He did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Exactly how many jobs Nopetro’s facility would create is a hotly contested question within the community. Nopetro hasn’t yet said how many people it expects to employ directly. Opponents say that, based on figures from similar small-scale terminals, they expect Nopetro would provide eight to 12 full-time jobs. Michael Hammond, the Gulf County administrator, recently suggested the LNG terminal and ancillary industries could create up to 100 local jobs. 

For some residents in North Port St. Joe, any new work prospects would be appealing. 

There’s a lot of real need down here,” Contrilla Chambers, 34, says from Martin Luther King Boulevard, where she runs a car-detailing business on the concrete pad of a former grocery store. She remembers a sulfurous stench wafting from the paper mill and chemical plant as a young child. But she doesn’t think the LNG facility would do the neighborhood any further harm. We need to bring people back to St. Joe and build it up again,” she says while cleaning the interior of a black SUV.

A Black woman wearing a green hoodie and a gray beanie stands outside
Contrilla Chambers details cars at her business on Martin Luther King Boulevard. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)

After FERC granted Nopetro’s request in March and declared that the LNG-export terminal is outside of the commission’s regulatory purview, Public Citizen filed a request for a rehearing. FERC denied the request in July, upholding its earlier decision.

Critics of the decision, including Public Citizen and Delaware Riverkeeper, claim it could open a legal loophole that leads to a wave of similar small-scale LNG projects. In their view, Nopetro’s use of trucks to carry LNG some 1,300 feet to shore rather than using a pipeline is a deliberate maneuver to avoid FERC oversight, and they worry that other developers could follow Nopetro’s lead. 

Another LNG developer in Florida, Eagle LNG Partners, recently disputed arguments that export terminals without FERC oversight — like the company’s Maxville facility — get off easy when it comes to regulation. The Houston-based developer operates the small-scale inland terminal in a suburb of Jacksonville. The LNG is loaded onto trucks and delivered roughly 30 miles away to port facilities on the St. Johns River, where it’s used to supply LNG-powered vessels bound for Puerto Rico.

Eagle Maxville is subject to rigorous safety requirements and review” by nearly a dozen federal, state and city permitting authorities, the company said in September as part of a separate FERC proceeding, while noting that the facility has operated with zero accidents or LNG-related safety issues” since it opened in early 2018. (The company is also developing a larger LNG-export terminal in Jacksonville that is within FERC’s jurisdiction.)

An outdoor industrial facility
Eagle LNG liquefies and stores gas at its small-scale terminal in Maxville, Florida. (Eagle LNG Partners)

Yet FERC oversight still matters for any LNG-export facility, because the commission takes into account a project’s broader impacts in ways that other individual agencies do not, says Gillian Giannetti, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is not involved in the Nopetro proceedings.

The Natural Gas Act requires FERC to look at a whole plethora of factors” to determine whether an LNG terminal is in the public interest, including the potential effects on public health, climate change, biodiversity and environmental justice, she says. Although FERC has received reasonable criticism” in recent years for not conducting stronger environmental oversight of existing LNG facilities, the pieces are in place to ensure a robust review.”

There’s a concern that outsourcing those reviews [to states] would not ensure that all of these important considerations are being factored in,” Giannetti adds.

As officials voice support, community groups push back

The fate of Nopetro’s facility in Port St. Joe is still unclear.

The developer has not formally filed an application with local authorities to build an LNG-export terminal on the 60-acre site. A group of city officials and county leaders who met with Nopetro executives on October 14 are still waiting for the developer to provide a project description, pictures and site plan as they requested, according to Jim McKnight, director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition (EDC). He declined to offer further comment absent a plan or application.”

Even so, the EDC voted unanimously on October 19 to endorse Nopetro’s project. The coalition also sent a letter of support to the St. Joe Company, the major land developer that owns the former paper mill site (and was previously the St. Joe Paper Company).

They wrote in the letter: As with all large-scale projects of this type there will be some No Sayers espousing environmental and development concerns. The EDC does not share those environmental concerns or worries that this facility will detract from our community landscape.”

The endorsement followed a similar move by the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners. At a September 27 meeting, elected officials voted 50 to send a letter to St. Joe Company supporting the LNG facility; in it, they asked the developer to keep commissioners and the public in the loop about the potential benefits, environmental impacts and public-health and safety aspects.

Residents in North Port St. Joe and nearby communities say they feel the LNG project is moving ahead without their input. Much of what they’ve learned so far has been revealed through public records requests filed by Public Citizen, and through the reporting efforts of journalists like Wendy Weitzel of the Port St. Joe Star newspaper.

A Black man wearing sunglasses, a long-sleeve black shirt, and khaki pants stands on a beach
Chester Davis stands on a beach near Cape San Blas, just south of Port St. Joe. (Maria Gallucci/Canary Media)

As Public Citizen prepares to argue its lawsuit against FERC before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals next year, community leaders like Dannie Bolden and Chester Davis are meeting with neighbors on Zoom calls and in church halls to raise awareness and build opposition to Nopetro’s proposal. Their group now includes residents from across the area, including local conservationists, real-estate agents and Midwestern retirees — all of whom expressed concerns that an LNG-export terminal could harm the quality of life and delicate ecosystems in this tranquil corner of Florida’s Gulf Coast. 

Minnie Likely, the homeowner in North Port St. Joe, says she hopes to see more information about how the planned facility would affect a community that has already endured decades of pollution from the paper mill.

People did not know the perils we were living in during that time,” she says from her kitchen. So now with this [LNG plant] coming on, we have an opportunity to learn more. And when you learn more about it, then you need to protect yourself.”

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Maria Gallucci is a clean energy reporter at Canary Media, where she covers hard-to-decarbonize sectors and efforts to make the energy transition more affordable and equitable.