It’s possible to build and operate the Rockaway pipeline without doing serious harm to the local environment say federal regulators. But the pipeline’s operator must agree to a series of additional steps, such as disclosing the toxicity of the drilling fluid it will use.

“We are recommending that our mitigation measures be attached as conditions to any authorization issued by the Commission,” said reviewers for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Today is the last day the public will be able to submit comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for major sections of the Rockaway pipeline project.

FERC, which released the draft EIS in October, stated that, “approval of the Projects would have some adverse environmental impacts, but these impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels.” Any environmental damage to the Rockaway coast and other areas would “mostly occur during [pipeline] construction,” the agency added.

FERC also notes in the EIS that pipeline-related infrastructure, particularly a meter and regulating facility to be built at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, are vulnerable to flooding and high winds associated with category 1 to 2 hurricanes. But these vulnerabilities could be addressed said the agency.

State and federal agencies, and environmental groups, have raised concerns about the complex project, especially the impact of drilling a 3-mile section of ocean floor pipeline off the Rockaway coast. Some local groups have also charged that the pipeline is part of the “industrialization” of the New York coastline, and an inappropriate use of a national park.

But the pipeline meets a critical demand, according to one of its builders, Oklahoma-based Williams companies. Williams stated in a federal filing that local utility, National Grid, requested the pipeline and that it would “reduce gas supply constraints, allowing existing dual-fuel power plants and customers with interruptible service…to continue using natural gas rather than switching to their alternative oil-burning systems.”

The findings of the draft EIS are a significant step forward for the Rockaway pipeline. If approved by all the relevant agencies, construction on the ocean floor section of the pipeline would begin in the spring of 2014.

And the determination is good news for the Bloomberg administration, which has consistently supported the project, saying that natural gas could enable New York to transition away from heavier heating oils that have contributed to the city’s air pollution woes.

The Rockaway pipeline is one of two major natural gas pipeline projects currently under construction in New York City.

Environmental Impact on the Rockaway Coast

Despite months of documentation by Williams, and ongoing dialogue between the company and federal and state regulatory agencies, it is difficult to pinpoint how powerful the impact of the pipeline will be on the Rockaway coast.

There is extensive marine wildlife in the vicinity of the pipeline project, ranging from large mammals to various types of plankton that feed other marine species. Finfish like the Atlantic sturgeon; shellfish; “benthic organisms” like clams, crabs, starfish, and coral; and marine turtles like the leatherback can all be found in the area.

The coastal area adjacent to Jacob Riis Park, where the pipeline is to be constructed, is an Essential Fish Habitat.

In its review, FERC found that pipeline construction –especially noise and plumes of sedimentation- could impact marine wildlife, including “special status species” like the right whale, and other marine mammals like seals and dolphins. FERC noted that Williams “would monitor the area for impacts on marine mammals”.

In written comments to FERC, Williams disputed the extent to which marine life could be impacted by pipeline construction, saying that it had found ways to reduce “the footprint” of drilling activity.

According to FERC, construction of the pipeline would disturb about thirty-eight acres of ocean floor. Williams now says that new calculations show the impacted area to be somewhat smaller, twenty-nine acres, in fact.

Williams will also excavate approximately 6.1 acres of seabed for an off-shore “exit pit” which would be used to contain drilling fluids and cuttings released during construction. In comments filed with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one local resident, Karen Orlando, questioned whether the contents of the exit pit could be dislodged into the ocean by rough currents.

But Williams, which says that the pit will lie twenty feet below the ocean floor, dismissed the concern, saying in a written response to the Army Corps that the contents “will remain stable…up until the time that active backfill occurs”. And Williams said the pit may not ultimately require backfilling, rather, that it could be filled by naturally moving sand.

FERC’s reviewers have proposed a series of mitigation steps –and sign-off from other agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service – if construction is to proceed. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has concurred with FERC that the impact of the pipeline project falls within an acceptable range.

Nonetheless, FERC has ordered Williams to identify “the specific additives that would be used in the HDD [horizontal directional drilling] drilling fluid for the Rockaway Project…an evaluation of the toxicity of each additive, and an evaluation of the potential for bioaccumulation of each additive in the food chain.”

In its response to FERC, Williams offered examples of additives and evaluations of their toxicity but noted that, “the exact, real time interaction of the site’s geologic conditions with the HDD equipment and fluids will dictate the types and final concentration of additives.” The company maintained that, “there is no significant potential for bioaccumulation” because drilling fluid and cuttings would remain isolated from species that feed along the ocean floor.

