New Interstate Gas Pipeline Fuels Debate Over Safety and Fracking

| September 26, 2012 1:21 PMvideo

This story is co-published by MetroFocus and Gotham Gazette.

The first interstate natural gas pipeline to come to New York City in 40 years will deliver gas extracted, in part, from the Marcellus Shale rock formations using the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing.

The 15.2 miles of new pipeline construction will end at the edge of Manhattan’s West Side, in the Meatpacking District, where it will connect to a new underground Consolidated Edison vault and be distributed through the utility’s system.

But the pipeline, known as the New Jersey-New York Expansion Project, has attracted a series of protests, legal challenges and concern along its proposed route.

Elected officials in Jersey City, including Mayor Jerramiah Healy, have opposed the pipeline on the basis that it would be built too closely to schools, parks and hospitals and could pose a public safety risk. Opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, fear that increased natural gas use could encourage even more drilling. They also worry that high levels of radon gas will be carried by the pipeline to consumers. A series of last-ditch lawsuits are aiming to stop the project.


New Jersey - New York Expansion Project gas pipeline

Graphic by MetroFocus/Kevon Greene.


“We have been, and are, opposed to the development of any new infrastructure — such as the pipeline — that facilitate the increased burning of natural gas,” said Frank Eadie, a representative of the New York Chapter of the Sierra Club, which is also considering litigation to stop the project.

A 48-inch drill head for the New Jersey – New York Expansion Project at the 18th Street "horizontal directional drill" exit site in Jersey City, N.J. Image from the FERC Environmental Compliance Monitoring Program weekly report, Sept. 10-16, 2012.

When it goes online next year, the pipeline is expected to carry 800 million cubic feet of natural gas per day to the metropolitan area. Construction of the pipeline began in earnest this summer after Spectra Energy Corp., the builder of the pipeline, won approval from federal regulators in May to extend its Texas Eastern Transmission and Algonquin Gas Transmission pipelines.

Carolyn Daly-Brink, a spokeswoman for Spectra, said in a recent interview with Gotham Gazette that the expansion project will help the city meet its future energy demands.

Marylee Hanley, another spokeswoman for Spectra, emphasized that Spectra has nothing to do with the process of extracting gas and compared the company to Fed Ex, adding, “We simply are the transportation system and are governed by the regulations of the FERC. We move the gas along our system. (We are) an open-access pipeline. As long as any party has gas to be moved, we are required to move gas on our system.”

Watch Video:

On July 31, 2012, NJ Today’s Desirée Taylor (@DesireeNJTV) reported on the concerns of New Jersey critics of Spectra’s gas pipeline construction, including those about safety and the environment.

Cleaner Fuel

The city is betting on the pipeline to help increase its capacity to meet the growing demand for the somewhat cheaper, cleaner fossil fuel.

In an op-ed published last month in The Washington Post, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and George Mitchell, a pioneer of hydraulic fracturing, responded to criticism of fracking, saying shale gas production through the method represents “the most significant development in the U.S. energy sector in generations.”

They wrote that not only was it “good for consumers’ pocketbooks” because it lowered the cost of energy, it also “helped stimulate major infrastructure investments” like the New Jersey-New York interstate pipeline.

Segregated wetland topsoil at the Arthur Kill horizontal directional drill (HDD) exit site in Staten Island, in preparation for the pipeline. Image from the FERC Environmental Compliance Monitoring Program weekly report, Sept. 10-16, 2012.

Consolidated Edison said the Spectra project will provide huge benefits to its customers. “This project will enhance the reliability of our gas system, and help us meet a growing demand for natural gas,” said spokesman Michael S. Clendenin in an emailed statement. “This project will also help improve air quality in New York City by allowing more consumers to convert their boilers from oil to natural gas.”

The city passed regulations requiring buildings to stop using heavy heating oils and to replace them with an alternative — natural gas, No. 2 heating oil, biodiesel or steam. Buildings were required to begin the process of converting to a cleaner fuel beginning in July.

The city says converting buildings to cleaner fuels — including natural gas — could save hundreds of lives annually.

