A natural gas pipeline from New Jersey to New York: sane or insane?

Bottleneck to the Northeast

It could be a marriage made in economic heaven. Standing on one side of the altar is the northeastern United States, hungry for more natural gas, a fuel whose prices in the region are projected to reach five-year highs this summer. On the other side stand energy companies with growing supplies of natural gas, in large part as a result of fracked shale gas [pdf], looking for a market.

So what’s the holdup? Transportation. In order to consummate this supply-and-demand betrothal, the energy companies have to be able to deliver; that is, get the product from its point of origin (in the Marcellus shale and elsewhere) to northeastern markets. And there just isn’t enough pipeline capacity to accomplish the union. (See here, here and here [pdf].)

Obvious Solution: Build

They say that where there’s love there’s a way. And in this case the way seems pretty obvious: Build more pipelines to deliver natural gas to the Northeast. And in fact that’s exactly what’s happening. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reports that “[o]ver half of U.S. natural gas pipeline projects in 2012 were in the Northeast. And more are planned in the coming years.” (See also here.)

And that’s where our story of pipeline controversy comes in.

Map - U.S. Pipeline Projects

There’s been a flurry of pipeline construction activity in the past few years, with much of last year’s builds all happening in the Northeast. (Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)

The Spectre of Spectra

The pipeline in question, “a 20-mile expansion of the Company’s Texas Eastern Transmission and Algonquin Gas Transmission interstate pipeline systems,” would bring natural gas across the Hudson River from New Jersey to lower Manhattan, delivering the fuel to NYC and surrounding counties.

The company proposing the pipeline is Spectra Energy, a spin-off of Duke Energy that proclaims to be “committed to making sustainable choices.”

And indeed there is much to commend the planned pipeline. It will bring a relatively clean fossil fuel to the Northeast, a fuel that releases a lot less air toxics and less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than coal or oil (as long as there is relatively little leakage). And Spectra claims that the construction will have minimal environmental impacts:

  • The pipeline, according to Spectra, will have little impact on underdeveloped lands as it will “be constructed within public roadways and commercial/industrial areas and parallel to existing utility rights-of-way. In fact, 94% of the pipeline is located in commercial/industrial areas.”
  • Installation of the pipeline will use a technique called Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD), “an efficient subsurface method of installing pipelines without using traditional trenching methods, helping to avoid any unnecessary impacts to the surface and providing an additional layer of safety due to the depth of the pipe. “

And then there’s the jobs thing. In our economic climate, anything that creates new jobs is a sure political winner, and Spectra claims the project will produce more than 5,200 new jobs up through construction.

There are some powerful supporters of the project, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg among them. Part of that support probably arises from the fact that the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030 — his blueprint for greening the city — will require that the city have access to a lot more natural gas to lower carbon emissions and clean up air pollution from residential boilers that are currently using dirty heating oil to heat apartments and water.

And things are looking good for Spectra. In May 2012, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project, and within two months construction had begun. By December, the construction of the pipeline underneath the Hudson River was completed [pdf]. The pipeline’s completion is anticipated in November 2013.

So What’s Not to Like About the Pipeline? How about Ka-boom?

But there are a lot of people who are very, very unhappy about the pipeline and are doing everything they can to stop it. Among the opponents are a host of environmental groups and Jerramiah Healy, the mayor of Jersey City, the New Jersey locale where the pipeline makes its way underneath the Hudson toward New York.

Why? For some environmentalists, the issue is the source of the natural gas being carried in the pipeline. A good deal of it will be natural gas borne of fracking (in which a mixture of sand, water and chemicals are injected at high pressures underground to break up the rock), and because of concerns about the environmental impact of that process (see here and here for example), they see the gas as being tainted.

Stop the pipeline, they reason, and make shale gas less profitable and thus less attractive to potential frackers.

There are also concerns about the pipeline bringing radioactive radon gas into the homes of New Yorkers. (See also here, $ub req’ed.)

But by far the most divisive and emotional issue centers around safety. The Spectra pipeline is roughly 30 inches in diameter, will operate under high pressure (200 to 1,200 pounds per square inch), and is expected to deliver some 800 million cubic feet of gas per day. When mishaps occur with high pressure pipelines, the consequences can be severe. Chances are, even if you’re not a newshound, you’re familiar with the 2010 explosion in San Bruno, California, an event that caused eight deaths and lots of destruction and is still being investigated two and a half years later. Other accidents have occurred in recent years in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan,and Ohio.*

Huge explosions in relatively rural areas are bad enough, but, opponents of the Spectra pipeline ask, what if such an explosion occurred in the high population centers of Jersey City or lower Manhattan?

The Sane Energy Project, whose mission is “to fight fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructure, and encourage renewable infrastructure,” has an answer. The group argues that “[t]he pipeline is a direct threat to the public health, safety, property values and economy of eastern New Jersey and New York City, especially to the residents, businesses, galleries, schools, religious and cultural institutions of downtown Manhattan, Staten Island, and Jersey City.”  The group’s arguments continue:

“Should the pipeline or vault explode on the Manhattan side of the Hudson, the potential fire radius would encompass three historic districts, including: 10 irreplaceable Landmarked buildings; 10 schools or daycare centers; 8 playgrounds, including a large playground on the pier directly adjacent to the Sanitation Pier (the entry point of the pipeline); 13 churches or religious institutions; more than 28 art and cultural centers (including the Ground Zero Museum Workshop); the Hudson River Greenway, shoreline and West Side Highway; more than 38 restaurants; countless boutiques, hotels, businesses and residences.”

