Appalachian Basin

Women’s Group Gets it Right; Balanced Energy Approach Provides Solutions

A recent conference of of women in the energy and communications sectors in New York City focused on the need for a balanced approach to energy development in New York, one that will heavily involve natural gas.  It is the only strategy that offers sensible solutions to the state’s energy demands, given the practical realities. 

I had the pleasure of attending my second Women in Communication and Energy (WICE) meeting on January 17.  The meeting took place in New York City at Columbia University.  It had been originally scheduled for November was postponed due to hurricane Sandy’s cleanup efforts. WICE is an organization that supports women who work in the energy and communication world.  The meeting’s topic of choice, “Energy and the environment with a focus on fossil power” was timely, as the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) works its way through the process of finalizing regulations and the SGEIS.

First up was Christine Fazio, a law partner and co-director of a New York City Environmental Practice Group, Carter Ledyard and Milburn. Christine gave a comprehensive talk about the new and the old air regulations and how they impact power plants. She noted that overall emissions from power plants were down despite an increase in energy demand. She credited this to the new and tougher air regulations. She talked about Mercury emission standards and how tough they are, essentially making it impossible to build new coal plants in New York State.

New York State regulations/standards for greenhouse gases (GHG) also reaffirmed her observation that no new coal plants will be built in NYS.  So, with Indian Point shutting down, New York City laws restricting heating oil choices and no new coal plants being built, it leaves limited energy sources; renewables, No. 2 and No. 4 heating oils and natural gas to power the city.  Given increasing fuel costs, and low natural gas prices, New York City is turning to the latter and looking to a future of a hydrocarbon/renewables mix.

John Williams an Energy Analyst from the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority (NYSERDA) was up next. He gave an informative talk about the impacts of increased domestic production of natural gas. There was, in 2010, an 11% gap between consumption and production (more being consumed than produced).  Given the current production rate, it is expected that, by 2020, the U.S. will be a net exporter of gas. It is also expected that, by 2035, the difference between consumption and production will reverse and U.S. production will exceed consumption by 5%.

A “Game Changer” slide offered by Williams depicted the dislocation between the oil and natural gas price. This gap, according to Williams, represents a major economic opportunity for natural gas users. He went on to outline NYSERDA’s oil to gas conversions incentives (the Environmental Defense Fund lists some of NYSERDA’s and Utility companies incentives). He also discussed how NYSERDA is focusing on education and outreach. The agency is targeting the conversion of fleets (delivery trucks and refuse trucks).

Christine Cummings, Section Manager at Con Edison discussed the New York City Clean Heat Act and how Con Edison was responding. The plan is to switch to natural gas in the city. They are working on ways of making the conversions zero to low cost for residents.  Con Edison has already connected 750 buildings (not small homes but 750, 70 to 80 story buildings).  She directed customers to visit Con Edison’s website to learn when and how they plan on building the natural gas infrastructure. The company has been receiving calls from potential customers wanting to switch. Most people in the city recognize natural gas as a cleaner burning fuel and also as being more affordable. The idea is for a “cleaner, greener New York.”

Columbia University (see above picture of Low Memorial Library at University) is converting to natural gas and acting as an anchor in the community and leading other to convert.

Columbia

An interesting part of Cummings’ talk was the discussion on lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy – the natural gas system held up the best. Only a couple hundred customers were affected.

The afternoon session was geared towards natural gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing.  The session was moderated by Law Professor Michael Gerrard. First up was Fred Schuepfer, a Senior Scientist from Con Edison. Schuepfer outlined the hydraulic fracturing process and talked about how the discussion is shaped by opinion and not the facts. He called for more transparent studies to help understand the questions that have arisen. New York City uses and needs natural gas. Con Edison gets 40% of their gas via hydraulic fracturing operations, half of which is from the Marcellus Shale. He felt that gas frac has potential and that there are real environmental concerns. Most of the concerns he raised, however, have been addressed through regulations and developing industry practices.

Stuart Gruskin, New York Chief Conservation and External Affairs Officer for the Nature Conservancy spoke next. Gruskin was the former deputy DEC commissioner under Pete Grannis. He offered his take on the gas extraction issue (not the Nature Conservancy’s stance). He talked about how DEC utilizes the “Think First – Drill later” approach. He also stated the discussion was “not a public referendum to allow drilling” and the DEC role has to be objective.  He referenced DEC’s task in reference to ECL Article 23 specifically; “to authorize and to provide for the operation and development of oil and gas properties.”

Gruskin also talked about how DEC’s oversight over the industry does NOT depend on federal oversight; which means that DEC is NOT held to the so called federal “loop-holes.” The state’s goal is to regulate to its best ability. He also talked about the New York City Filtration Avoidance Determination as a reason for removing the city reservoir watershed from the SGEIS requirements. This discussion has been glazed over by people opposed to development and referred to as a “water inequality” issue.

Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment focused her discussion on water. She started off with an impassioned plea. She opined that even though New York has abundant water sources, this is “not our water to give away to the Industry.”  She used the EPA Pavilion, Wyoming report as her example of natural gas industry contamination of drinking water and also referenced the Duke study as another.

The Pavillion incident, however, was not related to shale gas development.  Rather, it was a coal-bed methane issue. Coal-bed methane is much closer to drinking water aquifers. Secondly, the contaminants found were not definitively linked to hydraulic fracturing chemicals. They were chemicals associated with coal-bed methane hydrocarbons. Thirdly, the science community has been critical on the validity of the results based on the methodology utilized. Needless to say, it is a controversial report, not one to hang a hat on. Same as with the Duke study; the authors of the report stated that their report wasn’t conclusive and that more study needed to be done.

Esposito’s discussion on the lack of shale wastewater treatment plants in New York also completely overlooked the new regulations focused on managing wastewater; she also ignored industries’ efforts to recycle and the already available technology that is being utilized to treat flowback. She didn’t mention the fact that the DEC will NOT issue any permit unless they see a wastewater treatment plan in place.

Her solution to state energy issues was for the state and its residents to invest in off shore wind projects. She specifically recommended putting 2 mile tall wind turbines, 17 miles offshore where the wind always blows. Good news for Adrienne; the New York Power Authority, Con Edison, NYSERDA, the Long Island Power Authority and others are exploring the feasibility of an offshore wind project. We can only hope that the project moves forward quicker and without opposition, unlike the Cape Wind project. What is New York City to do for power in the meantime?

Cathy Kenny, associate director for New York State Petroleum Council gave the industry perspective. She talked about what the American Petroleum Institute (API) does; advocacy, statistics, standards, certification and education. She pointed out where our energy comes from (36% oil, 25% natural gas and 9% nuclear) and how difficult it would be to replace those numbers with renewable energy sources. She explained how each energy source has its share of impacts. She used solar panels as an example and showed how their disposal presents a problem.

Instead of calling or a ban on solar, solar supporters are working towards mitigating and solutions. The same should apply when discussing natural gas development issues. Her message was simple; it is not an either or choice (renewable or natural gas); renewable are of course important, the industry recognizes that. It is about recognizing the importance of hydrocarbons and allowing for their safe development. She let attendees know, in fact,  the oil and gas industry has invested over $36 billion into renewables since 2008.

It’s this balance that will provide real energy solutions for the future.

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