The Spectra pipeline will deliver fuel for customers of both Consolidated Edison and National Grid, which service all five boroughs of New York City, as well as some parts of Westchester County. The pipeline will run through Linden, N.J., cut across the Arthur Kill strait into Staten Island, return to New Jersey,  weave through Bayonne and Jersey City, and make its way across the Hudson River to Manhattan.

It will then run through the Gansevoort Peninsula on the West Side and under the Hudson River Park before it connects with the Con Ed vault near 10th Avenue and Gansevoort Street, not far from where the Whitney Museum is constructing its new building.

Besides distributing gas from shale sources in Pennsylvania, the fuel will come from the Gulf Coast, Canada and the Rocky Mountains, the company says. Experts believe that production could shift over time to 90 percent of natural gas coming from extracting the fuel in Pennsylvania.

Democratic Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, who represents the 66th district in Manhattan, which includes where the pipeline will enter the island, said she had received complaints about the project from a number of residents.

“Individuals want you to find a way to stop something they don’t believe is good for the community, and many see the pipeline as bad,” she said.

But she said the growth of the city demands that new energy sources be brought online. “New neighborhoods [are] coming to the city and the population is growing, even along the west side,” she said, adding energy has to come from somewhere.

“The country is awash in natural gas, and not all is related to fracking,” she continued, but acknowledged that “clearly the fear is that this will be an avenue for more” fracking.

“The question,” she said, comes down to whether natural gas is going to provide fewer emissions than coal and oil, for example. “But you’re polluting either way,” she said, noting that none of these are in fact “clean sources,” despite such language being used by those promoting the energy.

Environmental and Safety Concerns

In an environmental impact study on the proposed pipeline, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) found that the risks from the pipeline were “minimal.”

“The applicants have demonstrated their project is needed by their willingness to bear the risk that the project’s costs can be recovered without subsidization from existing customers,” FERC said in the study. “The fact that the entire capacity of the proposed NJ-NY Project is subscribed under precedent agreements with 15- to 20-year terms is strong evidence that the market also believes that the project is needed.”

But environmentalists say federal studies have failed to fully account for the dangers of the pipeline, noting in particular the large quantities of carcinogenic radon in Marcellus Shale, which some scientists contend will not fully decompose before it reaches the city.

Pipeline installed across Range Road in Linden, N.J. Image from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Environmental Compliance Monitoring Program weekly report, Sept. 12-16, 2012.

Pipeline installed across Range Road in Linden, N.J. Image from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Environmental Compliance Monitoring Program weekly report, Sept. 12-16, 2012.

While the project gained FERC support after a bruising two-year public relations battle in New Jersey, it is only recently that residents in Manhattan have decided to take legal action against the construction of the pipeline.

Earlier this month, six organizations filed an emergency petition in New York State Supreme Court, calling for a temporary restraining order and injunctive relief against Spectra, Hudson River Park Trust and other groups.

The groups reached a compromise earlier this week over one of the main complaints — that the 24/7 construction at the Gansevoort Peninsula limited bike and pedestrian traffic at the Hudson River Park — after Spectra agreed to place a crossing guard to monitor the trucks entering and exiting the construction site, according to Jeff Zimmmerman, one of the attorneys who filed the original complaint.

He said they are still suing to halt construction, with a judge set to hear arguments in November.

In their lawsuit, along with environmental concerns, the organizations cited the risk of pipeline explosions, giving as an example the 2010 explosion in San Bruno, California, that killed eight people and caused millions in property damage.

Spectra says that, unlike the San Bruno pipeline, the New Jersey-New York Expansion Project will be stronger, thicker, buried deeper and will involve 100 percent x-ray inspection of welds.

In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration fined Spectra over $134,000 for safety violations in their pipelines in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico.

Spectra spokeswoman Hanley said the fines stemmed from “corrosion” to the pipelines, but insisted such damage would not be “life-threatening,” though she refrained from elaborating why. She did note that Texas Eastern Transmission, the parent company of Spectra, “will be reviewing policies and procedures and reviewing all of the findings” by the PHMSA.

Of the seven violations in total, three of the findings resulted in the $134,000 in civil penalties. These had to do with maintenance and inspection failings, as well as above-ground monitoring of the area.

The remaining four penalties “involved facility and right-of-way maintenance.”

