Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent feud with National Grid over supplying natural gas to customers in the New York City area reveals the limits of Cuomo’s plan to have New York powered entirely by renewable energy sources by 2050.
Cuomo’s goals are commendable, especially in light of a report this week from the United Nations Environmental Program that indicates we are rapidly approaching the point of no return for potentially catastrophic effects from global warming. The report’s authors singled out advocates of natural gas for their empty boasts and broken promises regarding carbon emissions.
“The hope that global emissions of heat-trapping gases might level out with the increasing use of natural gas in the United States and energy intensity improvements in China turned out to be too optimistic,” the UN report notes. “After temporarily leveling out, emissions continued their rise. That includes in the United States, where Republicans’ various excuses for inaction — such as that the natural gas boom showed that government policy was unnecessary to cut emissions — ring more hollow than ever.”
As one of the more populous states, New York’s policies can have a ripple effect, and it’s understandable that Cuomo wouldn’t want to expand infrastructure for fossil fuels that contribute to global warming. And even if the climate weren’t a concern, the state’s emphasis on renewable sources of energy will pay off for consumers in the long run.
But in the meantime, Cuomo has struggled to come up with a viable short-term solution for increasing demand for energy. This conflict came to a head this year, when National Grid in May imposed a moratorium on new gas applications in New York City and Long Island unless Cuomo agreed to allow Williams Companies’ proposed Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline, a $1 billion project that would move natural gas from Pennsylvania through New Jersey to New York.
As the cold season began to set in last month, Cuomo responded harshly, threatening to revoke National Grid’s license to operate in that part of the state unless the utility dropped its moratorium. Cuomo by the end of November had forced an agreement to open new gas lines and pay $36 million from National Grid, a faceless quasi-monopoly that serves as an ideal foil for any politician looking to score points with voters.
But Cuomo’s cure here isn’t much better than the disease itself. As it stands, natural gas extracted from Pennsylvania through the water-fouling, methane-emitting method known as hydraulic fracturing — banned in 2014 by Cuomo in New York — will still be sent to New York’s largest market. But it will arrive, as per Cuomo’s suggestion, through a virtual pipeline of trucks, trains or barges.
Such an arrangement entails one fossil fuel being shipped in vehicles powered by another fossil fuel. This is hardly a safer, cleaner or more efficient method than what Williams Companies had in mind. In a best-case scenario, it means increased vehicle emissions and congestion on New York’s roadways. For a worst-case scenario, look to Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, where in 2013 a train of oil tanker cars derailed and exploded downtown, killing 47 people and destroying more than 30 buildings.
Cuomo’s reluctance to expand pipeline infrastructure begs the question: if not pipelines, then what? Certainly not nuclear plants, given the opposition to that form of energy from Cuomo, who without evidence has referred to the Indian Point nuclear plant as a “ticking time bomb.” But if fossil fuels and nuclear energy aren’t options, then Cuomo and state lawmakers will have to come up with large-scale plans for alternative energy sources, both to satisfy growing demand in the short term and to achieve Cuomo’s climate goals later on.