Fossil-fuel industry feels heat from activists

Gill

ALBANY — Citizen activists are cranking up pressure on state and federal regulators to derail the expansion of the fossil fuel industry across New York.

The grassroots movement has intensified since Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration effectively hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling technique, in December 2014.

Projects and shipments in the crosshairs of green-energy advocates include a proposed Northern Access natural gas pipeline running through five counties of western New York; a proposed expansion of the Dominion compressor station in Montgomery County, about 20 miles north of Cooperstown; and oil trains that pass by Plattsburgh as they head to the Port of Albany brimming with Bakken crude from North Dakota.

As activists step up their efforts, the lobby for New York's oil and gas producers is seeing membership plummet and is looking to downsize its headquarters in the Erie County town of Hamburg.

"We've had a precipitous drop in our membership, and our association reflects the health of our members," said Brad Gill, director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. "We have more people pulling out of New York now and heading for greener pastures."

He said membership has dropped from a high of about 420 in 2012 to just 120. Those leaving include representatives of several firms that have gone bankrupt after they could not drill in New York — including Norse Energy, which once had leases for drilling on about 130,000 acres in upstate New York.

The industry's focus is now shifting to small operators only interested in shallow, conventional gas wells — not those involving shale fracking, he said.

Gill, a petroleum geologist, said the state Department of Environmental Conservation is "targeting our industry through regulatory burdens that are putting people out of business."

For green activists, one of the biggest victories came in April when environmental officials denied water permits for the proposed Constitution Pipeline, a $700 million project backed by a consortium of energy companies involved in fracking in Pennsylvania, including Williams Partners and Cabot Oil and Gas. The underground transmission system would have run gas from Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, crossing hundreds of private tracts along the way.

"We came up with a plan to defeat the Constitution Pipeline in 2012, and it came with a well-thought-out strategy and tactics to match. And we succeeded," said Anne Marie Garti, an organizer for Stop the Pipeline, who was completing law school while urging landowners to resist lease agreements offered by the developers.

Those developers have since gone to federal court to get the water permits denied by the state.

Those fighting such infrastructure say their "keep it in the ground" philosophy when it comes to fossil fuel is based on concerns that aquifers could be at risk while methane and other greenhouse gases get released during the production and shipment of oil and gas.

One of their newest targets is the proposed Pilgrim Pipeline, which would consist of two parallel pipes running along the Hudson River corridor. The lines would send Bakken crude oil from Albany to a New Jersey refinery, while bringing kerosene back to Albany.

Dozens of activists, who created a flotilla of kayaks and canoes on the Hudson last week, contend the pipeline will lead to an increase of oil shipments through Albany.

Crude oil now arrives at the Albany port on train cars, some of which cross a rail bridge spanning the Saranac River in downtown Plattsburgh before later arriving at a storage area less than a mile from New York's statehouse.

More than 80 environmental groups and activists last April called on government regulators to ban the trains from the vicinity of Lake Champlain, citing several oil-train calamities including a fiery explosion in 2013 that killed 47 people in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, Quebec.

The industry says pipelines are a far safer way to transport their products than railroads or trucking.

"The biggest issue to me is we have allowed all this hypocrisy to happen," said John Holko, president of Lenape Resources, a company involved in the exploration of gas and oil in the Appalachian basin region of New York and Pennsylvania.

"If people don't like the industry, don't drive your car and don't turn on your gas stove," he said. "But if you use it, don't try to stop it."

Holko said every victory by the environmentalists comes at a price tag: higher energy costs.

The battle against the expansion of gas and oil infrastructure is intensifying even in the aftermath of the state Public Service Commission's move last month to adopt Cuomo's goal of having the state get at least half of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

"Our movement is going in the right direction," said Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director for the environmental group Food and Water Watch. "There are so many disparate fights going on in New York that at times it can seem like guacamole. And we know it is going to take a big movement to get our governor to take the next step and reject the fracking infrastructure at large."

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com

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