Another Pipeline, Another Controversy

A natural gas pipeline from New Jersey to New York: sane or insane?

Bottleneck to the Northeast

It could be a marriage made in economic heaven. Standing on one side of the altar is the northeastern United States, hungry for more natural gas, a fuel whose prices in the region are projected to reach five-year highs this summer. On the other side stand energy companies with growing supplies of natural gas, in large part as a result of fracked shale gas [pdf], looking for a market.

So what’s the holdup? Transportation. In order to consummate this supply-and-demand betrothal, the energy companies have to be able to deliver; that is, get the product from its point of origin (in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere) to northeastern markets. And there just isn’t enough pipeline capacity to accomplish the union. (See here, here and here [pdf].)

Obvious Solution: Build

They say that where there’s love there’s a way. And in this case the way seems pretty obvious: Build more pipelines to deliver natural gas to the Northeast. And in fact that’s exactly what’s happening. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that “[o]ver half of U.S. natural gas pipeline projects in 2012 were in the Northeast. And more are planned in the coming years.” (See also here.)

And that’s where our story of pipeline controversy comes in.

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There’s been a flurry of pipeline construction activity in the past few years, with much of last year’s builds all happening in the Northeast. (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

The Spectre of Spectra

The pipeline in question, “a 20-mile expansion of the Company’s Texas Eastern Transmission and Algonquin Gas Transmission interstate pipeline systems,” would bring natural gas across the Hudson River from New Jersey to lower Manhattan, delivering the fuel to NYC and surrounding counties.

The company proposing the pipeline is Spectra Energy, a spin-off of Duke Energy that proclaims to be “committed to making sustainable choices.”

And indeed there is much to commend the planned pipeline. It will bring a relatively clean fossil fuel to the Northeast, a fuel that releases a lot less air toxics and less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal or oil (as long as there is relatively little leakage). And Spectra claims that the construction will have minimal environmental impacts:

  • The pipeline, according to Spectra, will have little impact on underdeveloped lands as it will “be constructed within public roadways and commercial/industrial areas and parallel to existing utility rights-of-way. In fact, 94% of the pipeline is located in commercial/industrial areas.”
  • Installation of the pipeline will use a technique called Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD), “an efficient subsurface method of installing pipelines without using traditional trenching methods, helping to avoid any unnecessary impacts to the surface and providing an additional layer of safety due to the depth of the pipe. “

And then there’s the jobs thing. In our economic climate, anything that creates new jobs is a sure political winner, and Spectra claims the project will produce more than 5,200 new jobs up through construction.

There are some powerful supporters of the project, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg among them. Part of that support probably arises from the fact that the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030 — his blueprint for greening the city — will require that the city have access to a lot more natural gas to lower carbon emissions and clean up air pollution from residential boilers that are currently using dirty heating oil to heat apartments and water.

And things are looking good for Spectra. In May 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project, and within two months construction had begun. By December, the construction of the pipeline underneath the Hudson River was completed [pdf]. The pipeline’s completion is anticipated in November 2013.

So What’s Not to Like About the Pipeline? How about Ka-boom?

But there are a lot of people who are very, very unhappy about the pipeline and are doing everything they can to stop it. Among the opponents are a host of environmental groups and Jerramiah Healy, the mayor of Jersey City, the New Jersey locale where the pipeline makes its way underneath the Hudson toward New York.

Why? For some environmentalists, the issue is the source of the natural gas being carried in the pipeline. A good deal of it will be natural gas borne of fracking (in which a mixture of sand, water and chemicals are injected at high pressures underground to break up the rock), and because of concerns about the environmental impact of that process (see here and here for example), they see the gas as being tainted.

Stop the pipeline, they reason, and make shale gas less profitable and thus less attractive to potential frackers.

There are also concerns about the pipeline bringing radioactive radon gas into the homes of New Yorkers. (See also here, $ub req’ed.)

But by far the most divisive and emotional issue centers around safety. The Spectra pipeline is roughly 30 inches in diameter, will operate under high pressure (200 to 1,200 pounds per square inch), and is expected to deliver some 800 million cubic feet of gas per day. When mishaps occur with high pressure pipelines, the consequences can be severe. Chances are, even if you’re not a newshound, you’re familiar with the 2010 explosion in San Bruno, California, an event that caused eight deaths and lots of destruction and is still being investigated two and a half years later. Other accidents have occurred in recent years in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan,and Ohio.*

Huge explosions in relatively rural areas are bad enough, but, opponents of the Spectra pipeline ask, what if such an explosion occurred in the high population centers of Jersey City or lower Manhattan?

The Sane Energy Project, whose mission is “to fight fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructure, and encourage renewable infrastructure,” has an answer. The group argues that “[t]he pipeline is a direct threat to the public health, safety, property values and economy of eastern New Jersey and New York City, especially to the residents, businesses, galleries, schools, religious and cultural institutions of downtown Manhattan, Staten Island, and Jersey City.”  The group’s arguments continue:

“Should the pipeline or vault explode on the Manhattan side of the Hudson, the potential fire radius would encompass three historic districts, including: 10 irreplaceable Landmarked buildings; 10 schools or daycare centers; 8 playgrounds, including a large playground on the pier directly adjacent to the Sanitation Pier (the entry point of the pipeline); 13 churches or religious institutions; more than 28 art and cultural centers (including the Ground Zero Museum Workshop); the Hudson River Greenway, shoreline and West Side Highway; more than 38 restaurants; countless boutiques, hotels, businesses and residences.”

Is that alarmist or just plain sane? The way things are going, it looks like we’re going to find out.


End Note

* In terms of track record, it is the medium-sized distribution lines that have the most incidents and fatalities.