The article that follows is the second of two by this writer in Truthout about resistance to high-volume hydraulic fracturing infrastructures in Marcellus Shale states.
Since 2011 I’ve been writing about the impacts of high-volume hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and about New York, where a powerful grassroots movement has made the state ground zero for barring drilling within town borders. But while some of my interviewees have become friends, I always used to feel at a remove from their predicaments. Under my state, Massachusetts, there are no methane or oil-rich shale deposits, so there’s no drilling.
Then, in September 2013, I learned that Spectra Energy, one of the largest natural gas infrastructure companies in North America, had proposed to expand a pipeline it owns, the Algonquin, which runs from Texas into my hometown, Boston. Spectra calls this project the Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) project. In some parts of the line, new piping will be as large as 42 inches in diameter. The project is designed to allow large inflows into New York State, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts of unconventional gas – gas extracted from the great Marcellus formation that stretches along the Appalachian basin from West Virginia to New York. The Marcellus is now the nation’s fracking bull’s-eye.
It turns out that we are all in the crosshairs of fracking. Gas corporations are profiting from the shale boom, carrying shale gas throughout the United States, nowhere more than in the Northeast. Gas from shale formations, sprawls of which underlie large portions of North America, goes by several names: “natural gas” (always preceded in fossil-fuel corporation lingo by the prefix “clean-burning”), and “unconventional gas.” (I have written about the human and animal health impacts of the industry elsewhere.)
Countless Americans – even those living far from gas fields, compressor stations and terminals – find themselves on the frontlines of fracking.
“Natural gas” is largely methane. Methane is a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful on a 20-year time scale than carbon dioxide. Leaks throughout the system, including countless ones from pipelines, give this industry a global-warming footprint that, according to a 2011 Cornell University study, could be greater than that of coal. A May 2014 study by Robert Howarth, lead author of the earlier Cornell study, makes this unequivocal: natural gas and gas from the shale are greater in their climate change impacts than any other fossil fuels. And, it states, we don’t have more than 20 years to put the brakes on its extraction and production. Methane is what is lighting my stove and yours, our heaters and the power plants where we live.
There’s been a great deal of reporting about “the drilling part” of fracking – the moment when drills penetrate shale and millions of gallons of chemical-and-sand-laced water are pumped down at high pressure to fracture the rock. Not so much has been written about all that follows. It’s the “everything else” that has turned a drilling technology into a land-and-water-devouring industry so vast that it’s arguablyone of the most pervasive, extractive adventures in history. The infrastructures of fracking stretch thousands of miles beyond wellheads. Pipelines are the most obvious and pervasive of these fracking build-outs.
There are more than 350,000 miles of gas pipelines in the United States. These are for the transmission of gas from region to region. Not included are more than 2 million miles of distribution and service pipelines, which run through thousands of cities and towns with new branches under constant construction. All these pipelines mean that countless Americans – even those living far from gas fields, compressor stations and terminals – find themselves on the frontlines of fracking.
In southeastern New York State a grassroots organization, Stop the Algonquin Pipeline Extension (SAPE), has been battling Spectra’s “AIM” project since October 2013. Stony Point in Rockland County lies across the Hudson River from Westchester. The pipeline would cross the Hudson from Stony Point under a proposed 1,000-megawatt electric transmission line. It would intersect underground in Verplank with another proposed 1,000-megawatt electric transmission line. A look at this map shows that the Indian Point Nuclear Facility lies just north of Verplank. The pipeline would pass just a few hundred feet from the nuclear plant and its 40 years of spent nuclear fuel rods. The plant stands near the Ramapo and Stamford faults, where potential earthquakes have been noted. Add to this that pipelines are notoriously prone to explosions. Think Fukushima.
Pipelines are notoriously prone to explosions.
