Does New York City Really Need a New Natural Gas Pipeline, At the End of The High Line?

Mat McDermott/CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

With all the rightful focus the environmental community is placing on the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, you'd be forgiven for not hearing about another contentious proposed pipeline, also designed to transport a fossil fuel with serious potential for water and climate problems. New Yorkers, in particular, pay attention. There are echoes of Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses here.

Spectra Energy's planned New Jersey-New York Expansion pipeline is, as the name suggests, an expansion of two existing natural gas pipelines intended to bring into Manhattan natural gas obtained by fracking in the Marcellus Shale of upstate New York.

Its developers and supporters in the press say that natural gas is "a much cleaner fuel than coal...so this will help clean the region's air. And it will cut energy costs." The usual 'this will create jobs' angle is also played; it's claimed that 5,000 new ones will be created.

Its opponents -- which include numerous anti-fracking groups and high-profile "intervenors" such as New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Gasland director Josh Fox, and actor-activist Mark Ruffalo -- focus instead on the environmental and community impacts of fracking and the potentially disastrous effects of an accident, should it occur along the densely-populated end of the pipeline's route. Instead, as the Sane Energy Project site notes, "We support investment in renewable energy and the goal of zero fossil fuel dependence by 2030." As of the 18th, I'm told there are 3500 petitions filed against the pipeline.

Here's the overview of the project route and my comments on the claimed benefits and problems with it:

© Spectra Energy

The Route: As you can see in the image above (from Spectra Energy) the NJ-NY Expansion comes in from upstate New York, enters into New Jersey and comes back into New York in Staten Island. It then passes back into New Jersey in Bayonne, traveling up through Jersey City, before crossing underneath the Hudson River, entering Manhattan at Gansevoort and West Street (see map below) -- pretty much right at the end of The High Line elevated park and the site where the Whitney Museum's downtown expansion is already under construction -- and where, nearby, there will be an underground storage vault for natural gas.

© Sane Energy Project

The Contents: Spectra's FAQ about the project tout natural gas as being "the cleanest burning conventional source of energy," producing "45% less carbon dioxide than coal and 30% less than fuel oil when burned. Increasing our nation's use of natural gas over coal will reduce the carbon dioxide in our air by six million tons a year."

This is at best a mixture of partial, qualified truth and fudging the facts.

Yes, when natural gas is obtained through conventional extraction techniques it is the cleanest burning conventional fossil fuel, having lower emissions than both coal and oil. But, in the case of this specific pipeline, we're not talking about conventional natural gas; we're talking about hydraulic fracturing. Fracked natural gas is more energy intensive to produce, with numerous studies showing that the greenhouse gas emissions from it are significantly higher than conventional natural gas -- some show it being even higher than coal. Spectra's simply glossing over this important distinction.

And then there's the serious potential for contamination of the water supply in areas being fracked. We've covered this topic plenty of times, so I won't rehash all of these arguments, but chalk them down as very good reasons to apply the precautionary principle here and say no to fracking.

As far as replacing coal with natural gas resulting in reducing CO2 emissions, the conventional environmental wisdom supports that, but that wisdom was developed without considering the additional greenhouse gas impact of fracking and the projected increase in the proportion of fracked gas as part of the US' overall natural gas supply. Taking this into account, natural gas really doesn't fare nearly as well as the "bridge fuel" it was once touted to be.

As for the air quality improvement claims, there is plenty of dirty fuel oil burned in New York City, it's true. Replacing that with something less polluting is important, but considering the higher greenhouse gas emissions from fracked natural gas this seems like a case of 'where do you want your pollution, locally or everywhere?'

The Jobs: As I said above, Spectra claims 5,000 will be created, and I haven't seen an analysis of their figures on that. What I will say though is that while job creation is a noble goal, creating jobs that support the development of technologies that are just socially and environmentally destructive in the long run, as fracking clearly has the potential to be, is just the same sort of short-term thinking that got us into the economic mess we're in right now.

The Safety: Spectra touts the safety of its natural gas pipelines in general and the opponents point out that if there was an accident on the scale of the one which rocked San Bruno, California a while back a good size chuck of Greenwich Village could well be damaged (see the graphic below). Natural Gas Watch highlights a number of violations for which Spectra was cited by the Federal government earlier this year.

© Sane Energy Project

In short, is this particular pipeline any more dangerous than other natural gas pipelines? Probably not, but that still doesn't mean the risk is nil nor change the fact that the NJ-NY Expansion will be entering Manhattan in one of the city's both most historically valued and presently culturally vibrant areas. An accident anywhere along the route will be damaging, even more so here.

Although, being cynical for a moment, at least it's not running into a poor neighborhood, where people have less financial ability to organize a defense, like this sort of project normally would. The wealthier residents of the area are getting a taste of what is fairly common in less affluent areas.

There Are Better Ways Forward Than Fracked Natural Gas
My take on this is fairly simple: There are simply better ways to invest in our energy infrastructure as we transition away from fossil fuels than expanding the use of fracked natural gas. More and more the research shows that, while natural gas certainly has an important role to play in the US energy mix for some time, fracking has just too much risk involved, environmentally, socially, financially, to support it -- especially in New York State.

Most of the touted benefits of the NJ-NY Expansion pipeline simply gloss over the very important differences between extracting natural gas through conventional means and through hydraulic fracturing. Based on current analysis, fracked natural gas simply isn't a more environmentally friendly replacement for any energy source.

The job creation claims are the same distraction that fossil fuel companies continuously use whenever a new infrastructure project is proposed. They are short-sighted at best.

Much like with the debate over decommissioning the aging Indian Point nuclear power plant, much of the added power that could be created because of the increased pipeline capacity, could just as easily (and probably far more cheaply) be offset with energy efficiency improvements in the region. In the case of Indian Point, recent analysis showed that there were roughly 1.5 GW worth of energy savings that could be brought about through energy efficiency in the greater New York City area, beyond those improvements already planned.

TAKE ACTION: The last public hearing being held by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on the Spectra pipeline is being held this Thursday, October 20th at 7pm, as PS41, 116 W 11th Street in Manhattan. FERC is accepting public comment on the project by mail until October 31st.

Tags: Fracking | Natural Gas | New Jersey | New York City

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