Air pollution is a significant environmental threat in New York City, contributing to an estimated 6 percent of all deaths annually. While the city’s Air Pollution Control Code has been amended from time to time, it has not been comprehensively updated since 1975, says the New York City Council.
“It has been 35 years since New York City took a critical look at the quality of the air we breathe,” said Council Member Donovan Richards of the Rockaways, chair of the Council’s environmental protection committee.
“Air pollution has contributed to deaths, high rates of asthma and hospitalizations for respiratory related illnesses,” Richards continued. “Clearly something needed to be done to address this growing public health issue as our city continued to fail national Ambient Air Quality Standards set by the EPA.”
The New York City-metro area is currently in “non-attainment” of 2008 federal ozone standards, but has made major progress in reducing levels of particulate matter pollution.
A briefing document prepared for a February, 2014 City Council oversight hearing on air quality asserts that the city’s progress in reducing air pollution “while significant, does not mean that the air is healthy to breathe in New York City.”
Moving into compliance with tougher federal standards
Legislation sponsored by Richards, and passed by the Council earlier this month, will bring the city’s Air Pollution Control Code into compliance with more stringent air quality laws, rules and regulations promulgated by the federal government and the State.
The legislation seeks to make boilers operate more efficiently; force diesel engines and generators to run more cleanly; diminish fuel consumption citywide; and reduce airborne particulate matter by thousands of tons of per year.
Now awaiting signature by Mayor de Blasio, the Council’s expansive bill amends the New York City charter, along with the city’s administrative, building and mechanical codes. Richards described the legislation as “historic,” saying it would establish a “new air quality standard of our city for generations to come.”
Fighting for the title of “cleanest air of any large American city”
The long term goal? That New York City will have the cleanest outdoor air quality of any large city in the United States, notes the Council.
Updates to the city’s air code focus on phasing out “dirty” technologies, and expanding oversight to a greater number of air pollution sources. Some of the many changes to the code include:
Requires the most stringent EPA certified emissions standards for newly registered non-emergency stationary engines (generators) after 2018.
Codifies the phase out of No. 6 heating oil by 2020, and No. 4 heating oil by 2030.
Limits emissions from currently uncontrolled sources, including commercial char broilers, fireplaces, cook stoves, outdoor wood boilers, mobile vending units and wood burning heaters.
Limits future construction and the use of fireplaces and wood burning heaters as a primary source of heat to emergencies only.
Requires that pre-2007 Type A and Type B school buses (which do not utilize a closed crankcase ventilation system) be retired by 2020.
Waives fees for food vendors using an auxiliary engine if the engine meets tier four emissions standards within 18 months of the law going into effect.
Creates a multi-agency advisory committee that will offer suggestions on increasing pollution controls to the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.
Simplifies the registration process for more of the city’s boilers, and streamlines the emissions permitting process by allowing on-line permitting.
Port Ambrose, a deepwater natural gas facility, is being proposed twenty miles off the coast of Long Island and approximately 22 miles from the Rockaway peninsula.
The port would import gas in order to relieve supply bottlenecks and reduce fuel prices for Long Island residents and businesses.
Opponents are concerned that the facility may preclude the development of an offshore wind farm slated for the same location.
There is also fear that Port Ambrose may pose a safety and environmental risk to coastal communities and aquatic habitat in New York and New Jersey.
Public comments on the proposal are being accepted until March 16; Governors Cuomo and Christie both have the power to veto.
Twenty miles off the coast of Long Island, 103 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean, a battle is brewing—but it’s not just about a natural gas facility being proposed for the site.
In fact, that project has quickly become a proxy for a much larger debate—one that encompasses renewable energy, homeland security, fossil fuels, and the future of New York’s energy resources.
On the sandy, flat bottom of New York Bight, energy company Liberty Natural Gas hopes to build the Port Ambrose Deepwater Project, an underwater system that would transfer imported liquid natural gas (LNG) from ship to pipeline, and eventually to customers throughout Long Island.
Liberty claims that the $600-million project is a necessary addition to the energy infrastructure of the Northeast that would ease supply woes, lower energy costs, and generate significant federal and state tax revenue.
But a wide range of opponents are calling foul on Port Ambrose—in fact, the movement has united anti-fracking activists, Rockaway residents, and even the Republican majority leader of the State Senate. And while concerns vary, most agree that the project would deepen the region’s dependence on fossil fuels and could prevent efforts to construct a major wind farm in the same location.
