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New York Pipeline Battles Multiply

Banning Fracking Was Only the Beginning

Peter Rugh May 19

Ingredients:

One high-pressure natural gas pipeline, 3.5 feet in -diameter

Two 50-year-old nuclear reactors

Preparation: 

Situate each ingredient beside the United States’s largest metropolitan area. Combine.

The above recipe was provided courtesy of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Spectra Energy and Entergy Corp.

Spectra’s Algonquin Incremental Market Project, also known by its acronym as the AIM pipeline, will pass about 1,200 feet from Entergy’s 50-year-old Indian Point 3 nuclear reactor in Buchanan, N.Y., on the Hudson River approximately 45 miles from Times Square. FERC approved the pipeline last year after an NRC specialist claimed it would pose no risk to Indian Point’s two reactors.

The AIM pipeline, scheduled to be completed in November, will connect the existing Algonquin pipeline in northern New Jersey with Boston and ports in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. It will be able to carry 342,000 dekatherms of natural gas per day, roughly equivalent to 342 million cubic feet. Spectra paid Entergy a one-time licensing fee for the use of its property, which Entergy said was “in line with industry practice.”

The AIM pipeline is among the natural-gas infrastructure projects that have been built recently or are under way along the East Coast. They are driven by the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas from the massive underground Marcellus Shale formation. New York State banned fracking in 2014 after years of protests about its environmental and health dangers, but it is still very much in use in other states above the Marcellus Shale, particularly Pennsylvania.

After their success banning fracking, environmentalists in New York have turned their attention to the new wave of gas pipelines and compressor stations. “We want New York State to be a stopping point, where they can’t use our state as a conduit for gas,” said Kim Fraczek, an organizer with Sane Energy Project. “Fracking is still going on in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They want to compress, pipe and ship their gas throughout New York and New England. But if we stop these pipes, they won’t have the ability to get their product to market.”

Grassroots pressure exerted by Sane Energy and other New York environmental groups has continued to pay off. In April, the state Department of Environmental Conservation, after receiving approximately 15,000 written comments, mainly from pipeline opponents, rejected water permits for Williams Partners’s Constitution Pipeline, which would have carried fracked gas into New York from Pennsylvania. The energy giant Kinder Morgan had planned to use the same right-of-way passage through New York for its Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, but scrapped the $3.3 billion project to pump gas from Pennsylvania to New England shortly after the Constitution pipeline was rejected. Last November, Gov. Andrew Cuomo nixed plans for an offshore liquefied natural gas export terminal about 18 miles south of Long Island. Long Island and New York’s power authorities are currently weighing whether to build an offshore wind farm in the area.

“We’re finding that these infrastructure battles, while localized, taken together are part of a larger movement toward more climate-friendly energy sources,” said Patrick Robbins, also with Sane Energy. New gas infrastructure, he added, helps fracked gas “directly compete on the market with renewable sources.” He points to coalitions such as Beyond Extreme Energy, which works to unite local communities opposing pipelines and to advocate renewable energy instead.

Proponents of natural gas insist it contributes less to climate change and produces less air pollution than coal and oil do. Other talking points for gas include its low price and widespread availability. Spectra Energy’s website for the AIM pipeline combines these assertions into one tidy paragraph, promising to “provide the Northeast with a unique opportunity to secure a cost-effective, domestically produced source of energy to support its current demand, as well as its future growth, for clean-burning natural gas.”

One problem with this statement is that the Northeast doesn’t need more gas. That’s according to a study released last November by Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. It found the region could meet its energy needs over the next 15 years without pipelines like AIM — either through energy conservation programs or by building new transmission lines to carry electricity generated by renewable sources. Expanded use of gas, the researchers said, would lead to a 200-kiloton increase in the region’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Nevertheless, New York’s energy planners expect the state to continue to rely on natural gas at least until 2030. “With its nearness to the Marcellus Shale basin, New York should participate in prices lower than those experienced from 2000 through 2010 and more similar to those of the last few years,” the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority declared in its 2015 Energy Plan. It projected that gas prices for the residential sector will grow by less than 1 percent a year over the next decade. Ironically, the authority is headed by Richard Kaufman, a former Goldman Sachs executive  who Cuomo tapped as his “energy czar” shortly after Hurricane Sandy to move the state toward cleaner sources of power.

