Clare Donohue spent her teenage years growing up in the Catskill Mountains hamlet of Roscoe where water was central to the area’s way of life. Her family often fished at a nearby reservoir and so many fly fishers liked to visit the spot where two pristine rivers converged that Roscoe dubbed itself “Trout Town USA.”
“When you walked into the house,” Donohue recalled, “the first thing you did was go to the sink and fill a glass of water. It was so delicious.”
Donohue, 52, runs a small business and has lived in New York City for the past 30 years. When she learned from friends three years ago that 85 well sites had been leased for future drilling for natural gas in a village close to Roscoe, she was concerned. She watched Gasland, Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary, and later joined friends at a West Village community board meeting. There, officials from Spectra Energy sought to mollify local concerns about an underground natural gas pipeline that the company was bringing into the neighborhood.
“I just sat there unbelieving, because everybody was just calm and polite and they were all asking questions like whether the cement in the sidewalk would be put back the way it was, things that I thought were totally irrelevant in terms of the disaster that was being described. And I kept thinking, ’What is wrong here? Why aren’t people screaming?’”
Donohue has been raising her voice ever since as a co-founder of the Sane Energy Project, which she helped start with a dozen other activists to fight the Spectra pipeline. The group’s focus has since broadened as they confront a growing web of projects that could drive a surge in New York City’s use of natural gas obtained by fracking. In addition to Spectra, a second pipeline is slated to enter via the Rockaways and go up Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue. There is also a deep water liquefied natural gas import terminal proposed for off the coast of Long Island.
New Yorkers currently consume 1.3 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas. And these new infrastructure projects would increase that by between 16 and 30 percent, according to a study commissioned by the mayor’s office.
“It is a strategy to hook the city on fracked gas,” said Occupy the Pipeline activist Patrick Robbins.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires injecting millions of gallons of water laced with an array of toxic chemicals deep into the earth to cause fissures that allow drillers to tap previously unreachable deposits of natural gas. The technology has been blamed for poisoning underground drinking water supplies in areas near well sites.
Large parts of central and southern New York State sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that is believed to contain large reserves of natural gas. While activists have won a moratorium against fracking in New York and are fighting for a full ban, Pennsylvania landowners have seen a fracking boom in the past decade, especially as smaller operators have been gobbled up by transnational companies. These corporations, owning large acreage and seeking fast profits, drive the push for increased drilling.
While natural gas is heralded as a cleaner-burning “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy future, it is in fact a potent greenhouse gas. When released directly into the atmosphere, it traps 72 times more heat than carbon dioxide and remains 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide after a century in the air.
Creating a New Market
With natural gas prices at a low and billions of dollars sunk into drill sites, the natural gas industry is looking for a way to increase demand, boost profits and garner more financial backers. Through that lens, New York City, a huge energy consumer, presents a golden opportunity.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2011 mandate to convert the boilers in New York City buildings to the “cleanest fuels” has set the stage for skyrocketing demand as many buildings switch to natural gas systems. The new heating oil regulations will ban the two dirtiest heating fuels available: Number 6 and Number 4. These heavy fuels create fine soot, known as particulate matter, which is highly polluting. Soot exacerbates asthma, irritates lungs and increases the risk of heart attacks and premature death.
The regulations will require New Yorkers to instead heat their buildings with either ultra-low sulfur Number 2 oil, biodiesel, natural gas or steam, according to PlaNYC.
The trouble, Donohue said, is that natural gas also produces particulate matter and at a higher rate than Number 2. In comparison, biofuel produces zero emissions and zero particulate matter. And while converting an average New York City building to biodiesel and Number 2 oil costs about $10,000 to $30,000, natural gas conversions can start at $500,000, a cost often transferred from landlord to tenant through rent hikes.
Pipelines and Playgrounds
In the midst of the infrastructure growth, Hudson River Park may be getting a new addition: the Spectra pipeline. It will snake through New Jersey before coming on shore next to a children’s playground in the densely populated West Village.
“To know about it is to be against it,” said Robbins, who has worked with the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design.
