Updated, 5:01 p.m. | New York City needs cleaner, cheaper energy. That’s the only thing everyone following a proposed natural gas pipeline in the Rockaways agrees upon. But the project — running pipeline from the Atlantic Ocean under the Rockaways and Jamaica Bay into southeast Brooklyn — has drawn concern and outright opposition since it became public earlier this year, according to the New York Times.
Natural gas saves customers money, eases dependence on foreign oil and is cleaner than other fossil fuels (though extracting it by hydraulic fracturing raises other issues). But in light of recent pipeline leaks and explosions, environmental advocates and Brooklynites worry that the pipeline could damage fragile ecosystems, create safety hazards and compromise Brooklyn’s biggest piece of national parkland, Floyd Bennett Field. And the planning process itself has drawn criticism from community groups who say it has not been open enough to public review.
National Grid, the utility that delivers gas to Brooklyn, says that as the need for natural gas grows, the system must be expanded. “Brooklyn hasn’t seen a new delivery point in 50 years,” said John Stavarakas, National Grid’s director of long-term planning and project development. “We are at capacity.”
Until environmental impact studies are done, though — especially on the ocean, where the pipeline calls for more invasive digging than on the bay side — many environmentalists are withholding support.
“If we don’t reduce greenhouse gases, then the Jamaica Bay marshes will end up under water anyway,” said Glenn Phillips, executive director of New York City Audubon. “But the temporary disturbances could be very damaging to this place, which is critically important for birds, horseshoe crabs and fish.”
The $265 million pipeline project, which would take about a year to complete, consists of three pieces:
- a three-mile connector, built by the Williams Companies, from its existing Transco pipeline in the Atlantic Ocean to the Rockaways;
- a one-and-a-half-mile line from the Rockaways under Jamaica Bay and Gateway National Recreation Area land to Floyd Bennett Field, the decommissioned airport that is part of Gateway;
- and a metering station built in an unused hangar at Floyd Bennett Field.
Supporters say that the construction would generate 300 jobs and that the finished station would bring the city $8 million annually in property taxes.
The plan was endorsed by the Bloomberg administration, which calls forexpanding the use of natural gas in its PlaNYC 2030 initiative. The city encouraged Representatives Gregory W. Meeks of Queens and Michael Grimm of Staten Island to co-sponsor the federal bill, passed in February, that authorizes the use of national parkland for the project.
The Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit group that studies and comments on local development issues, supports the pipeline. “The city needs natural gas to replace oil for heating, an important environmental goal,” said Robert Pirani, the association’s vice president for environmental programs.
But the Coalition Against the Rockaway Pipeline and other critics point toWilliams’s safety record and worry about an explosion in a national park or in a densely packed neighborhood. Since 2008, the company’s pipelines have had accidents — including leaks, ruptures and explosions – in at least seven states. The company and its subsidiaries have faced “corrective action orders” from the government in two cases, including a pipeline explosion in Alabama last year, and fines in two others. A company spokesman said that all the issues raised in the incidents have been addressed.
Brian O’Higgins, director of engineering for Williams, said much of the pipeline would be laid using a relatively noninvasive method involving a horizontal directional drill, which drills a small hole, bores underground, then gradually widens the hole. This would avoid digging up Rockaway beaches or Jamaica Bay. But 2.23 miles of pipeline in the ocean will be laid by traditional methods, requiring extensive digging, the company said. A Williams spokesman, Chris Stockton, said the planned route avoided “sensitive habitat.”
Two environmental advocates — Don Riepe, the American Littoral Society’s Jamaica Bay Guardian, and Dan Mundy Jr., co-founder of the Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers – said they were concerned about the ocean connector.
“It’s digging a huge hole in an extremely critical area,” Mr. Mundy said. “There’s a lot of life out there — fluke, flounder, lobster.”
Community Boards 14 in Queens and 18 in Brooklyn have also raised objections to the project. For the Brooklyn board, the deal-breaker was the proposal to build the meter and regulator station at Floyd Bennett Field.
At a meeting on Aug. 15 organized by the Coalition Against the Rockaway Pipeline, several speakers said that turning public park land over to private industry set a worrisome precedent.
The planning process itself has been a sticking point, too. In February, after Congress authorized the National Park Service to pursue the project, outrage and conspiracy theories ricocheted around local blogs, listservs and newspapers.
Mr. Stockton of Williams said that using national parkland required Congressional and presidential backing simply to start the process.
“This is an early, early, early step,” Mr. O’Higgins added, with many steps still required, including environmental impact studies, and approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Activists and environmentalists complained that the plan seemed a fait accompli and that the park service had been secretive, never mentioning the proposal during public meetings discussing Floyd Bennett Field’s future. The revelation that Mr. Grimm received a total of $3,000 from National Grid and Williams for his re-election campaign after co-sponsoring the bill also fed the controversy. Mr. Grimm said there was no quid pro quo.
If the project goes forward, another fight looms, over money; everyone involved seemingly has a different idea about how much revenue may be generated and where it would go. Local advocates say that if they have to live with the pipeline, the money should go to Jamaica Bay, not disappear into the National Park Service’s general budget.
“This should at least provide some good money to the park,” Mr. Riepe said, adding that money was badly needed for marsh restoration. “That’s the lifeblood of Jamaica Bay.”