Three questions that will determine the fate of the Williams Pipeline

A natural gas pipeline being constructed.
A natural gas pipeline being constructed.
Ververidis Vasilis/Shutterstock
A natural gas pipeline being constructed.

Three questions that will determine the fate of the Williams Pipeline

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an ultimatum to National Grid. Here’s what happens next.
November 13, 2019

Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an ultimatum to National Grid on Nov. 12: The energy company has 14 days to find a way to meet the growing demand for natural gas in New York City and on Long Island, or risk losing its state-issued license to serve approximately 1.8 million people in the downstate area. While it remains to be seen what the company will do, this latest act by the governor means that one way or another the moratorium on new gas hook-ups that the company imposed earlier this year is coming to an end.

National Grid announced the moratorium in May after the state Department of Environmental Conservation blocked a proposed natural gas pipeline that the Oklahoma-based Williams Companies wanted to build across the Lower Bay of New York Harbor. Cuomo has joined environmentalists in recent months in opposing the project. The governor argued in a Nov. 12 letter that the company needlessly imposed the moratorium and that the company can meet demand for natural gas through options besides building the pipeline (officially known as the Northeast Supply Enhancement, colloquially as the Williams Pipeline), which activists say would damage the environment and undermine efforts to combat climate change. 

Cuomo argued in the letter that National Grid should have better prepared for increased demand in years past rather than impose a moratorium when its application for the pipeline project got blocked by the state. “The ‘moratorium’ is either a fabricated device or a lack of competence,” Cuomo wrote. “Gas can be trucked, shipped, or barged, and other infrastructure could be proposed or additional unloading facilities installed. Electric service and demand response measures could be proposed. Heat pumps and renewable sources could be proposed … The choice was never between the pipeline or an immediate moratorium.” 

This latest move by the governor is the latest setback for National Grid, which has already backtracked on the denial of gas hook-ups to more than 1,100 customers. Williams Companies has also withdrawn its application for a water quality permit for the project. However, Cuomo’s letter also creates a critical test for himself and environmental activists: Can they prove that downstate can live without the proposed project? Finding the answer to that question requires asking a few others first. 

Here is a rundown of the crucial questions that will determine the downstate area’s energy future and how that will affect the state’s effort to combat climate change.

How much energy is needed in New York City and on Long Island? 

The proposed pipeline would transport about 400,000 dekatherms per day of natural gas to customers in Brooklyn, Queens and on Long Island. A typical commercial boiler would use somewhere around 1 dekatherm per hour. While natural gas is a fossil fuel that can contribute to climate change, the Williams Pipeline project website argues that a new pipeline would serve the environment by aiding the conversion of approximately 8,000 customers per year from oil to natural gas-based heating systems. This conversion would help National Grid meet a projected 10% growth in natural gas demand in Brooklyn, Queens and on Long Island over the next decade. “Much of that growth is due to continued conversion of oil heat to natural gas as well as increased demand from existing and new construction,” reads the website.

These claims are disputed by environmental groups like 350.org and 350 Brooklyn, which released a report in March 2019 that disputes the need for the pipeline. The report notes that thousands of boilers have already converted to existing natural gas supplies and that demand for future conversions could be reduced by allowing existing oil boilers to use biodiesel. 

The report also claims that the 10% projection is based on outdated data. A third of the proposed capacity for the pipeline could be met by converting small residential buildings to air or geothermal heat pumps. Much of the remaining pipeline capacity could be met through weatherizing homes and other energy efficiency measures, according to the report.

In any case, the state Public Services Commission – at Cuomo’s request – is currently investigating the existing energy needs of the downstate area. Cuomo took a skeptical view of National Grid’s projections In an interview with NY1 on Nov. 12. “That is ongoing,” Cuomo said of the investigation. “National Grid and all these utilities – you know they talk about too big to fail, in corporations. This is the epitome of it. These utilities believe they have a license granted by God. They don't. They have a license granted by the people of the State of New York. And the people of the State of New York can revoke that license. And that's where we are.”

What are the alternatives to a new pipeline?

There are four basic ways to reduce dependence on natural gas, but doing so is a matter of politics as much as policy for Cuomo and other decision-makers. More energy could be generated by reverting back to the use of coal or fuel oil, but this option is likely a non-starter, given that both burn dirtier than gas, making it harder to achieve the state’s ability to meet its ambitious new climate change goals. A September 2019 traffic crash outside Binghamton also demonstrated the political perils of using tanker trucks to transport natural gas. “Monday’s fatal truck accident near Binghamton was a perverse result of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s policy of blocking natural gas pipelines,” the New York Post wrote at the time.

If such a method – or barges, which are also prone to crashes and spills – were deployed on the scale necessary to replace the capacity of the Williams Pipeline, then it is very likely that such crashes would become more common, while also generating greenhouse gas emissions from the trucks and barges themselves. 

Electricity could replace gas as a source of energy for heating. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, for example, has an incentive program that promotes the adoption of air source heat pumps. Commercial and residential buildings could likewise adopt electrical appliances for cooking stoves, water heaters, and other uses. However, these technologies are only as clean as the energy source that powers it and New York’s electricity generation portfolio still includes a lot of fossil fuels. 

Could environmentalists win the battle but lose the war?

Cuomo’s demand that National Grid find other ways to provide natural gas will test environmentalists’ assertions that there are enough alternatives to reject all new fossil fuel projects. National Grid argues that transitioning to renewable energy would be prohibitively expensive in the near term and that fossil fuels like natural gas are necessary, especially to meet peak demand on the coldest days of the year. Given the dangers of climate change, environmentalists are urging that the state block any additional moves to increase the natural gas supply and spur the adoption of solar, wind, geothermal and other energy sources. Activists did take issue with Cuomo’s assertion that “gas can be trucked, shipped, or barged” to meet new demand and flooded the governor’s office with calls in recent days in response. “We’re grateful that Cuomo so far appears to be standing strong against building the Williams Pipeline,” said Laura Shindell of Food and Water Watch, an organization that is part of an activist coalition opposing the project. “But it would utterly unacceptable to just move gas around by some other method.” 

In other words, it remains to be seen whether National Grid, or any company that would replace it as a downstate provider of natural gas, will accelerate its implementation of renewable energy or simply find other ways to grow its natural gas supply. Interestingly enough – considering his past equivocation on the issue – Cuomo has not only joined activists in opposing the pipeline: He has also echoed their suspicions of National Grid in recent comments to the media. Activists allege that state efforts should not incorporate the use of so-called “bridge fuels” like natural gas, which the proposed pipeline could transport for decades to come. “Tying people to gas and ensuring that people are reliant on gas for the foreseeable future ensures that their business of providing gas has longevity,” Shindell said. Cuomo essentially said the same thing to NY1. “They want a pipeline,” he said. “Why? Because they're in the gas business, so the pipeline would secure their business – that's my opinion. We're moving to renewables – we're doing wind power, solar power, etc. They want to stay in the gas business.” With state budget season looming, Cuomo has a chance to make good on this commitment in a way that would make the construction of a new pipeline a moot point. But such a surge in state resources will come at a price – both financially and politically.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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