Pipeline bans blamed for surge in gas tankers

Photo provided by Broome County Sheriff's OfficeThe site of a Sept. 23 gas tanker crash on Interstate 88 in Broome County is shown.

ALBANY — The energy policies of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration have come under criticism from both pro-development advocates and climate activists following an increase in shipping compressed natural gas by truck amid the state's refusal to allow the construction of industrial pipelines.

Public highways are now being used as "virtual pipelines," with tractor-trailers taking CNG — compressed natural gas — from Pennsylvania production facilities to upstate transfer stations.

A fatal Sept. 23 crash involving the rollover of a CNG tanker on Interstate 88 in Broome County raised new questions about the shipping method. Approximately 80 homes in a neighborhood near the crash site had to be evacuated when gas leaked from large container on the rig, and state emergency services workers spent several hours 'flaring off," or venting, the gas.

Officials said the driver of the rig, Jeffrey Lind, 52, of Susquehanna County, Pa., was killed in the accident, caused when he attempted to avoid a deer that ran in front of the vehicle.

In March, five homes near I-88 in Schoharie County after another CNG truck crashed on the highway.

"There is a direct correlation between the fact that we have so many of these trucks on the road and the flawed energy policy in Albany," said state Sen. Fred Akshar, R-Broome County, a supporter of the pipeline projects that have been stopped by the Cuomo administration.

However, climate activists argue the increased reliance on trucks to get gas to energy customers illustrates the need to wean the state from its reliance on fossil fuels altogether. They say they have warned the Cuomo administration of the dangers of moving compressed gas on the highways, and refer to the rigs as "bomb trucks" that pose a serious risk to public safety.

"It is beyond dispute that the governor does not have a comprehensive energy solution to climate change," said Walter Hang, an environmental activist from Ithaca who owns a consulting firm, Toxics Targeting. He said he warned the Cuomo administration in 2017 about the dangers of allowing CNG transfer facilities in New York.

Hang argued that the state should dramatically increase efforts to promote energy efficiency, suggesting retrofitting older homes in ways that would curb heating costs would make a significant dent in fossil-fuel consumption and lessen the need to truck in gas.

As the debate over energy policy simmers, the gas infrastructure projects that have been blocked include the Constitution Pipeline, whose route would run through Chenango, Delaware and Schoharie counties, and National Fuel's Northern Access pipeline, which would cross Niagara County.

Both projects have received approvals from federal and state of Pennsylvania regulators, but have been stopped in New York after the Department of Environmental Conservation denied water permits needed for the their construction.

Meanwhile, the Cuomo administration is facing pressure from anti-fracking activists on Long Island to prevent construction of a new pipeline proposed by the Williams Company of Oklahoma, one of the major investors in the Constitution Pipeline.

That situation has also created an awkward political situation for Democratic state senators from Long Island who approved New York's green energy objectives but now face pressure from constituents seeking relief from a moratorium on gas hookups due to inadequate supply.

Aides to Gov. Andrew Cuomo did not respond to questions about the criticism he is now getting from climate activists and the battle over the virtual pipelines.

Meanwhile, environmental groups are planning what they say will be an "Earth to Cuomo" rally Oct. 13 in Poughkeepsie to call attention to what they argue is a need for the state to adhere to the green energy goals outlined in its Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act,

"We have to make this transition as rapidly as possible for both the sake of our climate and the safety of our communities," said Liz Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit advocacy organization.

But given the amount of gas and oil now used in power generation in New York, it would be impractical to take fossil fuels out of the state's energy diet in the immediate future, suggested Gavin Donohue, president of the Independent Power Producers of New York, an industry group.

Donohue said moving gas by pipeline is much safer and more efficient than shipping it on trucks on the highway. Donohue said his industry has managed to reduce carbon emissions by 56 percent since 1990, while such emissions from the transportation sector have risen 24 percent in that same period.

Impeding pipeline expansion, he said, "is setting New York up for failure, from an economic development standpoint and from a long-term reliability standpoint."

But climate activists contend it is imperative that the state make immediate moves to reduce demand for natural gas, contending the CNG trucks proliferating on the highways represent a contradiction of the Cuomo administration's stated objectives.

"The concern is that these virtual pipelines are going to be followed by real pipelines," said Keith Schue, an environmental activist from Cherry Valley. "It's becoming a vicious circle of gas infrastructure, when we know we should be going the other way to address climate change."

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

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