Why NYC Is Betting on Natural Gas for Years to Come

Cristian Salazar and Sarah Crean for Gotham Gazette |

Plumes of black smoke rippling from rooftops are a common sight along the city’s skyline — and have long unsettled public health experts.

The city has called for replacing the heavy heating oils used in buildings that are mostly responsible for the toxic dark smoke with substantially cleaner fuels by 2030.

And while there are a handful of alternatives for building owners to choose from, policymakers expect that natural gas will be among the most attractive options because of its low cost and decreased emissions.

Eric Weltman of Food and Water Watch speaks during a "New Yorkers Against Fracking" news conference in Albany, N.Y., on March 26, 2012. Dozens of grassroots environmental groups and several national organizations joined forces to launch a campaign to ban natural gas development through hydraulic fracturing in New York state. AP/Mike Groll

The city, in turn, has pushed to expand the capacity of infrastructure to handle natural gas through the construction of the first new pipelines in decades that will carry enough of the cleaner fossil fuel to power millions of buildings and households. But the construction of the pipelines have stoked the passions of residents along the paths where they will be built, of environmentalists concerned about the impact of construction on delicate ecosystems, and of opponents of hydraulic fracturing.


One of those projects got another boost Saturday when the U.S. Senate passed legislation that would allow the construction of a 3.17-mile natural gas pipeline and facilities going from the Atlantic Ocean off the Rockaways, through Jacob Riis Park and the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg praised the passage of the New York City Natural Gas Supply Enhancement Act, saying it was “not just about the construction and operation of a natural gas pipeline and the jobs it will create.”

“It is critical to building a stable, clean-energy future for New York City and improving the health of all New Yorkers,” he said in a statement over the weekend.

Work on the New Jersey-New York Expansion Project, as the other project is called, began on Manhattan’s West Side earlier this summer.

“The administration is supporting those projects because they’re being done responsibly, they’re being done safely, and with minimal environmental impacts. And they ultimately are going to have a huge public health benefit,” said Deputy Mayor for Operations Cas Holloway, in an exclusive interview with Gotham Gazette last week.

Some statistics long cited by the city state that 6 percent of annual deaths in New York City are attributable to poor air quality from pollutants.

Holloway, who testified for the administration in support of the bill that passed in Congress, said the goal of the city’s program to convert buildings to cleaner fuels — known as Clean Heat — is to “accelerate” the “public health benefit” of reduced air pollution. By the end of 2013, the city hopes to reach a 50 percent reduction of the nasty emissions attributed to the burning of heavy oils by buildings.

To get a better sense of what the city’s energy plan will mean in the years ahead and why the two pipeline projects are expected to play such an important role, we spoke with key policymakers, environmentalists and residents.

Over the next week, we will be publishing stories on both pipeline projects and taking questions and comments on Facebook and Twitter.

The goal of modernizing and expanding the distribution of natural gas is one of hundreds of goals detailed under Bloomberg’s PlanNYC, originally released in 2007 and in updated form in 2011. The far-reaching blueprint calls for the transformation of how the city deals with everything from housing and water supply to its waterfront and air quality, with the aim of making the city sustainable as it grows by about one million people and faces changes from climate change.

Under the plan, the goal for energy is to reduce consumption and make energy systems “cleaner and more reliable.” Under the plan for energy, one initiative called for increasing “natural gas transmission and distribution capacity to improve reliability.”

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