More than five years have passed since a major new natural gas pipeline entered the boundaries of New York City. Since then, the city’s undergone a massive building boom, adding some 24,000 new housing units a year since 2017. Every new building, however, requires more energy for heating, and local utilities are hellbent on that being natural gas.
That’s why they’re supporting the construction of a proposed pipeline that’d run underwater through New York Bay bringing natural gas from shale fields in Pennsylvania into homes in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Long Island. Here’s the thing, though: Natural gas is a fossil fuel, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo committed earlier this year to end the state’s dependence on them.
That’s why, as the pipeline nears construction, it’s facing some stiff opposition, including the New York City comptroller and members of the City Council who are planning to introduce a resolution asking the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to reject the project. Opponents are also planning a march Thursday in New York City to make some more noise.
And these critics raise a fair point: How the hell does a new natural gas project fit into a clean energy vision?
Announced in 2016, the Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) project—or Williams Pipeline as some opponents call it (inspired by its Oklahoma-based developer, Williams) — is an expansion of the company’s already existing Transco Pipeline, a 16,093km long interstate pipeline system that brings natural gas from the Gulf Coast into the Northeast.
The project is currently awaiting state and federal approval, and the DEC has until May 16 to issue a key water certification that’d allow construction to begin this year. Once built, the pipeline is expected to add up to 400 million cubic feet of natural gas a day to the New York City area, enough to heat more than 2 million American homes.
While the entire expansion covers 76km, opponents are most concerned with the 37km from New Jersey to New York, which will require dredging nearly 90 acres of the seafloor between the states, an area about half the size of Disneyland.
Kimberly Ong, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defence Council, is most concerned about the potential for this construction to contaminate that waterway. The seafloor disturbance has the potential to throw loads of settled sediment into the water, creating whiteout-type conditions underwater.
“It would make the water too cloudy for fish to do just basic things required to survive, like migrate, eat, lay eggs,” Ong told Earther. “It would be like that for days and days.”
So there’s the concern of how the project’s construction could harm marine life in the region, which include five sea turtle species and even the potential for dolphins that rarely visit New York waters, according to the environmental impact statement. More importantly, perhaps, there’s the impact on our planet’s ongoing warming.
The project developer and utilities like to make the case that, well, gas is cleaner than oil. Sure, it doesn’t release as many pollutants into the air, but it still releases methane if it leaks. This greenhouse has 25 times the warming potential over a century than its more infamous relative, carbon dioxide. But pipeline proponents don’t like to talk about that. The way they see it, the region needs more natural gas.
In fact, Con Edison, a utility that supplies power to Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, and Westchester County and wouldn’t be a customer to the NESE expansion, issued a moratorium on new gas line connections in Westchester last month out of concern for future demand. It’s also threatening New York City with a moratorium if the so-called Williams Pipeline doesn’t succeed.
So is National Grid, which serves Long Island, Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn and would be the pipeline’s sole customer. According to a statement developer Williams sent Earther, National Grid is converting some 8,000 customers a year from oil to gas. More gas is required to keep up with this transition away from oil, the utilities say.
But these utilities don’t want any more new gas connections to buildings until more supply can enter the region via pipelines. While the supply of gas is meeting current demand, Con Edison, at least, is anticipating demand will skyrocket past the supply, which it says hasn’t been growing. This projection is based upon the company’s top peak demand days, said Con Edison spokesperson Allan Drury. The top 10 days have all been since 2017.
“If we begin to forecast that we cannot meet the demand for natural gas on the days of peak demand, we cannot responsibly add new customers, which typically number 1,700 new connections each year,” said Ivan Kimball, Con Edison’s vice president of energy management, during his testimony before the New York City Council as part of a hearing on the pipeline Monday.
However, this argument isn’t without its critics. Suzanne Mattei, the former regional director for the DEC who is now a private consultant, authored a report for 350 Brooklyn in March outlining why utilities’ demand argument rings false. Mattei says the numbers just don’t show that demand for natural gas will go up; it’s gone down nationally. And the number of peak demand days isn’t a good measure for future demand, she said, because they’re still only a few days out of the year and, really, only a few hours of the day.
Even if demand were the issue here, these utilities could take other steps to address the need. Like investing in geothermal-powered heat pumps. Or energy efficiency. Or a renewable electric grid! It doesn’t have to be a pipeline, Mattei said. And it really shouldn’t be if a state like New York is trying to wean off fossil fuels in the next 20 years.
“If you’re looking for a bridge from fossil fuel to clean renewable technology, you don’t really want something that’s going to require a lot of new infrastructure,” Mattei told Earther. “A massive new pipeline that’s going to have a lifespan of maybe 40 years or more ? That looks less like a bridge and more like a barrier when it comes to getting to cleaner technology.”
However, the pipeline developer and utilities champion gas as a way to transition toward this future.
“Natural gas is a critical component of the mix of energy sources necessary to meet the region’s growing energy needs, creating affordability for utility customers and ensuring reliability while renewables scale,” developer Williams wrote to Earther in an email. “Natural gas does not serve as an impediment to renewable energy development.”
Cuomo wants to see the state go 100 per cent renewable by 2040. That sounds difficult if his agency approves a new fossil fuel project meant to last some 40 years. His office couldn’t comment on whether it supports the energy project, but the governor will be supporting the DEC’s decision whatever it may be, said the governor’s deputy communications director Jordan Levine to Earther.
What Cuomo has been vocal about is Trump’s recent executive order that attempts to limit states’ power to deny these types of projects. The governor also moved to invest $347 million into a Clean Energy Action Plan for Westchester County after Con Edison implemented its moratorium there. The plan would fund the deployment of heat pumps, increase gas efficiency, and provide grants to incentivise clean energy alternatives like solar through the county.
That’s all great, but for many New Yorkers, what happens with the proposed Williams Pipeline will reveal whether Cuomo is serious in his commitment to prevent further climate change. That’s the concern for the low-income families and communities of colour Patrick Houston represents. He’s the climate and inequality campaign associate for New York Communities for Change, a nonprofit that works to build power among underserved communities in New York City and Long Island. So many of the people he’s met with lost their homes and stability after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the region in 2012. They can’t afford another one.
“It is absolutely absurd that with business-as-usual and the Rockaways projected to be underwater by the end of this century, that New York state is even considering building more fossil fuel infrastructure ,” Houston told Earther.
He doesn’t want to see anyone without heat in the winter months, obviously. No one does. But he sees this argument from utilities as an excuse. They need to invest more aggressively in renewable resources, he said. More fossil fuels just can’t be the answer anymore—not for the people whose lives are at stake.
“If they’re truly concerned about the safety and the comfortability of their customers’ homes,” Houston said, “then why aren’t they investing way more energy and resources into providing alternatives that ensure that so many of the homes that they power aren’t underwater by the end of the century?”