Rockaway Park — The cost of natural gas is rising internationally, production in Eastern Canada is declining and resources are limited. These trends are being exacerbated, even further, by colder winter temperatures accompanying climate change.

Entrepreneurs in the energy market are taking steps to capitalize on this rapidly shifting market. The Rockaway Delivery Lateral Pipeline and the Brooklyn Queens Interconnect Project (BQI) are one such joint venture. This project is a partnership between Williams Company's Transco pipeline subsidiary and distributor National Grid.

According to these companies, this undertaking will serve growing energy needs in the greater New York City area, protect citizens in Brooklyn and Queens against anticipated increases in natural gas prices and prevent natural gas service disruptions. They also say natural gas does less environmental damage than its rival heating fuel, oil.

Sound too good to be true? Many environmental and human right advocates think so. Activists are not convinced that Williams Transco and National Grid are portraying their project honestly to government agencies and the general public.

Furthermore, federal regulators have fined Williams Transco $1.4 million for seven pipeline incidents over the past decade. A 2010 permit denial by the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration said the company had an “enforcement history with significant non-compliance issues.”

A series of pipes

Williams Transco applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) for the authorization to construct the Rockaway Delivery Lateral Project in January.

In October, Williams Transco prepared a draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) for FERC's approval. The DEIS is open for public comment until December 9th at 5:00pm. After that time, the FERC will respond to the public comments and revise the DEIS, issue a Final EIS, and then either approve or deny the projects.*

This pipeline will provide an additional delivery point from the existing Transco Lower New York Bay Lateral pipeline, positioned off the Atlantic Coast. The Rockaway Delivery Lateral Pipeline will transport natural gas to National Grid via the proposed Brooklyn Queens Interconnect Project. If approved, this pipeline will help meet projected gas demand needs in Brooklyn and Queens.

The $265 million pipeline project is divided into three segments: a three-mile connector between the Transco pipeline in the Atlantic Ocean and the Rockaways; a one-and-a-half-mile line starting in the Rockaways, passing under Jamaica Bay and the Gateway National Recreation Area to Floyd Bennett Field; and a Metering and Regulation (M&R) facility in the historic Floyd Bennett aircraft hangars.

Meanwhile, as part of the $83 million Brooklyn Queens Interconnect project, National Grid is installing pipelines underneath Rockaway Inlet—one to connect the Grid's existing Queens and Brooklyn gas networks, the other to connect that system to the new Williams Transco facility.

A range of promised benefits

The Transco Lower New York Bay Lateral Pipeline, situated off the Atlantic coast, currently provides more than half the natural gas purchased by the city's major distributors. This pipeline currently operates three miles off Rockaway Beach. Right now, natural gas gets to New York City addresses via delivery points on Staten Island, in Manhattan and at Long Beach.

The Brooklyn Queens Interconnect project will provide an additional delivery point that will enable more New York City residents to convert to natural gas. When natural gas demand peaks, pipeline capacity into the Brooklyn and Queens market is restricted. Even after decades of economic and population growth, the last major direct natural gas transmission line was built over 50 years ago. National Grid spokeswoman, Karen Young says, “Natural gas saves fifty percent on heating bills and each conversion is equivalent to taking 15 cars off the road for a year. This additional capacity will give NYC property owners a lower-cost energy alternative and it supports the regional environmental goals.”

The M&R station is necessary to measure, condition and control the flow of natural gas from Williams Transco before it transfers to the local natural gas distribution network. The M&R station is designed to be situated in the southernmost airplane hangar building at Floyd Bennett Field. Chris Stockton, a spokesperson for Williams Transco says, “The hangar buildings, while historically significant, are in serious disrepair to the point of being in danger of collapse.”

Williams will provide up to $150,000 per year to Gateway National Park as the part of a lease agreement. Stockton says; “The lease payments creates a source of income for Gateway, which can be used for park infrastructure needs, resource protection and visitor services at the park.” In addition to these lease payments, Williams will restore the exterior of the aircraft hangar to its original condition.

Impact on the waters

The New York Bight—the area of the Atlantic where part of the pipeline project will occur—is a prominent source of ecological diversity and presents major commercial value to local businesses. According to the latest information available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in 2010, 5.6 million pounds of fish and 5.2 million pounds of shellfish resided in this habitat. According to the same study, the economic value of this marine wildlife totals $5.5 million and $5.4 million respectively.

According to the DEIS, while pipeline construction is underway activities such as trenching, dredging, drilling and sediment re-deposition will have an impact on the local fishing economy. The resulting turbidity, noise levels and sediment disruption will harm or kill benthic organisms (small bottom dwellers that bigger fish eat), clog fish gills and displace the fish that don't suffocate to death.

The offshore division of this project will be constructed in protected waters. The 1972 Marine Mammals Protection Act was enacted to protect marine mammal species that are in danger of extinction as a result of human activities. Under these regulations protected species must not fall below their optimum sustainable population.

Williams Transco has applied to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for authorization for “intermittent level B harassment” of six marine mammal species."

The exemption sought by Williams Transco applies to the North Atlantic right whale, harp seals, gray seals, harbor porpoises, short-beaked common dolphins and harbor seals.

