Okay, here’s a delightful story about Occupy and a giant gas pipeline under construction in the West Village–a story that also involves fracking and the Marcellus Shale range and Mayor Bloomberg. It’s hard to follow at times, and it’s not at all clear who the actors are and whose script the government is following. The subject that’s currently getting the scrutiny is a protest at Gansevoort Street to stop construction of a large pipeline across the Hudson River from New Jersey. The protesters are coming from a coalition group that includes groups like Brooklyn For Peace, Sane Energy, and OWS/Occupy the Pipeline. Celebrities Alec Baldwin and Mark Ruffalo have also weighed in against both the Gansevoort Street pipeline and the fracking that will make the pipeline viable.
The genesis of the current story starts several years ago, as part of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plaNYC 2030. PlaNYC was a comprehensive re-visioning of the city that operated from a couple of different (and somewhat unsettling) premises. Most notably, Bloomberg was trying to deal with the fact that come 2030, the city would need to accommodate another one million residents–and that would entail rebuilding a lot of city infrastructure that is already over capacity. For example, with the subway system over-capacity, adding another one million riders would entail building several new subway lines–the capital budget for the expansion is in the $12 billion dollar range, and the state has its own budget problems. Bloomberg wanted to put tolls on all East River bridges, but the NY Senate blocked him, even though the Senate (and the governor) have begun raiding the MTA tax money that could help pay for all this. Bloomberg is also an early convert to Global Warming theory. He’s been chosen as the chairman of C40, an advocacy group for enviro issues composed of the mayors of the 40 most influential cities in the world. And Bloomberg takes global warming seriously– New York has 520 miles of coastline that are all especially vulnerable as sea levels rise. Another foot of storm surge during the 2011 Irene storm could have submerged many of the subway lines in the downtown area. Irene came within a few inches of topping over downtown. There’s a minimum of $48 Billion dollars worth of transit infrastructure at risk over global warming, never mind the hundreds (even thousands) of riders who would be drowned if they were stuck in train tunnels should massive flooding ensue. And NY is the second most vulnerable city on earth when it comes to rising oceans, with some $2.3 trillion worth of built environment at risk.
As part of the plaNYC2030 plan, Bloomberg began pushing the city’s holdout real estate entities to switch their heating over to natural gas. At first blush, this seems like a minor issue. But heating oil contains a large amount of soot, and a conversion to natural gas would result in cleaner air (and less pollution, and possibly less carbon). One point worth noting (one that I rub out-of-town friends’ noses in at every opportunity): thanks to mass transit, congregate multi-family dwellings and walkable shopping, the average New York City resident is using a third of the fossil fuel of his suburban cousins. But natural gas has its own problems. I remember when I was growing up here, and fuel oil companies were running commercials trying to keep people from switching over from fuel oil to natural gas for heating. Their ace-in-the-hole was that heating oil is a relatively stable substance—it doesn’t explode when exposed to flame. The same cannot be said for natural gas.
In any event, the Bloomberg administration has pushed for multiple large-scale natural gas pipelines coming into the city. It does make some sense to try and do this, but again, there are safety issues. A thirty-inch pipeline exploding in Gansevoort Street the way things happened in San Bruno California could do enormous damage. In San Bruno, eight people were killed in the explosion, which also destroyed 38 homes and set off a magnitude 1.1 earthquake, with a 1,000 foot high wall of fire. A similar explosion at Gansevoort would put a blast circle from the West Side Highway all the way to Eighth Avenue, and could reach from 22nd street to Perry Street. And buildings in NY are not subject to meeting earthquake standards as they are in California. And finally, construction of the pipelines under the streets of New York would be orders of magnitude more difficult than anything PGE ever attempted in California–the streets of the city have subway tunnels, 100+ year old water pipes, electrical wiring, sewers, and steam conduits (Con Ed has a thriving business selling runoff generator steam to big businesses). Con Ed has its own issues with more natural gas–much of its piping is old iron or unprotected steel and would have to be replaced.
There’s another problem–for the last few years, the Natural Gas companies have been thumping on the meme that thanks to Fracking, we’ll have enough natural gas to last 100 years. But since February of this year, that assertion has been challenged here and here. The Energy Information Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy, has dropped the amount of potential natural gas available through fracking by nearly half–and the amount now available in New York has been cut by over 60%. And the “hundred years” estimates of available gas assume flat demand–with Germany and Japan phasing out nuclear power, the go-to fuel for them will probably be natural gas. That could be a real problem, since shale’s production of natural gas is uneven and hard to predict. And the Marcellus shale natural gas will have a high concentration of Radon gas, which does NOT burn away.
Meanwhile, there are other ways to arrive at a workable energy future. Germany is currently generating 22 Gigawatts of power with solar/photovoltaic—equivalent of 20 nuclear power plants. New York oculd be installing photovoltaic glass and solar panels all over the city–we could use it on all those curtain-wall buildings that ‘starchitects‘ are so fond of. And NYC has a marvelous cone-shaped area for wind turbines at the point where the Hudson and East Rivers meet–the original Freedom Tower would have received significant energy from wind turbines. There are other alternatives to staking New York’s future on natural gas from shale–that’s what the protests are about.
And meanwhile, friends are getting themselves arrested on a daily basis trying to shut down a construction site that’s presaging a multi-level disaster. Billions of dollars are going to be dumped into a project that puts New Yorkers at risk and doesn’t get us to a place where we’re getting the energy needed to keep the heat going in New York.