In western Massachusetts, citizens are opposing Kinder Morgan Energy Partners’ plan to expand its 13,900-mile-long pipeline, the Tennessee Gas Pipeline (TGP), with what it calls its Northeast Expansion Project. The TGP carries natural gas from Louisiana, the Gulf of Mexico and south Texas to the Northeast, including New York City and Boston. The new section would run from New York northeast into Massachusetts all the way to Dracut, a town on the Bay State’s border with New Hampshire. According to a letter to Gov. Deval Patrick from the state’s powerful Association of Conservation Commissions, it would cut “a permanent 50-foot-wide swath of about 250 miles in length, much of it through ecologically sensitive lands, on which trees could not grow and structures not be built.”
Both projects are directly linked to the fracking boom. “Richard D. Kinder, chief executive of Kinder Morgan,” writes a New York Times reporter, “has personally made billions of dollars operating the industry’s equivalent of a toll road: pipelines.” A Bloomberg Businessweek article notes that “Kinder Morgan Energy Partners (KMP) and its related companies now control 75,000 miles of pipelines, enough to circle the globe three times. It’s the third-largest energy business in the US, behind ExxonMobil and Chevron (CVX).” Topping all of this is the fact that Kinder Morgan pays no federal taxes.
Both corporations are cashing in on the Northeast’s heavy dependency on natural gas, all of which will soon flow from the Marcellus Shale. Between 2009 and 2012, when the Marcellus Shale boom was taking off, New England’s conversions from oil to gas tripled. “New England appears to be on a natural gas binge,” wrote a Boston Globe business reporter. Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, hardly a fossil-fuel naysayer, has called natural gas the “crack cocaine” of his industry. Massachusetts is a poster child for the addiction. Natural gas supplies 67 percent of the Bay State’s electricity and heats half its homes. Over half of New England’s energy overall comes from natural gas.
Industry and mainstream media sources said this past year’s brutal winter triggered natural gas price surges. In a corollary argument to the “cold-snap” alarms, the industry argued that new and expanded pipelines were needed. A February, 10 2014 Bloomberg Businessweek headline, “Northeast’s Record Natural Gas Prices Due to Pipeline Dearth,”was typical. All six of New England’s governors support the Algonquin Pipeline expansion. The governors also support the tariffs that will be levied on ratepayers for the expansion. To underscore: you and I will be paying for these corporate projects.
The question begged by the storm of warnings was whether new and expanded pipelines were really necessary. According to a late 2013 report by ISO (International Standards Organization) New England, which monitors the region’s electrical grid, gas capacity for last winter was adequate even at peak demand. Massachusetts energy efficiency programs like MassSave and WMECo have been helping to lower that. According to a study commissioned by the New England States Committee on Electricity (NESCOE), within a low-demand context there is “no need for new infrastructure” like AIM or the Northeast expansion.
Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers has called natural gas the “crack cocaine” of his industry.
Natural gas marketing practices further belie the corporate drive for pipeline expansion. Like pork bellies, gas is a commodity. Suppliers buy either on the futures market or the spot market. Buying on the futures market means buying and selling natural gas under contract at least a month and up to 36 months in advance. Suppliers buying gas this way provide first and foremost to individuals like you and me, insuring a continuous supply of the fuel throughout the winter. By contrast, gas sold on the spot market is sold the same day. In heavy usage periods, spot market shippers, which supply to non-individual users, can and do experience shortfalls. They then make additional gas purchases that translate as price hikes for the rest of us.
David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who writes about energy and the growth of inequality in the United States, observes: “Under the rules of the electricity markets, the best way to earn huge profits is by reducing the supply of power. That creates a shortage during peak demand periods, such as hot summer evenings and cold winter days, causing prices to rise . . . even a tiny shortfall between the available supply of electricity and the demand from customers results in enormous price spikes.”
