It’s a long way from a sea of natural gas wells scattered through Pennsylvania’s Bradford County to Libby Reilly’s organic farm off Clarks Chapel Road in Nassau. And it is even longer from her farm, where about two dozen beef cows graze in grassy fields, to remote cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
But these far-flung places share something in common — they are in the path of a natural gas boom fueled by hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking. While New York decided last December against allowing hydrofracking in its Southern Tier piece of the multistate, gas-rich Marcellus Shale, and opponents celebrated, the Pennsylvania boom is still reverberating here.
It is taking the form of two massive pipeline projects crossing about 450 miles in four states and with a price tag close to $5 billion. Both the Constitution and Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipelines could move a growing tsunami of Pennsylvania gas to customers in New York, New England, Canada and possibly beyond.
Energy firms behind the projects say new pipelines will bring more low-cost gas to new U.S. customers in New England, help reduce high electricity prices in the region and cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
Opponents say the pipelines — along with a third major project, Spectra Access Northeast, which would expand existing pipelines from metropolitan New Jersey to coastal New England — also reflect an eastward race to the sea by energy firms eager to ship gas to higher-priced markets in Europe and Asia, reduce the domestic supply of fracked gas from Pennsylvania and Ohio, and boost historically low prices now enjoyed by customers back home.
Also, both NED and Constitution — which roughly follow the Interstate 88 corridor from Binghamton to Schoharie — also happen to pass through the heart of the Marcellus shale region, which means pipes would be well-placed to accept natural gas should New York some day change its mind and allow fracking.
At Reilly’s farm in the rolling hills of southern Rensselaer County, the mother of two is aghast that the NED project wants to build a 90,000-horsepower natural gas compressor station nearby. She and one of her two young boys have a genetically based chemical sensitivity, and the family has modified their diet to deal with it. “We don’t put down chemicals here on our farm. And now we will have the emissions from this compressor,” she said.
The Nassau compressor station is one of nine needed by NED owner, Houston-based Kinder Morgan, to push gas through a planned 36-inch, 323-mile underground pipeline for fracked gas that would start in Bradford County and run northeast through six New York counties — Broome, Delaware, Chenango, Schoharie, Albany and across the Hudson River into Rensselaer — on its way through Massachusetts and New Hampshire to metropolitan Boston.
Once there, NED would link up with other pipelines, including one that goes north through Maine to Nova Scotia, where a planned massive liquefied natural gas (LNG) export plant is being touted by developers as a year-round, ice-free, deep water harbor capable of handling the world’s largest current and proposed LNG tankers. Currently, natural gas in Asia and Europe is about twice as expensive as it is in the U.S.
Two other gas export facilities also are being proposed off the coast of Nova Scotia and in Maine at Passamaquoddy Bay, an inlet of the Bay of Fundy, between Maine and the province of New Brunswick. In March, Dean Girdis, CEO and president of Downeast LNG, told the Bangor Daily News that the planned $400 million Maine terminal would be “well-positioned” to export natural gas overseas from the Marcellus region.
People who live near natural gas compressor stations — which must be installed along pipelines every 30 miles or so to pressurize gas to move it forward — have reason to be concerned, said David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Public Health and the Environment at the University of Albany. Last year, he co-authored a study of such stations in five states that found unsafe amounts of two human carcinogens — benzene and formaldehyde — were released into the air, he said.
Because federal rules don’t require air studies around compressor stations, “we don’t have a lot of good information,” said Carpenter. Accordingly, it is difficult to judge the proximity risk to a station, although Carpenter estimated it was likely a radius of at least a mile, depending on wind and weather conditions.
Carpenter is working with Madison County officials to conduct an air quality and residential health study of the area around a proposed compressor station. “We are measuring the air now to compare against the air after a station begins running,” he said.
In March, U.S. Rep. Chris Gibson wrote to acting state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, asking the state to “take the lead” to see that such studies are conducted around all proposed compressor stations in the state. In addition to Nassau, new or expanded compressor stations are currently planned at Wright, Schoharie County and Brooksman Corners, in Minden, Montgomery County, as well as in Delaware, Madison and Chemung counties in the Southern Tier.