While the debate around Port Ambrose is high-profile, the actual facility would be anything but; aside from the regular presence of large shipping vessels carrying liquefied natural gas to the site, all of the associated infrastructure would be fixed beneath the ocean.
According to Liberty, Port Ambrose has three components:
Newly-built, 900-foot ships that would carry LNG;
A newly-constructed, 26-mile subsea pipeline; and
A buoy system that rests on the ocean floor when not in use.
When a ship arrives at Port Ambrose for a delivery, the 33-foot-tall undersea buoy would rise up and connect to the hull of the ship. The liquid natural gas would be gasified onboard the vessel, and then flow through through the buoy and pipeline into the existing Transco pipeline (operated by Williams Company). The entire unloading process could take as little as five days, or as many as 15.
From there, the natural gas would move into homes and power plants from Long Beach eastward. Liberty estimates that the fuel from each ship could power 1.5 million homes. This short video shows an animated version of the process:
If approved, Port Ambrose would be able to accept LNG year-round, but the company anticipates that deliveries would primarily occur during winter and summer months—meaning for half the year, the port would go unused.
Breaking a Bottleneck
Port Ambrose plans to import natural gas from Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean’s largest oil and natural gas producer. Liberty has stated that the increased supply of natural gas would relieve “bottlenecks” and “deliver a new supply of competitively priced gas directly into the downstate New York market, helping to moderate fuel prices in the area.”
But is there a bottleneck? While the supply of domestically-produced natural gas in the United States is increasing (due mostly to shale gas production), the U.S. Energy Information Administration calls New York a “pipeline-constrained” market. This means that pipeline infrastructure in the region is insufficient to meet demand for natural gas, especially during winter months. This can cause price surges on gas and electricity bills, as many power plants are now transitioning from coal to natural gas.
National Grid, the utility company that supplies natural gas to homes and businesses on Long Island, declined to comment on price spikes or whether Port Ambrose might mitigate them, stating only that “at the present time, we have not evaluated this particular project, and as a result, do not have an expressed opinion on this proposal.”
A Growing Coalition
Not everyone agrees that New York needs a project like Port Ambrose. Relieved of duty now that Cuomo has banned fracking, the state’s vocal anti-fracking activists, many under the umbrella of Sane Energy, have re-calibrated to challenge fossil fuel development in all forms. The No LNG Coalition, a loose group of more than 100 environmental and activist organizations, has also been coordinating the anti-Port Ambrose movement.
Elected officials—from New York and beyond—have begun issuing statements against the proposed facility, too. Many hail from New York City, coastal New Jersey, and Long Island. New York City and New Jersey will not receive any fuel from Port Ambrose, but, they argue, because of the project’s location, these localities will bear the brunt of any safety or environmental impacts first.
State Senator Brad Hoylman (D-Manhattan), the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, has called the project “unnecessary and environmentally irresponsible.”
New York City Councilman Donovan Richards recently introduced Resolution 0549, calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo to veto the application by Liberty Natural Gas. He was joined by Council Members Margaret Chin, Corey Johnson, Rosie Mendez, and Eric Ulrich. “New York State cannot afford to accommodate the natural gas industry any further considering the immense environmental costs associated with the extraction, production and transportation of natural gas in any state,” Richards told NYER.
Surprising some, pro-fracking Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos also submitted a letter to Governor Cuomo against Port Ambrose, stating, “while the need for increased energy sources are critical to the continued success of our state and local economies, the negative impact of the Port Ambrose LNG proposal on the local community has the very real potentially [sic] of outweighing any perceived benefits.”
Other New York officials that have spoken out against the port include Assemblyman Phillip Goldfelder (D-Ozone Park), Assemblyman Todd Kaminsky (D-Lawrence), and Long Beach City Councilman Anthony Eramo.
A Symbolic Battle Between Old and New
From damage to the environment to terrorist attacks, the list of concerns varies by organization and individual. However, almost all unite over one specific frustration: New York’s continued reliance on fossil fuels.
Liberty maintains that the two projects are compatible, and states that Port Ambrose will only require 2.4 square miles, or 4 percent, of the 127 square miles needed for the wind project.