Spectra has long maintained the New Jersey-New York pipeline will be “among the safest in the nation,” pointing to changes in technology available to them, such as a 24-hour monitoring system. Those safeguards meet and often exceed the highest federal safety requirements, the company says.

All told, there have been 62 gas transmission explosions that have resulted in 34 deaths and almost $400 million in damage nationwide since 2000, according to the PHMSA.

The causes of the explosions ranged from external corrosion, damage from negligence, incorrect operation, equipment failure, and natural force, while the cause of a few pipeline explosions remain unknown. The images of the 150-foot flames from the San Bruno, California, explosion, are often highlighted by pipeline opponents when discussing safety.

Experts have also warned about the potential vulnerability of pipelines to terrorist attacks — one example being the foiled attempt to explode a jet fuel pipeline at John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2009.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security also issued an alert in May about cyber attacks on the control systems of various gas pipelines nationwide. In a DHS newsletter, the agency notes reports of “targeted attempts and intrusions into multiple natural gas pipeline sector organizations.”


Sarah Crean and Cristian Salazar of Gotham Gazette contributed to this report.

  • MikePB

    Excellent report – detailed, thoughtful, seeks comment from
    many sides of the issue, including Spectra Energy.

    As a Spectra Energy stakeholder, I would advise folks in New
    Jersey and New York to reject promises and analyze track records.

    If Spectra Energy can’t get this right on “our” end in
    Pennsylvania, why should folks in New Jersey and New York believe the
    transmission pipeline will be safe on “their” end.

    My wife and I are among property owners dealing with Spectra
    Energy’s 12 billion cubic feet underground natural gas “storage” reservoir in
    Bedford County, Pennsylvania (about 2 hours from Washington, DC). This facility will feed natural gas to
    the pipeline through New Jersey to NYC.

    Spectra Energy declares: “Safety is our franchise. It’s what we ‘do.’”

    Yet Spectra Energy’s compressor station and huge underground
    natural gas reservoir in Bedford County has had ongoing operational problems
    since it began operations in 2009.
    The facility has a nearly 5,000 horsepower compressor station sitting on
    top, plus 13 injection/withdrawal gas wells.

    Safety issues include valve failures, emergency
    shutdowns/blowoffs which result in uncontrolled release of gas (toxic volatile
    organic compounds) and sometimes oily contaminate into the air (and on nearby

    Spectra Energy declines to discuss or furnish the stats
    (which it admits it has) on comparative compressor station performance
    elsewhere in Spectra Energy’s system.

    If all of the operational problems at this facility are “not
    uncommon,” as Spectra Energy alleges, why not share performance data? Especially if safety is what you do.

    In this article, Spectra Energy seeks (as it always has) to
    distance itself from public concern over hydraulic fracturing with its health
    and environmental impacts.

    What the company does not reveal is that Spectra Energy can
    frack injection/withdrawal wells
    at its Bedford County facility any time it wants, according to the Federal
    Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental
    Protection (DEP).

    While this is a so-called natural gas “storage operation” –
    Spectra Energy has permission from FERC to drill 10 additional wells for a
    total of 23.

    And Spectra Energy can use hydraulic fracturing on
    those wells if it chooses. As FERC explained to me: “If their tests
    show that they are not getting optimal flows [of gas in the storage reservoir],
    they would perform hydraulic fracturing to improve the flow of gas. A
    propping agent such as sand would then be used to keep the fractures open.”

    The Pennsylvania DEP Oil & Gas Inspector for
    Bedford County also confirmed for me that Spectra Energy requires no special
    permit for hydraulic fracturing:

    “There are no special permits needed specifically
    for hydraulic fracturing. The fracturing process is covered under a
    normal drilling permit should Spectra Energy choose to frac in the future.”

    Further, according to FERC, Spectra Energy filed for
    the record nearly 300 pages of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) “for every
    drilling mud and hydraulic fracturing component it could possibly use.”

