Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Moratorium or not, NY begins to feel fracking’s impact Outcome rests with future of consumption, production

While New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo has officially tabled a decision over the politically explosive issue of fracking until sometime after elections, his state’s energy dilemma continues to simmer.

For worse or better, the Empire State will continue to feel impacts of the fracking boom for the next decade or more. The question is how big those impacts will be. The answer, to a large degree, rests with the governor, who can direct policy encouraging or discouraging both production and consumption of natural gas, and/or alternatives.

Even with no decision to allow shale gas wells to be permitted within the state, fracked natural gas and oil are flowing into or passing through New York at an accelerated rate as the on-shore drilling boom continues to ramp up nationwide. Crude oil from the Bakken shale in North Dakota has begun passing through New York at an annual rate of 2 billion gallons, traveling by rail to Albany and then down the Hudson River on tankers and on to refineries in New Brunswick Canada. (The oil carries unusual risks. With relatively high concentrations of gas, it has caused explosions after four separate rail mishaps in North America, including one that killed 47 people in Lac Megantic, Canada.)

Numerous infrastructure plans to store and transport natural gas within New York are also well underway. Liberty Natural Gas has proposed a terminal to import gas to communities in New York and New Jersey. The Port Ambrose facility, proposed 19 miles off Long Island, would take in liquefied natural gas (LNG) from ships, convert it back into gas, and pipe it to markets in New York and New Jersey now dependent on heating oil. Anti-fracking activists fear the port will be converted to an export facility. In addition to various pipelines on the drawing board and underway throughout upstate and downstate, there are plans to increase storage capacity. In the Finger Lakes community of Seneca Lake, Inergy Midstream is seeking final approval from the Department of Environmental Conservation to store propane in depleted salt mines, which would serve as a distribution hub through the region. The project faces intense opposition from grass roots and institutional environmental causes.

Over the long haul, the impact of regional and national shale gas development on New York rests with two primary factors: How much gas the state consumes, and how much it produces.

On the consumption side, natural gas is a primary fuel for heating and electricity generation. Based on a draft of the New York State 2014 Energy Plan, recently released by the governor’s office, that trend is destine to continue, like it or not. The plan calls for expansion of natural gas infrastructure to replace heating oil – which is both dirty and expensive -- in urban areas downstate and elsewhere.  Initiative 9 on p. 44 states it this way:

Reduce reliance on petroleum products for heating buildings by supporting the use of clean alternatives to heating oil and expanding access to natural gas in the near term while pursuing strategies to reduce natural gas leakage.

Simply put, natural gas consumption will continue to be a staple in the state’s energy diet with intended improvements to its leaky delivery system.

The plan talks much about consumption and infrastructure of natural gas, but little about production. It makes no mention of developing New York’s shale reserves through fracking, a discussion that remains the elephant in the room. But the plan gives a nod to the role of natural gas and more infrastructure as part and parcel to some very ambitious, if very broad, goals. An overriding goal (rooted in policy from Gov. David Paterson's administration) is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gasses emitted in the state by 80 percent by 2050. It’s important to note that the gauge for measuring this goal is predicated on carbon; and that fuel oil – like coal -- emits much more carbon than gas. Critics like Bob Howarth feel the plan falls well short of fully accounting for the impact of methane. Howarth, a Cornell University ecology professor, is one of several co-authors of a paper challenging the notion that methane is an environmentally sound alternative to coal or other fossil fuels for that matter. “Natural gas is a disastrous fuel,” he said.

There are other aspects to the 2014 Energy Plan, including a $1 billion “New York Green Bank” to invest in “clean energy projects”; an initiative that lists “increased transportation alternatives”; and independent “microgrids” that can offer alternative and backup sources to communities apart from primary  grids.

The plan is easy to look at, with an abundance of glossy and marginally relevant pictures of happy people in scenic landscapes, but difficult to read with bureaucratic jargon that is simultaneously dense and vague. Some critics called out the report for a lack of specifics and the preponderance of gloss. Andy Leahy, a drilling proponent and blogger who has been following developments in New York, wrote in Shale Gas Now that the Energy Plan was “governance of wishful perception” and he suggested it was “catering to the uninformed, wishful desires of everybody in New York who wants to feel vaguely good about the future, but to stay lit and warm throughout, burning what's extracted out of Pennsylvania.”

Others were enthusiastic about the plan. Pierre Bull, a policy analyst for the National Resources Defense Council, wrote on the agency’s blog, Switchboard:

The already-impressive NY-Sun Initiative is about to become one of the most ambitious solar programs in the nation, with the governor committing, through a filing with the state’s Public Service Commission, $1 billion to the program—that’s right, $1 billion—over the next 10 years. (Governor Cuomo’s text also announces a major new program to help K-12 schools throughout New York go solar. You can read more about that here.) The governor’s goal is to install 3,000 megawatts of solar across New York. That’s enough solar to power 465,000 New York homes, cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2.3 million tons annually—the equivalent of taking almost 435,000 cars off the road—and create more than 13,000 new solar jobs. 

If New York expects to become a national showcase for how to dramatically reduce greenhouse gasses, it has plenty to work with. But assessing how that measure is made – and the degree that it includes natural gas -- is critically important.

By design more a PR gloss and political showcase than a technical document, the daft energy plan still serves a critical role as a catalyst for public discourse and involvement on the politics and technicalities of energy delivery. To that end, public hearings will be held around the state in February and March. (Full schedule here.)

The primary question not mentioned in the energy plan is whether New York will allow exploration to begin for shale gas production. With a recent announcement from Department of Environmental Commissioner Joseph Martens that the state will not issue permits until at least 2015, the governor’s staff has put speculation to rest that we will see fracking in New York anytime soon.

But both landowners and industry interests are mounting legal challenges in an attempt to force the governor’s hand. Tom West, an industry lawyer, is a primary figure behind the challenges, which I wrote about here. (Note that a hearing for West’s case, Wallach v New York state, has been postponed until March 7. This is so the complaint can be filed with a parallel case by the Joint Landowners Coalition, represented by attorney Scott Kurkoski of Levene, Gouldin & Thompson and funded by the Rocky Mountain Legal Defense Fund, an NGO that supports conservative causes.

Regardless of how the challenges to Cuomo’s indefinite delay on fracking turn out, another group has brought up a nagging question about the extent of New York’s shale reserves, and whether development is even viable at current prices. Chip Northrup, a former industry investor, accompanied by a group of critics with backgrounds in geology and industry, have been making presentations, most recently to a state Senate committee. The thrust of their argument is that geological data suggest New York’s shale gas reserves are not worth the bother, but speculators who gamble on them may still cause significant environmental headaches for the greater public.

All the speculation, either supporting or undermining the size of the state’s fossil fuel assets, won’t change this underlying reality: Upstate and New York City need lots of energy now, and tend to consume it in its cheapest and most available form.

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