Finally there’s what you could call “the export piece” of the giant puzzle. Both pipelines would join a 1,101-kilometer-long pipeline, the Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline (M&NP), owned by Spectra Energy, and designed, according to its Canadian website, “to transport natural gas from developments offshore Nova Scotia to markets in Atlantic Canada and the northeastern United States.” The M&NP also extends to a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the coast of the Bay of Fundy opposite Nova Scotia, and the province has also just given conditional approval to a proposed new LNG terminal.
The M&NP used to be for natural gas imports. Spectra is driving a retrofit to allow gas to flow from south to north. That is: it will become an export pipeline. This begs the question why, if the Northeast is experiencing such shortfalls that pipelines are needed for inflows of gas from the Marcellus, the fuel should be exported at all. Short answer: profits. And the industry’s lobbyists are now hard at work fast-tracking exports. Gas prices in Europe are about double, and Asian prices triple, that of US prices. A House bill approved by the Energy and Commerce Committee late this past April, heralded by the American Petroleum Institute (API), would expedite approval of over 20 export permits from the Department of Energy, and would accelerate further permits. According to an API press release, the organization issued a letter of support to committee leaders encouraging passage of the bill.
Community Opposition to Northeast Pipeline Expansion
All of this is making blood boil in western Massachusetts where, with incredible rapidity – starting only this past March – a movement has surged up to oppose the Kinder Morgan project. “We don’t feel any of this extra capacity is necessary, by the industry’s own documents,” says Jane Winn, executive director of Berkshire Environmental Action Team, a nonprofit that protects the environment for wildlife.
Laura Chapdelaine has been living for 15 years with her husband on what she described in an email to me this past February as “a beautiful 5.89 acre piece of land in Montague, studded with wetland and woods, between Greenfield and Amherst.” Just southwest lies the Connecticut River. “Four of us live in an 816 sq. foot house, quite happily. We make syrup every winter and grow blueberries in our upper field. Simple country living is all we want,” Chapdelaine told me.
Into this idyll came a Tennessee Gas Pipeline surveyor on January 22, 2014. “We were not home but he talked to one of our boys and left.” The pipeline salesman left a survey permission form with boxes for the family to check “yes.” Chapdelaine and her husband refused. Her parents live in New York State where there’s an ongoing battle against another pipeline proposal. At the website of the organization driving that opposition (Stop the Pipeline, the first to initiate anti-pipeline struggles in the United States), under the logo “How do we stop it?” there’s the subhead: “do not let them on your land.”
“We don’t feel any of this extra [energy] capacity is necessary, by the industry’s own documents.”
Montague, says Chapdelaine, “has a decades-long presence of back-to-the-landers, including many recent college grads who are stepping away from the hamster wheel and devoting their lives to start up farms and food processing ventures . . . [P]art of what makes this [pipeline project] so hard to swallow is that if any community lives and doesn’t just pay lip service to sustainability of all kinds, it’s Montague.”
In Pennsylvania, according to Inside Climate News, pipelines “are being built in the state’s 16 million acres of forest, which include some of the largest contiguous blocks of forestland east of the Mississippi River. Of the 2.2 million acres the state oversees, nearly 700,000 acres already have been leased for drilling, allowing companies to cut paths through pristine stretches of trees, fragment forests, decrease biodiversity and introduce invasive species.”
In addition to such ecological devastation, pipelines are notorious for explosions – recall the one in East Harlem this past February. It was not singular. In 2010, a high-pressure pipeline owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Company exploded in San Bruno, California, killing eight people and destroying 38 homes. In the Texas panhandle a pipeline exploded in 2010, killing two people. There have been almost 8,000 pipeline accidents in the United States between 1986 and spring of 2013.
Carl Weimer, executive director of Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization, says that on average there is “a significant incident – somewhere – about every other day. And someone ends up in the hospital or dead about every nine or 10 days.” Are pipelines carrying shale gas different in their explosive potential than other pipelines? “There isn’t any database that allows you to get at that,” says Richard Kuprewicz, a pipeline safety expert and consultant with 40 years of experience. “If it’s a steel pipeline and it has enough gas in it under enough pressure, it can leak or rupture,” Kuprewicz says. Many pipelines, he adds, aren’t bound by any safety regulations, and even when they are, enforcement can often be lax. Where regulations exist, corporate compliance is uneven. “Some companies comply with and exceed regulations, others don’t. If I want to find out about what’s going on, I may [have to] get additional information via subpoena,” Kuprewicz says.
