A $683-million natural gas pipeline stretching from Pennsylvania into New York received a final go-ahead from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week. If the remaining approvals are obtained from other federal and state agencies, the pipeline could be built and operational by winter 2015.
The Constitution Pipeline is a joint venture between Williams Companies, Cabot Oil & Gas, Piedmont Natural Gas, and WGL Holdings. [Williams Companies is also the developer of the Rockaway Pipeline in New York City]. When complete, it will stretch 124 miles, from the Marcellus Shale fracking fields in Susquehanna County, Pa. through hundreds of parcels in New York’s Broome, Chenango, Delaware, and Schoharie counties.
FERC also greenlighted the Wright Interconnect Project, a compressor station in the town of Wright, in Schoharie County. The Constitution Pipeline would terminate at that facility, and its contents would be transferred into the existing Tennessee and Iroquois pipelines for transport into New England.
Controversially, the FERC approval of Constitution also authorizes its developers to invoke eminent domain in order to buy access rights for the subterranean pipeline from unwilling property owners. The Albany Times Union reported this weekend that property owners along the pipeline’s path have already received letters stating “that they have until Wednesday to accept offered prices before developers take them to court to force such sales for possibly less money.”
Final approval of the Constitution Pipeline lies in the hands of Pennsylvania and New York state regulators, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will review applications for an air quality emissions permit required by the compressor station in the town of Wright. The pipeline will also need to secure a water-quality certification, a protection-of-waters permit, a water-withdrawal permit and a freshwater-wetlands permit for crossing state-protected wetlands from the DEC.
The Pro-Pipeline Perspective
The Constitution Pipeline is designed to transport 650,000 decatherms of natural gas per day, enough to power approximately 3 million homes in the Northeast.
According to the developers, the project is necessary because existing pipelines in the region are effectively maxed out, causing price spikes in natural gas and electricity in New York and New England.
Additionally, Williams and partners claim that the pipeline will be an economic boon for New York communities. The economic analysis produced by the project leads indicates that the construction phase would result in $130 million in new labor income, with approximately $26 million (or 20 percent) of that going to residents of the region.
During the construction phase, Constitution estimated that the workforce will be comprised of five teams of 260 workers totaling up to 1,300 new construction jobs. However, they note, only “approximately 25 percent of the construction workforce will be hired locally (i.e., within the 5-county project area).”
The project has not been unanimously supported. The FERC document lists concerns from a range of homeowners, farm operators, and organizations, including Catskill Mountainkeeper, Clean Air Council, Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and Sierra Club, as well as grassroots opposition group, Stop the Pipeline.
StP claims not only that the pipeline is unnecessary, but that the costs to the environment will be too great to justify its construction. They argue that the pipeline will reduce home values, raise homeowners insurance, increase truck traffic on rural roads, and harm natural resources.
The pipeline’s own Environmental Impact Statement notes that the 124-mile pipeline will cross 289 bodies of water and 36 miles of interior forest habitat, and construction will impact 95 acres of wetlands. Stop the Pipeline adds that 33 miles of the pipeline will run through agricultural districts.
Many landowners object to Constitution’s use of eminent domain to obtain construction rights of way. While some landowners have accepted payment for granting easements, others have refused to allow surveyors to enter their parcels or retained lawyers to help negotiate higher payments. Stop the Pipeline activists have vowed to go to court to fight the taking of private land and to challenge the decision by FERC to authorize the construction.
During construction, the pipeline company would require construction rights of way ranging from 125 feet wide in agricultural uplands to 75 feet wide in wetlands. The permanent right of way will be 50 feet wide.
Additionally, representatives for Stop the Pipeline assert that the federal environmental review is flawed because it discounts the potential of methane leaks from the pipeline. Methane is a greenhouse gas that drives man-made climate change.
StP hopes that the NYS DEC review process will be enough to stop the pipeline in its tracks. Anne Marie Garti, a lawyer and co-founder of the opposition group, told a news outlet that the DEC “is empowered to conclude that the pipeline, and all of its cumulative impacts, would violate state water quality standards. A denial of the 401 certificate (the Clean Water Act certification) would stop the project from moving forward.”
The Federal Ruling
The Federal commissioners flatly stated that they disagreed with Stop the Pipeline’s assertion that the project is unnecessary. The commissioners also said that the pipeline planners have adopted steps to minimize adverse economic impacts on landowners affected by the project.
“If constructed and operated in accordance with applicable laws and regulations, the projects will result in some adverse environmental impacts, but … these impacts will be reduced to less-than-significant levels with the implementation of Constitution’s and Iroquois’ proposed mitigation and staff’s recommendations.”
In regards to the eminent domain decision, FERC states: “While we are mindful that Constitution has been unable to reach easement agreements with many landowners, for purposes of our consideration under the Certificate Policy Statement, we find that Constitution has taken sufficient steps to minimize adverse economic impacts on landowners and surrounding communities.”
The FERC served in a coordinating role with relevant federal and state agencies in developing its final Environmental Impact Statement. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration, and the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets participated in the preparation of the EIS.
Is New York Next in Line for Fracking?
The FERC approval comes as New York has yet to decide whether to allow for hydraulic fracturing, particularly in the gas-rich Southern Tier, which is part of the Marcellus Shale. Governor Andrew Cuomo said in October that a decision could come by year’s end. (Cuomo has taken no public position on the Constitution Pipeline; it has been endorsed by Senator Chuck Schumer.)
Opponents are concerned that the pipeline could incentivize increased gas drilling, including the use of high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus and Utica shales in western New York.
Garti told the Times Union that the Constitution pipeline is critical should New York decide to permit fracking. “In order to frack New York, they need this pipeline. This is where the gas is.”
According to the developers, the pipeline will transport natural gas that has already been produced in Pennsylvania, and is “not dependent upon nor does it require the development of new natural gas wells along the project’s proposed path.”
In FERC’s final approval, they noted that “hydraulic fracturing is currently restricted in New York and there is no basis to conclude that our approval of this pipeline will lead to changes to those restrictions.” In addition, “there are more than 5,000 miles of existing natural gas pipelines across New York State … [I]f hydraulic fracturing were to be allowed in New York, any of these pipelines could serve to transport newly developed supplies.”
Either way, there are several more hurdles to clear before construction can begin. The DEC is expected to hold public hearings on the Constitution Pipeline in early 2015 before issuing any permit, and it is anticipated that the understaffed agency could take months to review comments.