The pipeline is being built by Spectra Energy, a Fortune 500 company operating 19,000 miles of natural gas pipelines in the United States and Canada. This project is slated to feed into both Consolidated Edison (ConEd) and National Grid utility lines starting in November, supplying fracked gas with dangerously high radon levels from the Marcellus Shale to unknowing New York customers (see sidebar).
Explosions are another potential health risk from the Spectra pipeline, since pressurized methane gas “has a habit of exploding,” Donohue said. The Spectra pipeline will have similar size and pressure as the San Bruno, CA pipeline, which blew up in 2010 due to a faulty welding job. The explosion killed eight people and destroyed 38 suburban homes.
“If you translate that kind of destruction into the West Village, it is insane,” Donohue said. “In New York, you blow up the pipeline, then you blow up the cars, then you blow up the boilers, it is explosion, explosion, explosion.”
Occupy the Pipeline has decried Spectra Energy’s “dismal safety record,” pointing to 17 safety violations by Spectra in 2011, millions of dollars in fines and a string of toxic chemical spills, leaks and explosions.
Donohue dismisses federal pipeline regulations as laughable, with barely any oversight from regulators who often go on to take jobs with industry. “There are 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the country currently. There are only 88 inspectors for those pipelines,” she said, or one for every 28,410 miles of pipeline.
According to a ProPublica investigation, only 7 percent of natural gas pipelines nationwide are inspected regularly.
“Rubber Stamp Machine”
The main agency that approves applications, issues permits and regulates pipelines is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an organization activists have entirely lost confidence in.
“The FERC is a rubber stamp machine,” Robbins said.
Donohue wrote to FERC to say it should approve renewable energy projects, not pipelines, only to be surprised by their response: that renewable energy projects did not fit the need of the applicant, aka the company, and therefore were not considered.
“They are basically saying, ’We can’t not allow this to be built just because the public doesn’t want it. The needs of the corporation are greater,’” Donohue said.
And she was not alone in her criticisms. During Spectra’s application process, there was an open public comment period in which 5,000 comments were lodged against the pipeline and only 20 in support of it. FERC still approved the Spectra permit.
On average, the pipeline application process takes about two and a half years. Soon, however, that could speed up. A bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) which would streamline an application period to just one year.
“If you are a community that is just living your life — you’ve never fought a pipeline before, you don’t know anything about the system — you have get up to speed on these highly technical documents and convoluted processes, but it is basically impossible to do that in a year’s time,” Donohue said. “It makes it so much harder for the citizenry to comment and participate in these kinds of projects.”
One community that has not had its voice heard yet is the wildlife of the Rockaways, as another pipeline may slice through a national park, a bird sanctuary and an endangered species nesting area.
The pipeline, called the Rockaway Lateral, is an expansion of the Transco pipeline, built by energy infrastructure giant Williams. The Transco line brings gas both from the Gulf of Mexico and the Marcellus Shale to the New York City area.
The pipeline has been segmented off into project pieces by Williams. One section will cross Jamaica Bay and Riis Beach, while another will cross Gateway National Park and connect in Brooklyn under Flatbush Avenue. A third segment will connect to a metering station in Gateway National Park.
Segmentation is a particularly helpful move for skirting around regulatory oversight. The most controversial section, the Brooklyn Queens Interconnect, being built by National Grid, will span the environmentally sensitive Jamaica Bay and Gateway National Park. It is not considered an interstate pipeline and thus is only subject to New York City environmental review, dodging scrutiny from congressional, state and federal regulatory bodies as well as the public.
“There is something fishy about [that],” said Robbins, who is concerned about the heightened risk of radon exposure, explosions and methane gas leakage. “We are curious as to why they would go to such lengths to have that section in particular avoiding oversight.”
Imports & Exports
Close by off the shore of Long Island are the deep waters that could become the home to the Port Ambrose liquified natural gas (LNG) import terminal. Originally proposed for a site 16 miles offshore from Asbury Park, the terminal would have involved the construction of a 50-mile sea floor pipeline that would have moved up to 2.4 billion cubic feet of re-gasified fuel offloaded by tankers at the terminal, according to the Asbury Park Press. Instead, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the plan twice.
Now Liberty Natural Gas is trying to win approval again, this time for a terminal off the coast of Long Beach, NY. The new location interferes with the intended position of the New York Power Authority’s Long Island-New York City Offshore Wind Project.
