Clare Donohue spent her teenage years growing up in the Catskill Mountains hamlet of Roscoe where water was central to the area’s way of life. Her family often fished at a nearby reservoir and so many fly fishers liked to visit the spot where two pristine rivers converged that Roscoe dubbed itself “Trout Town USA.”
“When you walked into the house,” Donohue recalled, “the first thing you did was go to the sink and fill a glass of water. It was so delicious.”
Donohue, 52, runs a small business and has lived in New York City for the past 30 years. When she learned from friends three years ago that 85 well sites had been leased for future drilling for natural gas in a village close to Roscoe, she was concerned. She watched Gasland, Josh Fox’s Oscar-nominated documentary, and later joined friends at a West Village community board meeting. There, officials from Spectra Energy sought to mollify local concerns about an underground natural gas pipeline that the company was bringing into the neighborhood.
“I just sat there unbelieving, because everybody was just calm and polite and they were all asking questions like whether the cement in the sidewalk would be put back the way it was, things that I thought were totally irrelevant in terms of the disaster that was being described. And I kept thinking, ’What is wrong here? Why aren’t people screaming?’”
Donohue has been raising her voice ever since as a co-founder of the Sane Energy Project, which she helped start with a dozen other activists to fight the Spectra pipeline. The group’s focus has since broadened as they confront a growing web of projects that could drive a surge in New York City’s use of natural gas obtained by fracking. In addition to Spectra, a second pipeline is slated to enter via the Rockaways and go up Brooklyn’s Flatbush Avenue. There is also a deep water liquefied natural gas import terminal proposed for off the coast of Long Island.
New Yorkers currently consume 1.3 billion cubic feet per day of natural gas. And these new infrastructure projects would increase that by between 16 and 30 percent, according to a study commissioned by the mayor’s office.
“It is a strategy to hook the city on fracked gas,” said Occupy the Pipeline activist Patrick Robbins.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires injecting millions of gallons of water laced with an array of toxic chemicals deep into the earth to cause fissures that allow drillers to tap previously unreachable deposits of natural gas. The technology has been blamed for poisoning underground drinking water supplies in areas near well sites.
Large parts of central and southern New York State sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that is believed to contain large reserves of natural gas. While activists have won a moratorium against fracking in New York and are fighting for a full ban, Pennsylvania landowners have seen a fracking boom in the past decade, especially as smaller operators have been gobbled up by transnational companies. These corporations, owning large acreage and seeking fast profits, drive the push for increased drilling.
While natural gas is heralded as a cleaner-burning “bridge fuel” to a renewable energy future, it is in fact a potent greenhouse gas. When released directly into the atmosphere, it traps 72 times more heat than carbon dioxide and remains 25 times as powerful as carbon dioxide after a century in the air.
Creating a New Market
With natural gas prices at a low and billions of dollars sunk into drill sites, the natural gas industry is looking for a way to increase demand, boost profits and garner more financial backers. Through that lens, New York City, a huge energy consumer, presents a golden opportunity.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2011 mandate to convert the boilers in New York City buildings to the “cleanest fuels” has set the stage for skyrocketing demand as many buildings switch to natural gas systems. The new heating oil regulations will ban the two dirtiest heating fuels available: Number 6 and Number 4. These heavy fuels create fine soot, known as particulate matter, which is highly polluting. Soot exacerbates asthma, irritates lungs and increases the risk of heart attacks and premature death.
The regulations will require New Yorkers to instead heat their buildings with either ultra-low sulfur Number 2 oil, biodiesel, natural gas or steam, according to PlaNYC.
The trouble, Donohue said, is that natural gas also produces particulate matter and at a higher rate than Number 2. In comparison, biofuel produces zero emissions and zero particulate matter. And while converting an average New York City building to biodiesel and Number 2 oil costs about $10,000 to $30,000, natural gas conversions can start at $500,000, a cost often transferred from landlord to tenant through rent hikes.