Who Beat A Billion Dollar Fracking Pipeline? We Did.

May 21, 2020
 Climate
A fossil fuel giant sought to build a massive gas pipeline across New Jersey and New York, which would have harmed fragile marine environments in the water between the states. A strong people-powered movement stood in their way — and won the battle. 

In 2016, the Oklahoma-based fossil fuel company Williams/Transco announced a plan to build a pipeline to carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania across central New Jersey, and then underneath the Raritan Bay and the New York harbor.

Williams Pipeline Would Have Been A Bad Deal For Consumers And Wildlife

This $1 billion dirty energy project, known as the Northeast Supply Enhancement, or NESE, would have threatened sensitive marine habitats, driven up air pollution in the New Jersey neighborhoods near the compressor station required for the pipeline, and deepened our use of dirty fossil fuels at a time when both states were mapping out clean energy goals. 

Worst of all, the cost of building the pipeline would have been passed down to ratepayers, who would have had to bear the cost of a pipeline they vehemently opposed. 

Williams and other fossil fuel giants are used to getting easy approval for projects like this. 

They expected to win. They didn’t. 

The Pipeline Was Rejected For What Might Be The Final Time

On May 15, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued its third rejection of the project, ruling that “New York is not prepared to sacrifice the State’s water quality for a project that is not only environmentally harmful but also unnecessary to meet New York’s energy needs.”

Perhaps most importantly, the state also determined that its new climate law represents an additional hurdle: New York’s plan to drastically curtail fossil fuels cannot be accomplished by approving new fossil fuel projects.

Shortly after that news arrived, we heard from New Jersey, where Governor Phil Murphy’s administration had reached the same conclusion. If New York determined that there was no need to build a new pipeline to deliver more gas, then it made no sense to put New Jersey’s air and water at risk. 

Fighting This Pipeline From The Very Start

Food & Water Action was battling this project from the very start, helping to build a movement across two states that brought tens of thousands of people together to stop the Williams Company. Much of that work was done through the Stop the Williams Pipeline Coalition, a mighty collection of dozens of groups led by Food & Water Action, Sane Energy Project, New York Communities for Change, 350Brooklyn, 350.org, Surfrider Foundation, and Rockaway Civic Association.

It started in New Jersey, where we worked with local residents to organize our opposition at the first round of federal hearings in September 2016. We helped organize over a dozen town hall meetings to organize communities that would have been directly impacted by pollution from this project, and pressed local political leaders to pass municipal resolutions in many towns. When Williams held their own PR ‘town hall’ events, we showed our opposition with boisterous rallies outside.

We were determined to let governors in both states know that their very own climate and clean energy goals required them to stop the Williams NESE pipeline. 

The company’s applications were stopped in both states in 2018 and 2019, but Williams was granted the chance to re-apply. 

Our movement grew, and so did the political costs of staying on the sidelines. In April of 2019, the array of grassroots groups working together to stop the pipeline converged in New York City, where over 1,000 people marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in a remarkable display of strength. The New York City Council passed a resolution against the project the very same day. 

National Grid Plays Hardball — And Loses 

The corporate utility that was scheduled to buy the gas delivered by the Williams pipeline was National Grid, which serves homes and businesses across New York City. As our movement kept the Williams project at bay, National Grid decided to fight back and escalate pressure on New York regulators. 

After the pipeline was rejected temporarily by New York in May of 2019, National Grid started holding their own rate-payers hostage by denying service to customers who had signed up to receive gas. In an effort to convince the public and the state of the necessity of the pipeline, they claimed they did not have enough gas to service new customers without the approval of the pipeline. National Grid even emailed tens of thousands of customers, encouraging them to contact state regulators to advocate for construction of the pipeline. 

This ploy backfired spectacularly. A series of local news stories started running, documenting how homeowners and small businesses were being left in the lurch. And the company’s argument made no sense; how could a pipeline that wasn’t going to be in service for years into the future prevent customers’ ability to get gas service right now?

National Grid’s Dishonesty Led To Cuomo Taking Action 

The Cuomo administration appeared to have reached its breaking point, with the governor denouncing the company’s bullying and even raising the possibility of revoking National Grid’s license to operate in New York altogether. 

By fall of 2019, his administration launched two deeper investigations of the company’s behavior, and ultimately ended up fining them $36 million for their manipulative scheme. The company was also required to submit new reports showing how they would meet customers’ energy needs in the future. It was clear that National Grid had lied, abused their power, and attempted to use ratepayers as pawns in a political ploy for their own corporate gain. 

Appearing on a WNYC radio show on September 24, Governor Cuomo was blunt about National Grid’s behavior: “If they’re extorting people, and wrongfully turning off gas service to homes to create political pressure, I’m not negotiating over that. That’s extortion. That’s a crime.”  His assessment of the pipeline was similar: “We have taken a position: We’re against the pipeline. That’s our position.” 

For now, Williams does not appear likely to pursue legal action to win approval for NESE. And by winning a nearly four year battle, It has become clear that a people-powered movement can build the political will to stop fossil fuel projects like this. 

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