The terminal’s stated purpose is to import natural gas from the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago to the New York City market. Critics of the terminal are skeptical, since the boom in domestic natural gas production has significantly reduced the demand for imported natural gas while a switch from import to export terminal could fuel more fracking in the Marcellus Shale.
The debate over the Port Ambrose project comes at a time when the U.S. government is moving to loosen long-standing prohibitions against the export of natural gas. Michael Klare, author of The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, told The Indypendent that converting a LNG import/export terminal would be prohibitively expensive and would draw the ire of domestic manufacturers who benefit from reduced energy prices. But with the price per thousand cubic feet of natural gas running between $3-4 in the United States and $16-17 in Japan, the incentive to sell abroad persists.
“The price incentives are there and the technology is there,”’ Robbins noted. “All we have is the assurance of the contractors.”
A Different Direction
According to the International Energy Agency, worldwide investment in new fossil fuel extraction and processing will total an estimated $22.87 trillion between 2012 and 2035 while investment in renewables, hydropower and nuclear energy will amount to only $7.32 trillion.
Much of that fossil fuel investment will go toward pursuing unconventional energy sources like the natural gas that is obtained by fracking.
Faced with similarly misguided patterns of investment here in New York, activists like Donohue and Robbins see building an energy system based on renewables such as wind, water and solar as key to derailing the fracking juggernaut. They realize that we are in a race against time before the current infrastructure buildout locks New Yorkers into another generation of dirty fuels. And now they can point to a study released earlier this year by Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson showing how New York State could run entirely on renewable energy by 2030 and create 58,000 permanent jobs in the process.
Under the Jacobson plan, everything from giant offshore wind turbines to residential rooftop photovoltaic systems would help power New York. Altogether, 40 percent of the state’s energy would come from local wind power, 38 percent from local solar and the remainder from a combination of hydroelectric, geothermal, tidal and wave energy.
“The technology is there. It’s a question of political will,” Robbins said.
Piping Radiation into Our Homes
When natural gas is pumped into the city, it may bring along an unwelcome visitor: radon.
Colorless, odorless and tasteless, radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas. It is produced from the natural radioactive decay of uranium, which is found in rocks and soil and is dislodged during the fracking process. Radon is estimated to cause the deaths of 21,000 Americans per year from lung cancer.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is no known threshold below which radon exposures are risk free.
Still, the WHO and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has also identified radon as a significant health risk, have named levels of radiation that can be inhaled at what they describe as a low risk for cancer.
The EPA says exposure to 4 or more indoor units of radiation is dangerous. For the WHO, the magic number is 2.7 units. How does this scientific dispute play out in the homes of New York City residents?
There actually is a history of natural gas seeping into the ambient air of NYC. An occupational hazard, you might say, that comes from lacing the city with a maze of natural gas pipes, some of which date back to the 1800s. However, Clare Donohue of Citizen Radon Watch and the Sane Energy Project said the presence of methane gas in the air we breathe now is not as harmful as it could be.
Radon has a half life of three and a half days. Most of the gas the city currently uses comes from the Gulf Coast, a traditional drilling site with low levels of radon. It takes five to six days to be piped here, and has 1 – 2 units of radiation upon arrival: a minor health risk.
Meanwhile, the Marcellus Shale, the natural gas industry’s rising star, represents a high-radon area. Researchers have found the Marcellus Shale’s radon level to be about 150 to 160 units. After its quick transport, totaling 15 to 20 hours, it could still have a radon level of 125 when it hits New York City.
That’s 121 units over the EPA’s estimate for safe indoor radiation.
Currently there is no government regulation of the radon levels present in consumer natural gas. With the help of the Sane Energy Project, New York State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal (D-Manhattan) has introduced a bill (A6863) to change that. The bill would designate and monitor acceptable radon levels for gas at the distribution point. To date, the measure remains bottled up in committee.
“They [the natural gas industry] say there is no problem with the gas coming from the Marcellus Shale,” commented Patrick Robbins of Occupy the Pipeline. “This legislation says, prove it.”
Correction: Thanks to Kenneth for his comment pointing out that it is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, not the Federal Environmental Regulation Commission. The article was corrected on August 26, 2013.