“We’ve been in contact with people in every town and there is opposition in every town along the route.”
In western Massachusetts, word about pipeline threats went viral this past March when resident Rosemary Wessel posted a map of the Northeast Expansion on Facebook. Wessel also launched a website, NoFrackedGasInMass.org, which has become a source of information for residents across a wide swath of towns in the region. Laura Chapdelaine came across it shortly after the land man visited her property. Katy Eiseman, who lives in the Massachusetts town of Cummington, is grassroots liaison for the nonprofit information-gathering and distribution organization Massachusetts PipeLine Awareness Network. Eiseman says she was “one of the first and loudest to reply [to the Facebook posting.]”
The first step residents took against Kinder Morgan was to deny the corporation’s representatives access to survey. In addition, nine western Massachusetts towns have passed non-binding resolutions against the pipeline expansion. A resolution in Cummington instructs legislators to take action to opposed fracked-gas pipelines and support sustainable energies. Another, drafted in the town of Ashfield, uses rights-based language inspired by what grassroots organization No Fracked Gas in Mass calls, “[an] emerging Community Rights movement . . . [to assert] local democratic control directly over corporations.”
Finally, representatives of the above-mentioned Association of Conservation Commissions, dedicated to “protecting wetlands, open space and biological diversity through education and advocacy,” wrote a letter to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick expressing “deep concern” about a project with “the potential to harm wetlands and land designated and preserved as open space, as well as increase our reliance on fossil fuels and emissions of greenhouse gases.” Wessel, of No Fracked Gas in Mass, says that “aside from addressing all other concerns [the letter] pinpoints the single most egregious aspect of the Northeast Expansion Proposal: the fact that there has been no official public discourse on the project, leaving Kinder Morgan calling all the shots.”
Kinder Morgan has sent what Katy Eiseman describes as “a second wave of letters” to landowners, threatening to bring them before Massachusetts’ Department of Public Utilities (DPU), the state adjudicatory agency for such disputes. “We are trying to urge people not to buckle under this pressure,” Eiseman says. Nine hundred parcels of land lie along the proposed pipeline route. Kinder Morgan representatives have been addressing town boards across the state, and the corporation claims that 60 percent of landowners have approved its surveying. Counters Eiseman: “We’ve been in contact with people in every town and there is opposition in every town along the route.”
Stop the Algonquin Pipeline (SAPE) Gears Up
Ground zero for opposition to Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Pipeline Expansion Project (AIM) is in Westchester, New York. There, in October 2013 a group of colleagues who sit on the boards of organizations including Community Watersheds Clean Water Coalition (CWCWC), a nonprofit group based in Westchester and surrounding counties, formed Stop the Algonquin Pipeline (SAPE). They had come upon news of the project only by chance, and only a few days before the federal agency in charge of permitting and regulating pipelines, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), held a meeting in October 2013, where its representatives and others from Spectra described to citizens the nature and scope of the work the project requires. (See afterword on FERC, its history and power.)
Suzannah Glidden, a retired journalist and actor, had been active in New York’s sweeping, grassroots movement to keep “the drilling part” of fracking out of New York State. “Here we’ve been fighting fracking in New York for six years,” says Glidden, “and now comes fracking infrastructure right in our back yards.”
“Here we’ve been fighting fracking in New York for six years, and now comes fracking infrastructure right in our back yards.”