FERC is also requiring more analysis of the degree of sedimentation that would be released along the ocean floor during drilling. This question has been raised by the state’s lead environmental agency because wildlife can be submerged or suffocated by the plumes. Approximately 402 acres of seabed could be affected by sedimentation, said FERC.

Williams also disputed this figure, saying that the vast majority of the impacted area –376 acres- would experience a minimal level of sedimentation, up to .1 inch.

According to the EIS, Williams must employ a full-time environmental inspector for the project who would enforce all of the agency’s recommended mitigation steps. The state Department of Environmental Conservation had requested this spring that an independent outside inspector be hired for the project but Williams did not agree.

What About Another Superstorm Sandy?

Both federal and state agencies have raised questions about the risk to the pipeline posed by extreme weather. FERC notes that, “an analysis by the New York State Emergency Management Office (2005) found that the entire Rockaway Peninsula and much of the Brooklyn-Queens area could be flooded due to Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricanes…but the increase in risk of flooding during a major hurricane event is difficult to predict.”

The agency maintains that flooding would not pose a risk to the off-shore section of the pipeline because it is buried, but does discuss the danger of flooding to the meter and regulating facility to be constructed at Floyd Bennett Field. “Sea level in New York City is predicted to rise from 8 inches to more than 11.4 inches by the year 2100 (Sallenger et al., 2012),” writes the agency. “Based on these estimates, the M&R facility would still be approximately 2 feet above the 100-year floodplain if the sea rises to those levels.”

FERC’s data does not appear to match the city’s. Projections released by the New York City Panel on Climate Change earlier this year state that, “by the 2050’s, sea level rise is projected to rise 11 to 24 inches (middle range) and 31 inches (high estimate)”. The Panel has maintained that sea levels will continue to rise through this century and beyond.

FERC adds that Williams “states that the ability to forecast hurricanes several days in advance would allow it to ensure the safety and integrity of its system despite any potential damage that might occur to the M&R facility.”

One Project, Two Different Public Review Processes

While the Rockaway pipeline project consists of several, inter-dependent parts, half of the project –managed by National Grid- was approved by the city without public input and is well underway. The other half –managed by Williams Companies- is undergoing a lengthy federal review process which offers opportunities for public comment.

Williams operates the 10,000-mile Transco natural gas pipeline, which runs parallel to the Rockaway coast. The company will build a 2.79 mile feeder line from its Transco pipeline along the ocean floor toward Jacob Riis Park, and then underneath it, delivering gas to new mains below Jamaica Bay. Those mains have now been completed, said Karen Young, a spokeswoman for National Grid.

In a later phase of construction, National Grid will connect its new cross-Bay lines to customers in Brooklyn and Queens via a new gas meter and regulating station to be housed within a historic hangar at Floyd Bennett Field. Gas entering the meter station will eventually link to an existing gas main on Flatbush Avenue.

The 60,000 square foot meter station at Floyd Bennett Field will also be constructed by Williams. The m & r station has attracted attention from some local groups who argue that the public should have been consulted before the National Park Service agreed to the introduction of an industrial facility into Gateway National Recreation Area.

Bringing More Gas into New York City

The main function of the Rockaway pipeline project is to provide a more direct supply route for natural gas being delivered to customers in Brooklyn and Queens. Williams’ Transco pipeline currently has a delivery point at Long Beach. However, the project will also increase the net amount of natural gas coming into the New York City area.

Williams/Transco is proposing an increase –100,000 dekatherms- in the amount of gas the pipeline will deliver every day. The proposed capacity increase –known as the “Northeast Connector Project”- will be facilitated by upgrading gas compressor stations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The two projects –the Rockaway pipeline and the Northeast Connector- are being reviewed jointly by FERC.

The public comment period on the draft EIS, which examines Williams’ sections of the pipeline, is about to close. FERC will then release a definitive environmental review and determination as to whether the final sections of the Rockaway project will go ahead.

The Rockaway pipeline could also link to another natural gas infrastructure project that has attracted attention.

Federal regulators are reviewing a proposal for a deepwater liquefied natural gas port which would also increase the supply of natural gas in the New York City-metro area. Port Ambrose’s buoy system and pipeline infrastructure — lying in 100-foot ocean waters — would be located 17 miles southeast of Jones Beach and 27 miles away from the entrance to New York Harbor.

According to the port’s developer, Liberty Natural Gas, incoming frozen gas would be warmed and “re-gasified” at the port, and then transferred into a new 22-mile subsea pipeline system feeding directly into the Williams’ Transco lateral. The Transco lateral, in turn, will connect with the Rockaway pipeline currently under review by FERC.