Natural Gas Pipelines Versus Renewable Energy

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Tompkins Weekly    8-22-16

By Marie McRae

In Tompkins County, the legislature has adopted goals for reduced energy use and carbon pollution reduction that involve a “transition away from natural gas”. Achieving the goals rests on a cut in greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent (from 2008 levels) by 2050.

In our region, as well as in many other areas of the country, new infrastructure designed to carry methane (a.k.a. “natural” gas) is one of the most insidious forms of resistance to that transition. For example, one relatively small pipeline proposed for Dryden has the potential to increase carbon emissions in the county by a volume equal to 30 percent of current levels.

Planning for expanded infrastructure happens in private board rooms, permitting requests are made to agencies at meetings where there are few public visitors, announcements come in the form of small print legal notices or letters that arrive in mailboxes after the plans, and usually the permits are all in line. Nevertheless, since December 2014, when New York Governor Cuomo announced a ban against fracking — the industrial activity of extracting methane from deep below our soil using the technique of high-volume, hydraulic fracturing of the rock — most New York residents are feeling comfortable that we have beaten back the dangers and are home free.

NY said NO to drilling

While it is true that had we not been willing and able to say a collective no to the fossil fuel drillers, we certainly would have seen the obvious destruction of environment, community, and local economies that has played out in other parts of the country. However there are four ways that the fossil fuel story affects us—drilling/extraction, storage systems (think about the battle for gas and liquefied propane storage in Watkins Glen), distribution systems (pipelines, rail, and over-the-road transport), and waste disposal (radioactive drill tailings, fracking fluids, and fugitive emissions [greenhouse gases] among them). Of those four, only one particular method of methane extraction is banned in New York.

Not all drilling is banned, and, although currently the economics of extraction keeps the drillers operating in other places, there is no ban on moving frack-extracted gas into, and through, New York.

Letters of intent in the mail

In late summer of 2014, residents along West Dryden Road in the town of Dryden received letters from the local gas distributor, New York State Gas and Electric (NYSEG), informing them that a new gas distribution pipeline was planned. Called the Freeville-Lansing Reinforcement Line, this seven-mile long pipeline would carry gas for Lansing developments, but its route would be through the Dryden residents’ front yards. They were welcome to attend a public meeting to get the details, and to ask questions, but the plan was in place, NYSEG said.

However, many of these 100 homeowners determined they would not accommodate this increase in fossil fuel use without a fight. They understood, or learned along the way, that the pipeline would mean more air pollution, more greenhouse gas emissions (up to a 30 percent increase in the County by some estimates), more costs passed to consumers, and exposure to liability from events they had no control over.

The cost of the new Freeville-Lansing Reinforcement Line is projected to be in excess of 16 million dollars. As of July, NYSEG has submitted to the NY Public Service Commission a rate increase request. Although this project is only one part of planned infrastructure expansion in the NYSEG-served region, the estimated added cost to each ratepayer is projected to total over $9 per month.

Staying just under the radar

Pipelines that carry methane can be classified into three rough capacity categories: transmission lines, distribution lines, and service lines. Transmission pipelines are, most often, those which cross state lines and fall under Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) regulations and permits. State permitting rules come into play for distribution pipelines above a certain diameter and pressure. Smaller distribution pipelines, and service lines, come under only local laws.

NYSEG’s proposal on West Dryden Road is for a 10-inch diameter pipeline to be run at a pressure of 124 psi. That pressure is 25 or more times higher than what would be used to serve a residence, but it falls below the size and pressure limits (125 psi) that would trigger state regulations. Local agreements and Dryden’s regulations are the only hurdle for the project, which will not serve residents of Dryden.

Homeowner concerns

Regardless of whether or not a particular home is provided with gas from the pipeline, one of the compelling worries about having a methane pipeline in your yard is the fact that pipelines leak. They leak when they are old, but they leak also when they are new.

