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Williams Pipeline Opponents Celebrate But New York’s Fossil Fuel War is Far From Over

Emma Gaffney May 17, 2019

A May 16 rally on the steps of City Hall in lower Manhattan, scheduled to protest the Williams Pipeline, became a celebration on Thursday after the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) rejected Williams Company’s proposal to build a 23-mile gas transmission line from New Jersey to Rockaway, Queens.

Environmentalists can  enjoy a sigh of relief, however briefly…

The pipeline, which was intended to carry natural gas fracked from the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania has been heavily opposed by environmentalists over the past three years. They contend that the pipeline poses a significant threat to surrounding beach communities and marine life while contributing to climate change and an increased dependence on fossil fuels.

The New York utility National Grid claims the gas will help abate a possible energy shortage in the region — an assertion pipeline opponents argue is fear mongering and one roundly debunked in a report issued by 350.org earlier this year that showed there is scant demand for the gas.

The Federal Energy Regulation Commission (FERC) approved the Williams Pipeline on May 3, which left the ultimate decision on the shoulders of the DEC and Governor Cuomo. Despite warnings of a possible gas shortage and a weakening of the state’s economy if the infrastructure was not approved, the DEC chose to reject Williams’ proposal, citing the possible contamination of the surrounding waters with mercury and copper.

Activists and local politicians congratulated each other on a job well done. However, as the crowd at City Hall on Thursday chanted “keep up the fight,” the underlying message was clear: it’s not over yet. The DEC rejected Williams’ water permit application “without prejudice,” meaning the company is free to reapply. The company can also appeal New York’s decision at the federal level.

“We have seen how the fossil fuel industry will use the loopholes in our democracy to try to overturn a decision that protects our state,” Kim Fraczek, director of the Sane Energy Project, told The Indypendent. “We have seen this with the Northern Access Pipeline out in western New York and we have also seen this at the Valley Lateral Pipeline in Orange County. We have to remain vigilant.”

Fraczek said environmentalists’ recent success in the Williams Pipeline battle is due to extensive scientific research outlining the potential for ecological damage if it were approved but also credited the strong relationships activists built across communities.

“We organized over 19,000 petition signatures,” she said. “We organized 260 groups across New York State to sign a letter to Gov.Cuomo. We organized 60 elected officials, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that without the community power generated through the deep and genuine relationships we built.”

Some of those elected officials were on hand to mark the occasion on Thursday.

“Today we celebrate, but we still have to continue to make our case to the people,” said City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who called for the city to launch a green bonds program. “While we talk about that divestment, we also have to make the case about investment.”

While Cuomo himself stated that he did not make the final decision to reject the pipeline, Assemblymember Robert Carroll, whose district includes Park Slope and Flatbush, was one of many who suggested it was perhaps in his best interests to do so.

“When the Governor laid down his Green New Deal agenda in January, it was very clear: if he was going to be honest and genuine about that agenda, this pipeline had to be stopped,” Carroll said. “There was no way that we would get to renewable energy independence by 2034 if we approved a pipeline that was meant to work for the next 50 years.”

Speaking on behalf of Bill de Blasio, Chief Climate Policy Officer Dan Zarrilli reiterated the need to steer New York towards renewable energy, to stand up to “big oil” and to confront the climate crisis head-on. “Our city’s message was loud and clear. We are ending our dependence on fossil fuels and we are putting New York City’s Green New Deal into action, that means saying no to the Williams Pipeline,” said Zarrilli.

Environmentalists can for now enjoy a sigh of relief, however briefly; the DEC holds no prejudice over Williams Company, so the proposal has been left open-ended and Williams says it is heading back to the drawing board. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump, signed an executive order in April, directing the federal Environmental Protection Agency to restrict provisions in the Clean Water Act that allow states to reject pipeline permits. If one thing is clear: the fight against fossil fuels in New York is far from over.


Photo: Noelle Picone of the Surfrider Foundation addresses fellow anti-pipeline activists at City Hall on Thursday. Credit: Erik McGregor.