The Tampa Port Authority’s June board meeting started like always, with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Then came the call for public comments.
Most port board meetings feature one or two speakers, if any. This one had nine, queued up both on Zoom and in person. All had the same concern: An April report to the U.S. Department of Energy filed by a fuel company called Strom Inc.
Seven years ago, Strom obtained a license from the federal government and has quietly pursued a plan to move a fuel called “liquified natural gas,” or LNG, from a 174-acre facility in Crystal River to one of Florida’s ports via truck or train. Its April report indicated that Port Tampa Bay has tentatively agreed to be its choice.
The fuel is a form of natural gas that is cooled to become a liquid. It is most often used in countries that don’t have infrastructure to extract and transport the gas form of the energy source. Opponents say the fuel can be dangerous to transport, calling rail shipments “bomb trains,” and should bear public discussion before a decision is reached to move it through a city. That’s what prompted the cavalcade of speakers at the port.
Their questions came as a surprise to port leaders, because as one official told the speakers: Port Tampa Bay has no agreement with Strom. It is not negotiating with Strom. And it has no plans to export liquefied natural gas of any kind.
In fact, much of the information Strom has provided to the federal government about its efforts to produce and export liquefied natural gas, the Tampa Bay Times found, is outdated by years.
Not only does Strom have no agreement with Port Tampa Bay, it has no investors or outside backing, no natural gas supplier and does not own the Crystal River property on which it told the Department of Energy it plans to start building a production facility this year.
“It’s kind of like a ghost company,” said Don Taylor, president of the Economic Development Authority for Citrus County, who years ago worked with Strom as the company pursued economic incentives to build in Crystal River. “They just kind of disappeared, and we never heard from them again.”
In an email to the Tampa Bay Times, Dean Wallace, Strom’s president and co-founder of its parent company, Glauben Besitz, LLC, called the discrepancies in its Department of Energy filings “mistakes” that “will be corrected.”
“Our plans have not been finalized and will not be until we are fully funded,” Wallace wrote.
That uncertainty is what concerns Michelle Allen, southern region deputy director for environmental group Food & Water Watch, which has long monitored the company’s federal filings and organized the speakers at Port Tampa Bay.
“This has all been so unclear to the public, and that’s really the problem here,” Allen said. “It called into question exactly what Strom’s plan is.”
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Liquefied natural gas is often viewed as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy sources, according to Fred Millar, an independent Washington, D.C.-based policy consultant and expert. That has led to a rush of companies seeking licenses to export it to fuel-hungry countries such as China, and the Department of Energy approving scores of applications.
And while it’s typically moved by truck and ship, the federal government started allowing rail transportation last year. A single train car can transport double or triple the amount of fuel a tanker truck can. The federal government commissioned a study to examine the safety of this method, which is currently underway.
Millar, who has frequently spoken about the dangers it can pose, said the fuel is highly combustible, making it a potential hazard and even a target for terrorist attacks.
“It is such a concentrated source of energy,” Millar said. “Once it gets out, it boils furiously into a dense vapor cloud, and the vapor cloud can then move downwind or downhill.”
Strom was founded in Clearwater in 2013, according to state business records. It sought to draw natural gas from a nearby pipeline to an industrial production facility at 6700 Tallahassee Road, just west of N Suncoast Boulevard in Crystal River. It would liquefy the gas and ship it to buyers in China and potentially Latin America and the Caribbean beginning in late 2022, according to its April Department of Energy filing.
In past federal reports, Strom has said it “has had productive negotiations with Tampa Electric Co.” and was given “very competitive pricing” to transport the gas to its Crystal River facility.
But Strom does not own the land at the address it gave the Department of Energy, and its owner, Steve Lamb, said he hasn’t been in communication with the company for years.
Likewise, Tampa Electric’s sister company, Peoples Gas, the largest gas distributor in the state, does not have any current contract or agreement with Strom, according to spokesperson Sylvia Vega. Vega said Peoples Gas is not familiar with Strom, and Tampa Electric itself does not supply gas.
On the other end of Strom’s proposed transportation route, Port Tampa Bay has been out of touch with Strom for years.
A “non-binding letter of intent” obtained by the Tampa Bay Times through a public records request shows the port in 2014 agreed to lease 11 acres of land to Strom for a liquified natural gas storage and loading facility. It would export about 1.5 million gallons of the fuel per day.