New York uses more gas than any other state in the Northeast. Gas-fired plants produced 44 percent of the state’s energy last year, compared with 35 percent in 2009, when the gas boom had only just begun.

But in the long term, according to Robbins, the growth in gas infrastructure has little to do with meeting domestic demand, since increased drilling has led to a glut of cheap gas. It has more to do with using the Eastern Seaboard as a gateway to untapped markets abroad.

In reaction to the 1973–74 “energy crisis,” Congress  passed the 1975 Energy Policy and Conservation Act, which banned the export of both crude oil and natural gas. While the Commerce Department developed regulations prohibiting crude-oil exports, however, it never did so for gas. In fact, the House approved legislation to expedite the approval of liquefied natural gas export terminals in November, and a version of the bill is currently before the Senate. A host of new terminals has already begun cropping up, including Cove Point in Maryland, where Dominion Power plans to ship nearly a billion cubic feet a day. Environmental groups estimate the Cove Point facility will spawn some 3,000 new fracked wells in Pennsylvania.

“As gas companies scramble to recoup profits, they are looking for new places with secure demand,” said Robbins. “Building gas generation while they wait for markets to recover is a great way for them to appear profitable in the meantime.” Their long-term payoff, he added, will come when they can reach foreign markets where their gas will fetch a higher price.

The biggest long-term issue with natural gas, however, is that its current cheap price masks the future costs of global warming caused by the continued burning of fossil fuels. “Climate change represents the greatest threat to our homes and well-being in the coming century,” Robbins warned. “Locking us into a fossil fuel-based energy system is a guaranteed way to raise those costs.”

It also entails sacrifice on the part of those who live beside industrial well pads on what was once farmland, near power plants and compressor stations that thicken the air with smog and along the polluted path of pipelines.

“Like a lot of people when you hear, ‘They’re going to put a natural gas pipeline right next to a nuclear power station, right next to your kids’ school, and right next to your house,’ you think, ‘No way is the government going to let that happen,’” said Courtney Williams of Peekskill, New York, whose home sits beside the AIM pipeline’s slated path. “But, yes, as preposterous as it sounds, that exactly is what’s going on.”

Williams, a Princeton-trained physicist and mother of two small children, has joined with her neighbors to rally against AIM. The Indian Point nuclear plant has already had a string of accidents, including a leak of radioactive tritium gas in January. Opponents warn that the pipeline, which will pass less than 120 feet from the plant’s backup electrical switches and diesel-fuel tanks, will compound the risk of an explosion. Since last fall, they have performed a string of civil disobedience actions halting construction of the pipeline. Meanwhile, an online petition calling on FERC to retract Spectra’s permit has collected over 27,000 signatures.

Groups like Sane Energy and their allies hope they can build a movement big enough to pressure decision makers to move toward renewable energy and away from fossil -fuels and the cataclysmic climate impacts they entail. The state Public Service Commission is expected to release details soon of its “Reforming Energy Vision” (REV) plan, which pledges to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent and to generate 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

However, Cuomo and his energy czar, Kaufman, appear to have taken a page from President Barack Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy. Gas remains a heavy fixture in the state’s plans, even while significant investments in renewable energy are under way, including a $900 million solar panel manufacturing plant in Buffalo. The governor might have had less than altruistic motives for promoting that project, though: His administration is under a Justice Department investigation for awarding the contract to build the plant to LPCiminelli, a top campaign contributor.

“A lot of what’s in REV looks great on paper,” said Kim Fraczek. “But none of it is going to move forward in a genuine fashion if we don’t conduct the activism we need to do.”


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