Opponents disagree outright with this assertion, viewing the competition over the space as a symbolic battle between renewable and fossil fuels. Kit Kennedy, Director of Energy and Transportation for the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote, “New York State and New Jersey have worked hard to recover from the devastating impacts of Superstorm Sandy…” She continued, “It would be the height of irony—and a damaging energy policy—to privilege the construction of a fossil-fuel import facility over a much-needed and long-overdue renewable offshore wind farm.”
The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management seems to share these concerns. In comments submitted to the USCG during its review of the Port Ambrose Deepwater Port Application in 2013, BOEM stated they were “concerned that the proposal to construct a LNG Port in the same area proposed for a large wind facility could result in serious conflicts—or at the minimum, complicating factors—that may impact the overall viability of one or both projects.”
The Export Question
Opponents also suggest that Port Ambrose may eventually become an export facility, sending natural gas produced by fracking in the Marcellus Shale region to higher-priced European markets. They point to projections from the EIA that show the U.S. becoming a net exporter of natural gas by 2020.
Liberty Natural Gas strongly asserts that Port Ambrose will be an import-only project that will not have the technology needed to export gas.
This point is reiterated in the DEIS: “The considerable technical, operational, and environmental differences between import and export operations for natural gas deepwater ports is such that any licensed deepwater port facility that proposed to convert from import to export operations would be required to submit a new license application…and conform to all licensing requirements and regulations in effect at such time of application.”
Roger Whelan, CEO of Liberty Gas, told NYER: “The Port Ambrose project is an import only project—no exports will take place from the facility…The project’s safe, state-of-the-art technology can only be used to regasify and deliver natural gas, not export it… Port Ambrose will never be an export facility.”
Worth the Risk?
Finally, there is lingering concern that Port Ambrose may pose a risk to coastal communities and aquatic habitat in New York and New Jersey. These risks, opponents say, could come in the form of habitat destruction during construction or operation, or possible terrorist attacks on the facility or LNG vessels.
“It is irresponsible to site a potential terrorism target like this near a residential and commercial hub,” reads the No LNG Coalition website, reiterating concern over intentional or accidental LNG leaks, explosions, or fires. “To put it mildly, this port presents a significant safety and security risk to the people, first responders, commerce, economy, and environment of the Mid Atlantic Ocean.”
Daniel Mundy Jr., Rockaway resident, battalion chief for the FDNY, and Vice President of Jamaica Bay Ecowatchers, told NYER, “There’s nothing in the books written anywhere that would tell you how to handle a situation should one of these types of ships become the terrorist target that’s driven towards shore.”
Liberty Natural Gas notes that as part of the approval process, Port Ambrose has undergone a Risk Assessment by the US Department of Homeland Security, which concluded that the facility poses no danger to the public.
The Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Port Ambrose asserts that the project also constitutes no significant risk to the natural environment. Liberty maintains that they have chosen the project location and route intentionally to avoid critical habitat and fishery areas, and will employ “state of the art plow technology” to install the 22 miles of required subsea pipeline.
The No LNG Coalition contests this point vigorously, claiming that the DEIS does not adequately analyze the risks of the port to threatened and endangered species. Cassandra Ornell, staff scientist for Clean Ocean Action, said that “construction of the pipeline … would involve dredging of the sea floor, destruction of undersea habitats, smothering of bottom-dwelling species and increasing the turbidity of the water.”
Currently, the 1,800-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Port Ambrose is going through the public comment phase of the review process. Two public hearings have been held (in Eatontown, NJ and Queens, NY) and comments are now being accepted online until March 16, 2015. After a final EIS is issued this spring, Governors Cuomo and Christie will have 45 days in which to issue a veto—if no action is taken, approval would be presumed.
Will New York City’s famous night skyline grow dim as we battle climate change?
City Council Member Donovan Richards (D-Queens) introduced a bill yesterday to address what he calls “unnecessary lighting”, or illumination, of city buildings at night.
“The ‘Lights Out’ bill is primarily about energy conservation,” said Richards, chair of the Council’s Committee on Environmental Protection. “Intro 578 ultimately mandates commercial buildings to turn off their lights when they are not in use, and hopefully encourage residential buildings to do the same,” he explained.
The legislation applies to buildings zoned for commercial, industrial and non–residential usages. Building owners who do not comply will be fined $1,000 per violation.
Does this mean that the Empire State Building and other New York City icons will go dark?