The agreement expired when Strom failed to sign a formal lease with the port within 60 days, as required by the letter. Despite this, Strom’s April Department of Energy filing still said it has a “tentative agreement” with the port.
Strom also looked at deals with Port Jacksonville and Port Manatee. The company told Port Manatee officials it would build an above-ground pipe from a rail terminus to a storage facility, and on to a shipping tank, according to emails with port officials obtained through a public records request.
“They say they are interested in selecting a site within a month, and to start production of their bulk facility in 90 (to) 120 days, very aggressive indeed,” said Matty Appice, Port Manatee’s senior director of trade development and sales, wrote in a 2014 email.
Later in 2016, Strom officials tried to reopen negotiations with Port Manatee, writing in emails obtained through a public records request that they would be making a final decision on the port “in the coming weeks.” Strom never did reach an agreement with Port Manatee.
Strom’s most extensive negotiations were with Citrus County. Back in 2014, the company reached a tentative agreement with the now-dissolved Citrus County Port Authority, and inquired about potential economic incentives to build there, saying the facility would “directly create” more than 100 jobs in the county, with a potential statewide economic impact of more than $200 billion.
Things stalled when the Citrus County Commission began looking into which federal agency would have jurisdiction over Strom’s proposed facility. During that time, Strom failed to pay a required $24,000 federal filing fee that, among other things, would have had the federal government determine this.
The project’s location may have been doomed from the start, however.
In an email obtained through a public records request, Citrus County administrator Randy Oliver wrote that Duke Energy Florida was planning a power grid substation near the proposed facility. “It is not in Duke’s interest to have any kind of” liquefied natural gas facility nearby, and “the transportation grid and pipeline configuration do not support this location.”
“I can guarantee that no such facility will be constructed at that location,” Oliver wrote.
Any information Strom submits in its semi-annual reports is required to be the most current information available, according to a statement from the Department of Energy. If anything requires correction, it needs to submit that in the subsequent report, which for Strom would come in October.
While Strom still files those reports twice a year, neither it nor Glauben Besitz are currently listed as active companies in Florida. Both were dissolved by the state of Florida in 2019 after they failed to file a required annual report. Strom and Glauben Besitz no longer occupy any of the addresses they’ve listed on state business records, including offices in Ybor City, Tampa’s Rivergate Tower and a home address in Sebring.
The only remaining traces of Strom being active are its Department of Energy reports. Each is signed by Wallace, the Strom president.
Through a representative, Wallace declined a phone interview. But he did answer detailed questions via email.
Wallace characterized Strom as “a very small pre-revenue company” with no board, investors or financial backing outside of friends and family.
At one point, Strom had backers with a name familiar to some in Tampa Bay: Michael Lokey, whose family started Clearwater’s Lokey Automotive Group. Lokey co-founded Strom and served as its chief executive, according to state business filings and a website for the company. His father, Tom Lokey, was involved in the Citrus County negotiations, representing the “real estate interests of Strom,” he wrote in a pair of 2015 emails to Citrus officials.
Wallace said Michael Lokey left the company “a few years ago.” The younger Lokey did not respond to multiple calls and emails for comment.
Wallace maintained that Strom still plans to purchase and build on that 174-acre Crystal River property. His tentative purchase agreement “does not have a sunset clause” and he plans to “reengage with the owner on this issue.” He said the timeline Strom gave in April — pre-production in 2021, full operation by late 2022 — was “aggressive but accurate.” Now, he said, “we will update the dates in our next filing,” as well as any potentially outdated information.
“Building a business,” he said, “is not easy.”
None of this has totally ameliorated liquefied natural gas opponents’ concerns over Strom’s long-standing plans.
On July 13, Food & Water Watch sent an open letter to Port Authority Chairperson Chad Harrod, Mayor Jane Castor, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor and others urging the port to “issue a written public statement refuting the company’s statements that will further assure Tampa residents that dangerous (liquefied natural gas) will not be transported through the city to the port for export.”
Later that day, port spokesperson Lisa Wolf-Chason reiterated what port officials said in June.
“Port Tampa Bay staff does not believe that the proposed transport of (liquefied natural gas) through the port is feasible in Port Tampa Bay,” Wolf-Chason said in an email, “nor would it meet regulatory approval ... and does not foresee any such use in the future.”
Wallace, however, is keeping all doors open.
“Until we are fully funded,” he said, “no decision has been made.”