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Beach Town vs. Big Energy

Alex Ellefson Apr 9

Long Beach, New York, calls itself the City by the Sea. And indeed, the ocean is the main attraction in this coastal community of 33,000 people. Located 25 miles from Penn Station, Long Beach is on a narrow barrier island facing the Atlantic Ocean. This is a place where skateboarders and bicyclists whiz down the boardwalk, which was one of the first things the city rebuilt after Hurricane Sandy. Families throw Frisbees and footballs around on the beach. Dogs stir up flocks of seagulls while their owners stroll along the edge of the surf and lone hikers occasionally crouch down to collect seashells resting in the sand.

Luke Hamlet grew up here. In the 1960s, he and his brothers used to head out to the beach to surf. He later opened a surf shop on the city’s main strip, just five blocks from the beach.

In his shop window, Hamlet has a bright blue banner that urges people to oppose a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility, the Port Ambrose terminal, proposed to be built 19 miles off the coast of Long Beach. The banner, which reads “Save the Mermaids,” was made last November by local children and their parents and has hung in Hamlet’s store ever since.

“I think the vast majority of people that live in town are against the project,” Hamlet said, adding that his customers often ask him how to get involved or find out more information. “You grow up seeing the ocean and assuming that it’s a natural environment and so any time you start putting crap in there, people are distrustful of it.”

The $600 million Port Ambrose project would involve dredging up almost 22 miles of the ocean floor to construct an underwater pipeline that would connect to New York’s existing natural gas infrastructure. A buoy system set up at the end of the pipeline would rise to the surface to dock with LNG tankers, ships that are almost the length of the Empire State Building, where the fuel would be regasified and sent through the pipeline.

Liberty Natural Gas, the company behind Port Ambrose, insists that the imported fuel would reduce energy prices in Long Island, which relies on natural gas for 70 percent of its power.

In a statement emailed to The Indypendent, Liberty Natural Gas CEO Roger Whelan said, “Port Ambrose is needed, safe and will reduce energy costs for New York consumers. For the second winter in a row, New York consumers have been hit with exceedingly high energy bills as the result of harsh winter temperatures.”

But residents in the area fear that building the pipeline might disrupt the local ecosystem, one of the most diverse in the world due to the warm and cold ocean currents that meet offshore in the New York Bight. The ocean is the engine of the economy in Long Beach, where businesses depend on visiting beachgoers and sport fishermen. They also have many safety concerns about building an LNG port, capable of bringing in 400 million cubic feet of gas a day, so close to their shore, especially in the event of another Sandy-size storm.

“We live in a beach community and there’s so many hazards that we have to worry about: hurricanes, a possible tsunami. Why add more worry to us?” said Long Beach Fire Chief Richard Corbett. “And if there’s a leak or some sort of accident out there, it could harm the fish. It could destroy our ecosystem.”

Scores of environmental groups, as well as recreational organizations, community advocates and business associations have joined a growing coalition against Port Ambrose. In March, they received some welcome news. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Maritime Administration (MARAD), the two federal agencies tasked with evaluating Liberty Natural Gas’s license application, announced that they would “stop the clock” on the process in order to evaluate the tens of thousands of public comments they received about Port Ambrose.

“I think it’s a testament to the power of the people that there were so many comments that [MARAD and the Coast Guard] had to stop the clock in order to read them all,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, which submitted more than 60,000 comments from 125 organizations to the federal agencies.

However, Zipf said it was unlikely that the federal agencies would reject Port Ambrose and that the suspension of the application process merely gives organizers more time to put pressure on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.

Although the site for Port Ambrose is located in federal waters, the governors of adjacent states have the power to veto the project. Christie used his veto power in 2011 to stop a similar terminal by Liberty Natural Gas, called Port Liberty. After the Coast Guard and MARAD finish evaluating the public comments and include them in a final environmental impact statement, the governors will have 45 days to issue a veto.

“One of the more frustrating aspects of this regulatory process is that if the governor does nothing, the project defaults to approval,” said Patrick Robbins, communications coordinator for the environmental group Sane Energy Project. “Our goal is to make as much noise on this issue as possible. And those of us in New York State, we’re making sure that noise is directed towards the governor.”

When the initial draft environmental impact statement was released in December, activists protested the short 60-day period for community input. There were only two public hearings, one in New York and one in New Jersey. The agencies agreed to extend the period for public comments to 90 days, meaning that the final environmental impact statement would be released in mid-April. Had the application process not been delayed, organizers might have had less than five months from when the first draft was released to mobilize enough political pressure to get Cuomo or Christie to veto Port Ambrose.

Long Island resident and activist George Povall said that it has also been challenging to organize a campaign in Long Beach during the winter.

“One thing that’s been a problem is that this [application process] has gone through in the wintertime. This a beach town. A lot of these organizations kind of take off for the winter so it’s been pretty difficult to get a lot of this done,” Povall said.

Despite the limited time frame, Povall and other local activist groups have turned public opinion in the area against Port Ambrose and convinced their elected officials to come out against the project. State Assemblyman Todd Kaminsky, Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford and the entire Long Beach City Council have called on Cuomo to veto Port Ambrose.