Glidden, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and is at high risk for fracking industry emissions, suffered a breathing attack and accelerated heartbeat when a compressor station near her home was vented in January. (Compressor stations, which compress gas for its pipeline journeys, are placed at 50 to 100-mile intervals along the lines. Their daily emissions include combustion products that combine with volatile organic compounds released by the compressors, heat and sunlight to produce ground-level ozone, which impacts pulmonary and cardiovascular functions. See a more complete list of chemical releases here.)
Along the AIM route, a total of five existing compressor stations will be modified for enlarged capacities. For specific dangers from compressor stations, see comments here by environmental chemist Wilma Subra, a MacArthur “genius” fellow and former vice-chair of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology.
SAPE’S website notes the pipeline’s dangers:
- It will be transporting Marcellus Shale gas, which has dangerously high levels of radioactive materials; among these is radon, a decay product of Radium 226, which abounds in the Marcellus Shale. Radon will travel through the pipeline into New York’s kitchens. The substance is highly carcinogenic.
- Spectra will replace existing 26-inch pipeline with 42-inch pipeline, a diameter greater than that of the San Bruno pipeline in which an explosion created the mayhem described here earlier.
- The expansion will pass under electrical transmission lines and the Hudson River, and will pass near the Indian Point Nuclear Facility, which itself lies near the Ramapo and Stamford faults.
SAPE has focused its work on a resolution calling for studies to evaluate safety risks, health and economic impacts. FERC and other federal and state agencies that issue permits to approve the project are asked to issue no permit until the protective measures called for in the resolution are fully executed. See the resolution and agency list here. The resolution was passed May 6 by the Putnam County, New York legislature. SAPE is presenting it to the Westchester and Rockland County legislatures, and suggests that it also be used as well for the Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts legislatures.
Groups from four states have filed with FERC to challenge the pipeline. Among them is Better Future Project in Massachusetts. Along the Massachusetts route of the project is West Roxbury, 22 miles south of my home, where one of the pipeline expansions will take place. The West Roxbury Civic Association, a community group, stands against the project but has filed no objections with FERC. It is relying on two legislators to oppose the pipeline project. Neither replied to repeated calls from Truthout.
A Bridge to Nowhere
In his “Bridge to Nowhere,” published in May 2014, Robert Howarth, lead author of the 2011 Cornell University study mentioned above, states that natural gas, a once seemingly promising link between the era of oil and coal to one of sustainable solar, wind and water power, is a major source of atmospheric methane because of widespread leaks as well as purposeful venting of gas. The study warns that a “20-year time period [for assessing methane’s impacts on the atmosphere] is appropriate because of the urgent need to reduce methane emissions over the coming 15 – 35 years.” And then, this dire prediction: “If we hit a climate-system tipping point because of methane, our carbon dioxide problem is immaterial.”
“If we hit a climate-system tipping point because of methane, our carbon dioxide problem is immaterial.”
“Society needs to wean itself from the addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible,” says Howarth. “But to replace some fossil fuels – coal, oil – with another, like natural gas, will not suffice as an approach to take on global warming. Rather, we should embrace the technologies of the 21st century and convert our energy systems to ones that rely on wind, solar and water power.”
The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report is the direst in the panel’s history. Only Marco Rubio and other know-nothings locked at the hip with the fossil-fuel industry can keep up denial in the face of this report, and in the face of news in mid-May of the irreversible melting of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet. Any sane world would stop drilling miles into shale formations to blast out the planet’s remaining, hidden methane. It is up to movements like the ones I’ve described in this article to stand for sanity and the preservation of what remains of the planet as we know it.
Shadowy for most Americans, well-known to fossil-fuel and energy corporations, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) was created by the 1939 Natural Gas Act to permit and regulate all interstate pipeline and compressor station projects. Once a corporation files with FERC for permission to build, both opponents and proponents must address their opinions to FERC according to the agency’s specifications. (See instructions on how to engage with FERC here.) Western Massachusetts residents began opposing the Kinder Morgan project before the corporation had a chance to file its permit application with FERC, eliminating this toilsome bureaucratic process from their struggle.