Initially, Transco told the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—which had recommended the new pipe be laid in a four-foot trench—that it wanted to stick to its plan to dig only to three feet, arguing that digging deeper would kick more sediment into the water, increasing the project's environmental impact. But the October 2013 DEIS said that, in response to concerns identified during the scoping process, the depth of cover for the offshore pipeline would be altered to four feet.*

Questions about safety

Project opponents have pointed to Williams Transco's safety record. During 2013 they have allegedly been involved in four safety incidents:

  • March 23, Cameron, W.V.: A 24-inch pipeline ruptured. An indiscernible amount of methane was released into the atmosphere.
  • May 15, Montrose, Pa.: A compressor station caught fire. Local officials determined that there was evidence of an explosion. Williams officials denied this claim.
  • May 30, Branchburg N.J.: An explosion occurred at a compressor station. 13 were injured.
  • June 13, Geismar, La.: A violent explosion occurred at a facility that processes natural gas liquids. Flames soured 200 feet into the air. There were a total of two fatalities and 70 injuries. The resulting investigation of Williams Transco revealed that the Williams Olefins facility in Geismar had operated for three years in direct violation of the Clean Air Act, and the facility had not been inspected by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in nearly a decade.

    Enforcement lapses

    According to PHMSA records, there are more than 281 significant natural gas incidents each year—a trend that dates back more than 20 years. A "significant" incident is one that results in a fatality or injury requiring hospitalization, “$50,000 or more in total costs (in 1984 dollars), highly volatile liquid releases of 5 barrels or more or other liquid releases of 50 barrels or more, liquid releases resulting in an unintentional fire or explosion.”

    PHMSA officials acknowledge that pipeline enforcement is weak. Jeffrey Wiese, the nation's top oil and gas pipeline safety official, recently commented on the lack of oversight and resources available to enforce safety regulations. Weise says the regulatory process is “dying.”

    According to federal reports, this agency is chronically short of inspectors. Only 7 percent of natural gas lines and 44 percent of petroleum lines are subject to mandatory inspection. The PHMSA only employs 88 pipeline auditors nationwide.

    Because the regulatory agency is overmatched, safety measures and policing are left to pipeline owners or contractors.

    Regulation is not the only outsourced area of management in the American gas industry. The environmental reviews conducted by FERC are outsourced to third-party contractors under the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. Applicants seeking certificates for the construction of natural gas infrastructure are required to hire and fund a third-party agency.

    These independent contractors assist with the environmental review process by preparing necessary documents for analysis. This means that the environmental documents reviewed by FERC from Williams Transco and National Grid were prepared by a third-party agency, hired and paid for by these very gas companies. In addition to this seemingly compromised review process, FERC approves "north of 99 percent" of proposed pipelines for construction.

    The greenhouse impact

    The DEIS report concludes that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the Rockaway Lateral Pipeline project would not have any direct impact on the environment. This is because other sources of fuel release more toxic emissions into the atmosphere when burned. Williams' spokesperson explains, “...when combusted, coal and oil release higher levels of harmful emissions, including a higher ratio of carbon emissions, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide.”

    National Grid estimates that fuel conversions to natural gas could result in a decrease of daily GHG emissions. This decrease would amount to 11,357 metric tons of carbon dioxide.

    But J.K. Canepa, a member of the Coalition Against the Rockaway Pipeline, argues that, “Carbon dioxide levels are only part of the story of emissions." When natural gas is extracted, at least 30 percent more methane escapes into the atmosphere than with conventional gas extraction methods. This is due largely to the fact that methane is the primary component of natural gas.

    The opposition fears that this pipeline will bring natural gas retrieved using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to New York City. Fracking is a process that involves shooting high-pressure streams of water, sand and unspecified chemicals into the ground to extract natural gas reserves. A single fracked well could release 30 to 50 percent more methane through the extraction process and routine leaks than a conventional gas well over its lifetime.

    A study conducted by Robert W. Howarth at Cornell University states that methane emissions from fracked gas are more environmentally destructive than carbon dioxide emissions. Eric Walton, a pipeline opponent, explains: “While natural gas is lower in carbon dioxide, the oft-maligned greenhouse gas of 'carbon footprint' fame, it is much higher in methane, which has twenty times the heat-trapping strength of CO2.”

    The Howarth study concludes that over a 20-year-horizon, the greenhouse footprint of fracked shale gas is at least 50 percent greater than that of oil, and perhaps 2.5 times greater. At the 100-year time scale, the footprint for shale is 35 percent greater than for oil.

    Are there alternatives?

    Natural gas advocates argue that the conversion of more homes will help to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Stockton notes that natural gas is an abundant resource in the United States. “We believe alternative forms of energy, such as wind and solar, are important and should be taken advantage of where it makes sense," Stockton says. "However, this country cannot meet all of its energy needs with alternatives alone.”

    But Walton takes issues with that claim, citing a Stanford University study that found that sustainable energy from wind, water, solar and other renewable sources could meet 100 percent of America's energy needs. Furthermore, this goal is attainable by 2030 using available technology.

    “If Denmark and Germany can aim this high, and if New Jersey can follow California as the two leading solar states, and if even Texas can lead the way with wind, then why do we lag behind in New York State?" Canepa asks.

    She argues that if we continue to build more infrastructure for fossil fuels, we will ultimately seal our own demise. "If you build it, [the frackers] will come."

    *Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Transco filed its DEIS in January and was resisting calls to dig a four-foot trench for the pipeline. In fact, the DEIS was submitted in October; a different step occurred in January. And Transco has agreed to dig a four-foot trench. We regret the errors.