The proposed legislation states that landmarked buildings, more than twenty stories in height, can apply for a waiver from the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission. Building owners must be able to persuasively argue that their structure is a “significant part of the city’s skyline.”
Buildings that remain lit for security reasons may also be able to receive a waiver, as will small stores and seasonal holiday displays. Buildings used at night can remain illuminated until the last person leaves.
The Real Estate Board of New York -which represents the City’s building owners- has not yet responded to our request for comment. Richards said in a statement that his legislation will help building owners save “substantially in costs.”
Cutting the City’s Carbon Emissions
Intro 578, maintains Richards, will help to address one of the largest culprits of carbon emissions in New York City – buildings. According to the City, nearly three quarters of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from energy used to heat, cool, and power buildings.
Both the de Blasio administration and the City Council are calling for an 80 percent reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050 citywide.
For this reason, says Audubon, buildings such as the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, 501 Lexington Avenue (formerly known as Citigroup Center), Silverstein Properties, the Time Warner Center and the Worldwide Plaza now turn off their lights from midnight to dawn during the peak migration season, September 1 to November 1.
But for Donovan Richards, from the Sandy-battered Rockaways, limiting New York City’s contribution to climate change is the key goal. “Mortgaging the health of the planet upon the back of future generations continues to be an irresponsible and dangerous course of action,” Richards stated.
On Sunday, September 21st, New York City will make history by hosting what will almost certainly be the world’s largest climate change demonstration—and the City Council has officially gone on record in support of the event.
Resolution 356, drafted by Council Member Donovan Richards (who also chairs the Committee on Environmental Protection), not only endorses the People’s Climate March but also “recognizes the dangers of climate change to human health and the environment.”
More than 1,000 organizations have signed on to support the march—from environmental justice groups to faith and conservation groups—and tens of thousands of people are expected to attend. “It’s unprecedented, the bringing together of groups that have not always worked together,” said Eddie Bautista, head of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, to Capital New York.
Members of the City Council have committed to march on Sunday, too.
Five Questions for the Councilman
While Resolution 356 may not alter our nation’s path with regards to climate change, it is an important gesture from NYC’s lawmaking body, and a strong signal to Mayor de Blasio: now is the time for climate action.
In order to get a better sense of Council Member Richard’s stance on climate change, and his thoughts on the People’s Climate March, NYER posed the following questions. Here’s how Richards replied:
NYER: Why did you develop Resolution 356? Council Member Richards: Resolution 356 offered me a unique opportunity as the Chair of the Committee on Environmental Protection to address the long standing issue of climate change. The warming of the globe and the threat to not only the earth but also more importantly to human life, can no longer be considered the elephant in the room. I am surprised that the council took so long to make a largely ceremonial but important step. The resolution also culminated perfectly with the events surrounding climate week in New York City such as the People’s Climate March and the UN Climate Change Summit so the timing worked perfectly.
NYER: What do you hope the People’s Climate March achieves? CM Richards: Climate change affects us all and the march is symbolic of the role the individual plays to reverse the extensive damage to the planet. The most important thing about the People’s Climate March is what happens on the 22nd. Marches have always been about organizing people around a common cause, but the work comes after acknowledging your contribution to a movement, maintaining momentum and making an impact whether that be a locally or worldwide.
NYER: Councilmen Vincent Ignizio and Steven Matteo, both of Staten Island, formally abstained from a vote on Resolution 356 — even though their borough was the hardest hit during Hurricane Sandy. Do you know why they abstained? (Ed. note: NYER did attempt to contact both CM Ignizio and Matteo; both declined to comment.) CM Richards: I trust my colleagues to vote in a manner that represents the needs and interests of their constituency.
NYER: Where do you think NYC could be acting faster with regard to climate change? CM Richards: The list of things that New York City can do to address climate change is exhaustive but to name a few; the city can begin by creating an official energy policy, set more ambitious goals such as fully transitioning to renewable energy in the next decade, retrofitting and updating NYCHA housing for resiliency and ending the direct subsidization of fossil fuels.
NYER: What gives you hope about climate change? CM Richards: There is a wealth of compelling evidence that our love affair with fossil fuels, consumerism and denial must end now. Simply, faith is the substance of things hoped for- the evidence of things not yet seen and I believe it is not too late to make the right decisions that will reverse some of the damage human activity has caused.