In January, shortly after a meeting with members of Sane Energy Project, state Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos joined other elected officials in his district, which includes Long Beach, by writing a letter to Cuomo asking him to veto Port Ambrose.

Skelos, who did not respond to request for comment, has been an ardent supporter of fracking in New York’s Southern Tier.

“I think that Senator Skelos has some very longstanding connections to the beach,” speculated Povall, who was not present at the meeting with the Republican senator. “I know that his family summers down at the beach and I think that helped him put one and one together. I think that he thought about what it would mean.”

Long Beach City Council President Len Torres said he was concerned about an accident at the deepwater port. Not only would an environmental disaster hurt local businesses that depend on the visitors the beach draws, it would also be another hardship for a community still recovering from the havoc brought by Hurricane Sandy.

“We think that it’s a little too much to gamble,” said Torres, adding that he supported greater investment and research into alternative energy sources.

The Answer Is Blowin’ in the Wind

The fight to stop Port Ambrose is part of a larger struggle to move away from fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy sources. The LNG terminal would be located on the same site as a proposed wind farm capable of generating 700 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 200,000 homes each year.

Advocates of the wind farm point to its many benefits over an LNG port. Besides providing green, renewable energy, the project would also support, rather than disrupt, the marine ecosystem and produce more permanent jobs than an LNG terminal.

Liberty projects that the Port Ambrose terminal will generate more than 800 construction jobs. However, once the project is built, the company says it will need only six workers to maintain it. By contrast, an offshore wind farm is expected to produce 4,700 jobs and $330 million in annual wages during the three-year construction period. And the wind farm will also create 170 permanent jobs paying $11 million annually, according to a study prepared for the New York Power Authority.

Some environmentalists also worry that the ocean floor may never recover from the construction of an underwater pipeline due to the perpetual motion caused by docking LNG tankers. Meanwhile, the bases of offshore wind farms have been shown to support local marine life by acting as artificial reefs that attract small fish and the animals that prey on them. One study conducted last year by researchers at the University of St. Andrews found that seals seemed to deliberately seek out wind farms to feed off the fish gathered there.

Dr. Deborah Russell, one of the researchers involved in the study, said in a press release: “The behaviour [of the seals] observed could have implications for both offshore wind farm developments and the decommissioning of oil and gas infrastructure.”

New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, who chairs the Committee on Environmental Protection, said choosing an LNG port over a wind farm takes New York in the wrong direction. The city has committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050.

A 2012 survey by Public Policy Polling, a private polling firm, found that 77 percent of New York City and Long Island residents strongly support the expanded use of renewable energy sources. And 63 percent of those surveyed strongly support offshore wind power if it’s located more than 12 miles off the coast.

Richards has introduced a resolution, co-sponsored by 22 council members, calling on Cuomo to veto Port Ambrose. The resolution is expected to come up for a vote in May.

“We should be focusing on solar energy, geothermal and obviously wind. And this LNG port does not provide us with that,” said Richards, whose district includes Far Rockaway, one of the communities in New York that was devastated by Hurricane Sandy. “We know that the earth is warming and sea levels are rising. It’s incumbent upon us as a city government and as leaders to see when something is not working and move towards building the future. And part of that has to do with divorcing our love of fossil fuels.”

Global Markets

Much of the opposition to Port Ambrose comes from concerns that the facility may be used to export natural gas to European markets, where gas prices are much higher. New York State has a strong anti-fracking movement that forced Cuomo to ban the controversial extraction method in December. Port Ambrose is the only LNG terminal in the United States applying only for an import license. There are many activists who argue that Liberty Natural Gas is using the import application as a smokescreen to deflect concerns that the facility will increase demand for fracked gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale.

They point out that the Cayman Islands-based investment firm behind Port Ambrose is also supporting a similar LNG terminal across the Atlantic in Britain.

“We know that the fracking companies have this stuff coming out of their ears and they have nowhere to send it,” said Povall. “I don’t know where [Liberty] will bring gas in cheaper. So it seems like it would be an export facility.”

Povall is the founder of All Our Energy, a renewable energy advocacy organization. He would like to see more of Long Island’s energy come from sources like solar and wind. There is a renewable energy park in his hometown of Point Lookout, located a few miles east of Long Beach, that Povall passes every day on his way to work. The park features several innovative demonstrations of green energy infrastructure, including geothermal technology, an electric vehicle recharging station and a shellfish aquaculture facility used to restock the bay that is powered by the wind turbine and solar panels located in the park.

“Every day, when I leave my house, I get to see that and I’m very happy to see it in my town,” Povall said.

In March, 52 legislative Democrats sent a letter to Cuomo asking him to veto Port Ambrose. Povall wants to get even more support from elected officials before the window opens for the governor to issue a veto.

Povall is currently organizing a campaign to send 10,000 postcards, with notes handwritten by local residents, to lawmakers throughout New York State. He has already put more than 500 in the mail.

“The postcard campaign is about trying to get a little note in the door to other elected officials that we haven’t been able to reach out to yet,” said Povall. “Basically, they say: Hey, our politicians are on board. If you lived in our town, you’d be on board too. So how about helping us?”


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