Fracked gas and a compressor draws fire in the Town of Highland

ENVIRONMENTALISTS AND LOTS of other people breathed a sigh of relief on June 29, 2015, when New York banned fracking in the state.

But it didn't ban pipelines (which transport fracked gas) or metering stations (which measure the gas flowing through the pipelines) or compressor stations (which re-pressurize the gas to "push" it along the pipeline) or gas-fired power plants.

Here’s the CPV Valley Energy Center. The new pipeline that Millenium has proposed as part of the Valley Lateral project will bring gas from the pipeline to this site in Middletown, N.Y.

So not only is there plenty of fracked gas flowing through pipelines in New York State, but gas and power companies are planning for upgrades that increase the amount of gas, such as the Millenium Pipeline Company's Eastern System Upgrade between Hancock and Minisink, N.Y. — both already homes to compressor stations.

Members of the standing-room-only crowd that gathered Feb. 4 at the Highland Town Hall in Eldred, N.Y., thought they were there to hear more about the compressor station that Millenium is planning for their town.

They heard about a lot more.

That compressor is just one part of the upgrade, which includes building another compressor station at the site of its existing compressor station in Hancock, N.Y., and a new larger 36-inch diameter pipeline to replace the old 24-inch pipeline that crosses under the Neversink River near Huguenot, N.Y.

Town of Highland Deputy Supervisor Jim Gutekunst hosted anti-comprssor meeting in the Town Hall.

So there will be four compressor stations in the 60-plus miles from Hancock to Minisink. Seems like there is some expectation that there will be a lot more gas coming through that pipeline, which isn't surprising since there's a huge well of natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale Formation. Pennsylvania is busy extracting that gas and the power companies need to get it to markets farther east and a host of interconnecting pipelines serves that need.

There are plenty of people who believe that fracked gas is a godsend, allowing us to become independent from foreign oil as well as boosting domestic job opportunities.

Others, especially from the environmental community, have plenty of data that show this energy supply includes problems: methane releases (a gas that contributes more to global warming than carbon dioxide) and the various invisible gases that can be released as part of the fracking process, its transport and conversion to usable energy. These contribute to health problems such as nosebleeds and skin rashes, experienced especially by young children.

Tensions run high as these two sides argue at the federal, state and local levels. It's one of the bigger questions of our time: Do we continue to invest in a fossil-fuel based energy supply system, or start investing in a major way in renewables?

The expensive infrastructure of pipelines means, as the Town of Highland's Deputy Supervisor  James Gutekunst said, "We are lashed to a future of fractured gas."

It's not a question that can — or should — be answered easily.

As one of the speakers at this meeting said: Real truths are complicated and difficult. Fake truths are easy.

The panel of speakers included George Billard of SCRAM (Sullivan County Residents Against Millenium); Stephen Metts, who teaches at The New School in New York City and who presented maps; and Pramilla Malick, from Minisink, who shared some of the problems she and her family experienced from the Minisink compressor station.

Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum addresses the issues of pipelines, compressor stations and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at an anti-compressor meeting in Town Hall in Highland on Saturday, Feb. 4.

Also on the panel was the Delaware Riverkeeper, Maya K. van Rossum, who came to the meeting with some of the members of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

The wide world of FERC and the power companies

Van Rossum presented a view of the upgrade, the pipelines and the power company that was far more encompassing than one compressor.

Her view is that power companies and the federal agency that regulates them — the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission — are so linked that they are almost interchangeable. There could be something to that as only once in 30 years has FERC opposed a new pipeline. Also, the money that supports FERC comes from the industry that it's supposed to regulate.

As her job is to be the Delaware Riverkeeper, it's not surprising that her take on pipelines might be less supportive of fossil fuel-based energy supply, and lean more toward renewables.

People more inclined to continuing a fossil-fuel based energy supply system might point out that East Coast cities are power hungry and that FERC's job is not about realigning national energy priorities. FERC's process is geared more to working with a power company's request, getting the "kinks" out of a proposal as FERC reviews it..

But FERC's process does seem — at the very least — odd and tilted towards its applicants. Van Rossum outlined what she saw as a practiced choreography of industry requests and FERC approvals. A case in point is a sister project of the Eastern System Upgrade called the Valley Lateral, which will run a new 7.8-mile pipeline that would take gas from the existing Millenium pipeline to a power plant being built in Middletown, N.Y.

From I-84, that power plant looks to be just about complete. But only now is Millenium asking for FERC's permission to build the pipeline that would get gas to this multi-million dollar plant. That would be like getting permission to build a multi-story car park and building it before there's permission to build the mall that the parking garage is supposed to serve.

One could wonder why.

Van Rossum suggested that the law under which FERC operates stipulates that it regulates with an eye toward a big picture view of any proposal's impact, but that in order to serve the needs of the power industry, FERC's view often mimics the industry's, and serves up only the narrowest view of impact. An out-of-sync line-up of projects might benefit this narrow view.

That's also, she said, how the power companies will propose new infrastructure generally: to propose one section at a time, therefore appearing to minimize the cumulative impact. And each new piece of fossil-fuel infrastructure calcifies the current energy policy.

How to make your voice heard

She — and the other members on the panel — encouraged people to get involved with the process and e-mail FERC with their concerns, to become what FERC calls intervenors. That's an official status that means your comments become part of the official record and that FERC informs you of steps in the process. Panelists said they would post on their websites the steps you need to take to become an intervenor. Websites are listed at the end of this story.

George Billard noted that the Sullivan County Legislature had let the time pass where it could have had a significant impact on the upgrade proposal and that seems to be at odds with the various towns affected by the pipeline — towns that largely voted "no" to the pipeline. Of course, local votes don't "count" in the FERC process.

As fixing to fight as many town boards and citizens are, it's not just the Sullivan County Legislature that demurred — when asked by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network to take on the pipeline upgrade proposals, the Delaware River Basin Commission also excused itself. This is despite its responsibility for protecting the water quality of the whole watershed. Much of this section of the pipeline is in the river's watershed, and the Neversink empties into the Delaware River.

Despite what van Rossum called the DRBC's premature decision, she encouraged residents to ask the DRBC to re-consider.

Pramilla Malick, a veteran of the battle her community waged against the compressor that is now operating in Minisink, N,Y., seemed to think that FERC is deaf to citizen complaints and that New York State agencies aren't really interested in the health and safety of either humans or the environment. She did applaud the health and air quality analysis that Highland is doing before the compressor is built — if Highland residents have similar problems to the ones experienced by Minisink — they will have "before" data to prove their case. Many in the audience expressed the view that they'd rather not have the compressor in the first place.

Despite the lack of response on many levels, all the panelists agreed that becoming intervenors,   engaging at the state level, and joining with others locally is the key to change. There's no promise that this work will stop FERC's approval, they said, but all of it is building to a national conversation about our energy supply.

Which was a point of view expressed by Highland town resident Shain Fishman:

"I'm here because I'm concerned about the quality of our air and water. Fracked gas is dangerous to all of us. We need a change of direction in how this country gets its energy."

About Meg McGuire

Meg McGuire has been a journalist for 30 years in New York and Connecticut. She started in weekly newspapers and moved to full-time work in dailies 25 years ago. She knows about the tectonic changes in journalism firsthand, having been part of what was euphemistically called a "reduction in force" six years ago. Now she's working to find new ways to "do" the news as an independent online publisher of news about the Delaware River, its watershed and its people.

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