    Do the research – since
    Spectra Energy will not respond to accountability questions other than with
    platitudes – refer to:
    Spectra Speak:


    This is a company with a track record
    that resembles a police rap sheet.
    Refer to this and note it is heavily sourced – unlike Spectra Energy
    platitudes: Spectra Energy – Again

    Spectra Energy

  • stan chaz

    What’s this about “high levels of radon gas”
    possibly being carried by the pipeline to consumers? Is this something new, or dependent on the source of the gas (i.e. PA), or has it always been a problem with gas in general, and to what documented degree?Are we talking about the pipeline itself and areas nearby, OR the stuff that actually comes out/is used in our homes? And what about EXISTING NYC gas pipelines, and existing gas usage in NYC? Any existing potential radon problems we need to investigate?


    Spectra’s claim that they are comparable to Fedex is disingenuous. If Fedex knowingly delivered poison to houses, wouldn’t they be responsible in some measure? What Spectra will be delivering, to homes in all five boroughs, is shale gas extracted from the Marcellus, an area of exceptionally high radioactivity. As a result, the levels of radon gas, which all natural gas contains, are likely to far exceed acceptable limits. So when residents cook at their stoves, or do laundry, or maintain boilers, they could be inhaling carcinogenic radon–the leading cause of lung cancer in non-smokers. Given New York’s typically small, enclosed kitchens, usually without a vented hood and often without a window, the chances of exposure are greatly increased. City officials, including City Council Speaker, Christine Quinn, have been called upon to hold hearings on this issue, and to take preventive measures to protect consumers. If there is even the POSSIBILITY of heightened radon levels in the NYC gas supply, this ought to be studied before any new pipelines are built, before any more Marcellus shale gas is piped into our city. It is irresponsible to move forward with the massive conversion of the city’s boilers, buses, and power plants to shale gas that the mayor has planned. And the claims of reduced energy costs for consumers is an equally false claim. In fact, Con Ed expects to raise rates starting in November 2013, the exact month the Spectra pipeline is due to come online. If this is such a boon for consumers, why aren’t rates planned to decrease with the coming of this pipeline?

  • Kevin Donohue

    Our government’s failed energy policy has failed the American people – while lining the pockets of the fossil fuel-based energy companies. The arctic ice shrinks more each year, while droughts increase in frequency, severity, and geographical range – yet the only answer is to drill, baby drill? Our long-term well being has been traded by our politicians for a quick fix and an easy dollar. Shame on them

  • Onna

    All “natural” gas or methane has radioactive radon in it but the gas coming from the Marcellus Shale region has
    70 times higher amounts of radon in it than what comes from the gulf
    states where most of our gas comes from now. Radon is the leading cause
    of lung cancer in this country among non smokers. Also the 8 day half
    life of radioactivity in the radon coming from the gulf states has time
    to dissipate in the nearly 2 weeks it travels but the 48 hrs or less coming from PA is a recipe for disaster, bringing radon into all NYC residents kitchens. The Marcellus Shale is a vast area under several states. Currently Pennsylvania is fracking and they need to find markets for it. The pipelines being built around the country are giving fracking an infrastructure before the public is even made aware of the inherent dangers. The public comments that are made against fracking and the pipelines are always overwhelmingly negative.

    Oh and the argument that it will make America energy independent is a crock. Watch the myths that spring up. The utilities have only a small percentage contracted and the lions share is for export to markets where the investors can make more profit. NOT for America.

  • Maureen

    Learn more. This Sunday, there will be a screening of “Trial
    by Fire”, a short documentary about the San Bruno pipeline explosion that
    rocked a California neighborhood in 2010. That pipeline was the same pressure
    and diameter as the Spectra pipeline currently under construction 2 blocks west
    of the screening. The film contains devastating footage from the day of the
    explosion and interviews with survivors. Following the screening, there will be
    a community discussion about Spectra, the pending lawsuits, local resistance
    and how we can get involved.

    “Trial by Fire” screening & discussion: Sunday, Sept. 30, 7pm at the meeting space upstairs at La
    National, 239 West 14th Street, between 7th and 8th

  • Eric

    The Spectra Pipeline is an ill-conceived catastrophe-in-waiting that would enrich a small handful of bankers, investors, and fossil fuel CEOs while imperiling the health and safety of millions of New Yorkers. FERC has yet again conducted itself disgracefully by rubber-stamping this project without adequate environmental review and with no apparent concern for the welfare of those millions of people on whose health this pipeline and the fracked gas it would carry could have a devastating effect.

  • Suzi Saul

    This is insanity! There are too many people here for this.

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