Despite the recent, historic agreement between Canada and the US to cut methane emissions from their oil and gas sectors by 40-45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025, and to explore additional avenues for reducing methane emissions, in practice that will require the cooperation of hundreds of companies to check on thousands of miles of pipe and millions of connectors.

When gas leaks out of a pipeline, nearby life forms — be it human, wildlife, pets, or vegetation — are exposed to methane plus small amounts of ethane, propane, butane, and pentane. These gases can be lethal, not only to humans, and not only through explosion.

Losing control of your yard

To put the Freeville-Lansing Reinforcement pipe in place along West Dryden Road, NYSEG would have to take possession (not ownership) of part of the land from each plot along the route. Such takings are historically handled through use of an “easement document” that both parties sign.

In 2014, NYSEG offered the West Dryden Road residents a “boiler plate” easement document to sign. The landowner’s signature on the easement would give NYSEG unlimited rights to place not only one, but multiple gas-carrying pipelines on their property. The easement implies the pipeline would be along the road, however, residents’ careful reading of the easement revealed that NYSEG would receive rights to an owner’s “other lands” for the purpose of installing a pipeline and also “other rights”, including, but not limited to, specific authority to remove structures by “manual or mechanical” means. NYSEG would retain these rights forever, and would have authority to sell or lease the right of way in the future. In return for a mere one dollar formality payment from NYSEG, the land/homeowner would be burdened with liability exposure (during and after construction), and would give up the right to use that part of their property for anything but lawn.

Putting a new pipeline in the ground along West Dryden Rd would require the signatures of about 100 property owners along the road. One hundred property owners who are willing, in exchange for receiving just one dollar, to have a pipeline in their front yards, to carry liability for any accident that might happen during or after construction, to have their garage or storage shed torn down if it is deemed in the way of the pipe, and to entertain the possibility of having the land torn up again in the future by either NYSEG or some new buyer of the right of way.

The proposed pipeline would be constructed to run under Fall Creek, across smaller creeks and through the wetlands feeding these creeks, and would run alongside the Genung Nature Preserve in the village of Freeville.

Renewable energy alternatives

Contrary to the opinion of some leaders in Lansing that the prospects for new business and housing in Lansing will suffer without this pipeline, alternatives exist right now that offer a clear path forward whereby communities can promote affordable housing, support expanding businesses, and keep our responsibility for climate stabilization. We can generate electricity without burning fossil or bio fuels, and we can use that electricity to power heat pumps that will heat and cool our buildings.

In Tompkins County, we now have 5 percent of our rooftops adorned with solar panels. That is the highest market penetration in the state of New York, and is enough panels for the majority of residents to take notice. Consumers are starting to get in line for solar energy.

Heat pumps do double duty

The next step in moving away from fossil fuels—installing ground- or air-sourced heat pumps for heating and cooling—also takes us toward an overall reduction in energy use. This step is a bit more difficult to implement, not because the technology is new or unproven (anyone with a refrigerator in their home has lived with a heat pump for years), but because the heat pumps now used as furnaces in the homes of innovators and early adopters are not visible to the general public.

In the life experience of most developers who build residential and commercial properties, fossil fuels are currently the business-as-usual plan, the go-to infrastructure for space heating/cooling and for domestic water heating. The same is true of most architects who design the buildings, and of most home or business owners who use them. Where available, gas pipelines are tapped into without much thought for alternatives.

A few developers in Tompkins County, and in other places around NY, are taking the leap by retrofitting existing buildings, and designing new ones, with heat pumps. They are doing so because they have run the numbers and find that, far from costing them money, the investment will quickly start paying them dividends in real monetary returns. Homeowners, too, see a fast return on investment, particularly when heat pumps are paired with solar electric.

The tools are available, affordable, and have a proven track record. It is time for all New Yorkers to stand up and resist the business-as-usual expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure.

Marie McRae is a Dryden farmer, a member of Dryden Resource Awareness Coalition, and the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network, and is on the Solar Tompkins Board of Directors.

Note: This article was previously published in “Network News,” the newsletter of the Cayuga Lake Watershed Network, in July 2016.

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