Is that alarmist or just plain sane? The way things are going, it looks like we’re going to find out.


End Note

* In terms of track record, it is the medium-sized distribution lines that have the most incidents and fatalities.


  1. DK Schneider
    Northern Virginia
    January 1, 2014, 2:52 pm

    This is a sleepy little blog post. Looks like it is chock full of half truth and inaccuracy by omission.

    A catastrophic failure of a flawed field weld in a pup connection of the pipeline caused the San Bruno accident. The weld was bad when made in 1956, the failure visible before the line was put into service, according to the NTSB final report. While the lack of *automatic* shutoff valves, and a poor emergency reaction plan on the part of the pipeline operator, the local gas distributor, the failure was more of a matter of when, not if. The line was never pressure tested after installation, by waver granted by the DOT.

    MikePB, in his comment above, is playing very loose with the facts of the Moss Bluff failure. Duke Energy owned the Salt Cavern at Moss Bluff at the time, (see http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Valve-failure-sends-flames-into-sky-at-Moss-Bluff-1969876.php), not Spectra Energy. MukePB story depends on self referencing and doubtful sources of other blogs that fail the sniff test of accuracy.

    Sane Energy is using the scare tactic of “KaBoom” to fight what they see as a much bigger issue – stopping all hydrocarbon fuels. They enjoy their heat, electricity, food, clothing, computers and other items that are made and transported by systems using hydrocarbon fuels. It is sad that they can’t make their case without scare tactics.

    Most pipeline failures in the past two decades came from some form of construction breaking the pipeline. Sometimes it happens at the time of the construction, like a bull dozier dragging a hook across a well marked underground pipeline. Sometimes it happens a year after the construction, like the pipeline failure outside of Knob Noster Missouri when an older pipeline failed after installation of it’s replacement but before the gas switched over.

    All forms of transportation fail to provide 100% forever safety. If you walk out into the street in front of the bus, do you blame the passengers on the bus for your mistake? If you really look at the details of the Spectra project, they employed the current state of the art methods and plans, engaged the community, and won approval form the stakeholders that mattered in the project. The gas will flow, because the market demands it to flow, no matter how much people want to lie to stop it.

  2. dunce
    May 15, 2013, 12:34 am

    The California failure was on a 50 year old pipeline that the utility commission declined to approve the installation of safety valves to keep rates down. They then blamed the company for not installing the valves. I am sure if you check into the other failures you will find much the same story.

  3. MikePB
    New York State
    May 9, 2013, 8:04 am

    Evaluation of the pipeline must include an assessment of Houston-based Spectra Energy; and, to borrow a phrase, “Houston, we have a problem.”

    Despite platitudes about safety, Spectra Energy does not have a best-in-class track record that might build confidence among NYC residents. Spectra Energy has a long, documented record of problems. It includes violations, explosions and fines (including a 15 million dollar federal fine).

    As Spectra Energy indicates, part of that nat gas will come from the Marcellus Shale formation in Pennsylvania. Much of it will flow through Spectra Energy’s underground storage reservoir called Steckman Ridge, in Bedford County, PA, about 2 hours from Washington, DC. (Shown on the map.)

    This facility is a 12-billion cubic feet underground natural gas storage reservoir with a 5,000 horsepower compressor station, 13 injection/withdrawal wells and related pipeline infrastructure. It has had an ongoing series of problems since it went online in 2009.

    A mere three years before Spectra Energy applied to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for permission to construct Steckman Ridge, a catastrophic explosion occurred at its underground storage reservoir outside of Houston called Moss Bluff.

    According to public accounts, there were two explosions, a fire that burned for six-and one-half days sending flames as high as 1,000 feet, as 6 billion cubic feet of natural gas burned off in an uncontrolled release. Fortunately, there were no fatalities; but there were two separate evacuations – 30 families in a one-mile radius followed by an evacuation of 100 people from a three-mile radius. Reference link: http://www.fireworld.com/Archives/tabid/93/articleType/ArticleView/articleId/86610/What-Lies-Beneath.aspx

    The latest incident at Steckman Ridge occurred in March. Residents were so concerned about loud noise (which lasted 2-3 hours) and what appeared to be smoke coming from the compressor station that they called 911.

    How did Spectra Energy react to its “stakeholders” concerns? Its “director of stakeholder relations” called from nearly 500 miles away in the greater Boston area to dismiss residents concerns: “Nothing was released. There was no smoke. No incident.”

    Oops! The next day, Spectra Energy was forced to flip-flop because residents kept pressing for answers. As it turned out, there was a release of methane and other hydrocarbons; but so far the company refuses to say how much or exactly why this happened.

    For a preview of how Spectra Energy’s track record will play out with the NYC pipeline, talk to folks who live with Spectra Energy today and check out this well-sourced link: http://www.spectraenergywatch.com/blog/?p=1807