Gibson spokesman Matt Sheehey said Zucker never responded. A Health Department spokesman had no comment on Gibson’s letter.
Another NED opponent, Charles Waggoner, lives on his wife’s family farm a few miles to the south of Reilly’s farm, near Nassau Lake. He said the pipeline would bring risk, but no benefit, to its neighbors. Waggoner is convinced the line is meant to bring gas to the Atlantic seaboard so it can be shipped away on massive tankers to Europe and Asia. “We are just expendable,” he said.
That idea that NED could carry Pennsylvania gas to ultimate export overseas is a valid one, said Curtis Cole, director of business development on the NED project for Kinder Morgan. In Dracut, Mass., where the NED line would end, there is a connection to another gas line that connects to Nova Scotia, where there are plans for a facility at the northern tip of Cape Breton to liquefy up to 1.2 billion cubic feet of gas a day for export.
However, Cole said such an export scenario is not part of Kinder Morgan’s proposal to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and none of the project’s customers who have signed on to use the pipeline, including National Grid, have indicated such plans, he added.
“We don’t control where our shippers take the gas, we just move it from Point A to Point B,” Cole said.
Currently, Pennsylvania wells that could connect to NED are producing about 6 billion cubic feet of gas a day — twice as much as is needed to power all of New York for for two days — and that could jump to 10 billion cubic feet in a few years, said Curtis.
In March, Kinder Morgan announced it had customers committed to shipping about 0.5 billion cubic feet a day in NED, which has the potential capacity for an increase to 2.2 billion cubic feet daily. Curtis said such an increase would happen only if there were customers to justify it, and that federal regulators at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission would have to approve.
FERC has already approved the route of the Constitution pipeline, which is only awaiting water quality permits from the state Department of Environmental Conservation before construction can start. DEC spokesman Tom Mailey said the permits remain under review, with no timeline for action.
This pipeline would end at Wright, Schoharie County, at a connection with the Iroquois pipeline, another major line that runs between the Canadian border on the St. Lawrence River near Waddington, St. Lawrence County, and metropolitan Connecticut and New York City.
That pipeline now carries natural gas from western Canada southward into the U.S. This year, Iroquois’ owners proposed reversing that flow northward, so Marcellus gas could flow toward Canada. Once there, another pipeline network through Ontario, Quebec, Maine and New Brunswick leads to Nova Scotia as another path to potential export facilities.
Constitution spokesman Chris Stockton said suspicions that “all of this gas” is destined for export are “not correct.” He said the pipeline provides access to Marcellus gas to “markets in New York and New England.”
The company has obtained either voluntary agreements or court orders with all landowners in the path of its pipeline.
These pipeline projects are part of a “master plan” by energy companies to reconfigure the Northeast network to bring gas to the coast for export, said Anne Marie Garti, an environmental attorney working with the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic in Westchester County and founder of the anti-Constitution group Stop the Pipeline.
She also warned that both NED and Constitution — whose pipes pass through the gas-rich part of New York — also could be a “Trojan horse” to make it easier for fracking to commence later.
“The energy companies put out all this press about fracking for natural gas being clean energy for America, and to support it to bring a soldier home, but this is all about shipping gas to where they can get the highest price. And that is not the U.S.,” said Garti.
Back in Rensselaer County, ecologist David Hunt dragged a net through the waters of a hemlock-shaded section of the Valatie Kill, near a National Grid right of way that NED developers want to lease for their pipeline, and less than a mile from Libby Reilly’s farm. He said the stream reflects a rare population of native trout.
Hunt is also checking the rest of the pipeline’s proposed path, and said some of it could pass near an unconfirmed population of endangered timber rattlesnakes.
Watching nearby, Nassau resident Brian Shoemaker said his family owns about 80 acres of forest next to the stream and the utility right of way. “We will fight this tooth and nail,” said Shoemaker, who works at the Amtrak locomotive maintenance yard in Rensselaer. “No one here wants this. We are gaining nothing and risking everything.”
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Published in September/October 2015 Save the Pine Bush Newsletter