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Controversial pipeline project looms over New York’s bold climate agenda

A fracked gas pipeline has become a litmus test for the Empire State.

In a line that stretched upwards of a mile, over 700 New Yorkers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on April 18, 2019 to demand Governor Andrew Cuomo to block the controversial Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas through New York Harbor. CREDIT: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
In a line that stretched upwards of a mile, over 700 New Yorkers marched across the Brooklyn Bridge on April 18, 2019 to demand Governor Andrew Cuomo to block the controversial Williams Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) Pipeline, which would carry fracked gas through New York Harbor. CREDIT: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A controversial pipeline has emerged as a major test of New York’s clean energy ambitions, at a time when the state is marketing itself as a leader on climate action.

President Donald Trump, a staunch supporter of fossil fuels, has repeatedly criticized states like New York and California for blocking pipelines. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) has touted his new energy budget as a “Green New Deal” for the state, one that commits New York to 100% clean power by 2040. But a proposed pipeline connecting natural gas fields from Pennsylvania to New York and New Jersey is jeopardizing that goal, activists say.

Cuomo has so far remained silent about the pipeline’s prospects. But environmentalists argue that approving the project would undermine his commitment to decarbonization and to combatting climate change generally. The decision is expected to come Thursday at the latest.

Williams Companies, the operator of the proposed pipeline, has argued that the project would address a looming fuel shortage in the region. In order to launch the $926 million effort, Williams needs the support of both New York and New Jersey, something that has put Cuomo in a precarious position.

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“[It’s] a high stakes decision that will determine whether New York City and New York state [are] going to transition off fossil fuels,” said Pete Sikora, climate and inequality campaigns director for New York Communities for Change (NYCC).

Sikora told ThinkProgress that the pipeline presents a test for New York’s leadership on climate issues, one that could be critical to assessing its commitment to climate action going forward. “Stopping the Williams pipeline is a necessary condition,” he said.

Pipeline proponents argue that the project is necessary, facilitating a transition away from dirtier fuels while still meeting the region’s growing energy needs. National Grid, the utility company supplying the natural gas, has threatened to impose a moratorium on some new gas hookups in New York City if the project is not approved by the state government. That could in turn severely impact fuel access for parts of the sprawling city.

But climate advocates are deeply concerned about the project. In a report released in March, the climate action group 350.org slammed the pipeline and argued that the Williams project is not actually necessary for meeting the region’s fuel needs.

“Stopping the Williams pipeline is Governor Cuomo’s first major test on his commitment to a Green New Deal for New York,” Cata Romo, an organizer with the group, said in a statement.

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The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has allowed the pipeline to proceed, but one commissioner, Richard Glick, dissented, arguing that in approving the pipeline, FERC “refuses to consider the consequences its actions have for climate change.”

Glick is a Democrat appointed by Trump; FERC requires that a maximum of three members of any political party be allowed to serve at once. FERC regulates interstate pipelines along with construction, storage, and other related components of the process.

Climate activists in New York have secured a number of significant victories recently. Cuomo’s budget aims to pave the way for the state to achieve “economy-wide carbon neutrality” by 2040, in addition to accounting for a “just transition to clean energy.”

That language closely follows the federal Green New Deal resolution introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA). The blueprint aims to overhaul every sector of the U.S. economy through a 10-year rapid mobilization effort to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions.

New York City has also intensified its efforts to address climate change in recent months. In April, the city passed the Climate Mobilization Act, a package of bills aiming to keep down emissions in accordance with the Paris climate agreement’s targets. A key component of that effort involves buildings, which contribute to almost 70% of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions. Under a new bill, overall emissions would be reduced by 40% by 2030.

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Environmentalists have cheered that progression and hailed the state’s overall progress on climate action. But the Williams pipeline has emerged as a major point of contention.

New Jersey has until June to issue its decision, but Cuomo has said that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is reviewing the pipeline proposal and will issue a verdict this week.

Revolving door

If the state approves the project, the governor is likely to face push-back over more than just New York’s climate goals. Cuomo’s former campaign manager, Maggie Moran, is the head of Kivvit, a lobbying firm employed by Williams. According to lobbying records, Moran began working on behalf of Williams three months after the company submitted its pipeline proposal. Kivvit’s managing director, Rich Bamberger, also formerly served as communications director for Cuomo.

Moreover, Williams donated $100,000 to the Democratic Governors Association in 2018 — the association subsequently gave $20,000 in in-kind polling research to Cuomo’s re-election campaign. Both Cuomo’s office and Williams have disputed any connection between the donation and the research. The governor’s critics, however, have noted that he has been linked to multiple corruption scandals during his time in office, in addition to accusations of catering to special interests.

“There’s a difference between rhetoric and reality,” said Sikora, who underscored that Cuomo’s action on the Williams pipeline will send an important message about his approach to climate change. “The governor is talking about a Green New Deal but the state in fact is lagging and needs to step up.”

Trump tensions

Deciding against the pipeline could also escalate tensions between New York and the White House. Trump has worked to speed up pipeline construction nationally and has signed executive orders making it harder for states to reject such projects. He has also singled out New York, arguing that the state is hindering U.S. energy ambitions.

In comments made Tuesday, Trump again lashed out at New York and California specifically for their resistance to pipeline expansion. Speaking at a newly-opened liquified natural gas terminal in Louisiana, he said, “These states could be ports for shipping energy to our friends and allies, but instead of helping our partners, they are hurting America.”

While the future of the Williams pipeline rests with the governor’s office, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D) has also been under pressure to address the pipeline. DeBlasio has touted his commitment to combating climate change in the country’s most populated city and activists repeatedly lobbied the mayor to speak out against the pipeline. That pressure seems to have worked — earlier this week, DeBlasio came out against the project.

“New York City is out to END our dependence on fossil fuels. That’s why I’m OPPOSING the Williams Pipeline,” DeBalsio wrote in a tweet on Monday. “There’s only one place fossil fuels belong: stranded in the ground.”