Fracking is frozen, but gas flows
ALBANY—Andrew Cuomo may have put a freeze on the possibility of fracking in New York, but the supply of fracked natural gas coming into the state from elsewhere is greater than ever.
Last year, a record number of New York City’s buildings converted from oil to gas. And even as the governor defers a decision on whether to permit fracking in the name of a very long health study, his administration is pushing aggressively to convert coal-burning power plants to cleaner-burning natural gas.
In other words, New York is growing ever more reliant on fracking, even if none of that fracking is happening here.
This development is less random than it may seem.
Quite apart from environmental concerns, the state’s growing reliance on natural gas comes down to simple economics, said Tom Rumsey, vice president of the New York Independent System Operator, which runs the state power grid.
“You’re seeing a very strong shift in the last couple years,” he said. “The main reason is natural gas is a cheap fuel.”
New York’s recently released long-term energy plan calls for an increase in natural-gas consumption and a shift away from oil as well as coal.
New York ought to “encourage and support oil-to-gas conversions ... to accelerate investments in natural gas distribution,” according to the plan.
Natural gas already accounts for about a third of the state’s total energy usage. Meanwhile, Rumsey said, the amount that comes from burning coal has declined to approximately 38 percent, down from about half.
New York City is seeing a particularly widespread conversion of large buildings to natural gas, after a pipeline connected from Pennsylvania to Manhattan last year. In 2013, at least 1,300 large buildings in the city converted from oil to natural gas, up from 300 in 2011, according to Con Edison.
Nationally, there is such an abundant supply of domestic natural gas that its use, as a percentage of overall consumption, is expected to continue to grow significantly in the next few decades.
In 2018, the U.S. will export more natural gas than it imports, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. President Obama calls it the “bridge fuel” that will take the country from its dirty-fueled past to a future powered by renewable energies like solar and wind. Under Obama, through a combination of technological advancements and support from Washington, natural gas drilling and usage has already increased dramatically, even as federal regulators implement new emissions restrictions that will push yet more plants away from coal to gas.
About half the homes in the U.S. now use natural gas for heating, including 3.9 million in New York.
The most efficient, and least polluting way to transport natural gas is pipeline, which are usually opposed by local landowners and environmental groups. The ramp-up in domestic production will likely mean more of them, in New York and elsewhere. Oil is typically delivered by diesel truck, which also produces emissions.
The Marcellus shale basin has changed demand for gas in New York because because of its proximity and rapid production, said Mike Ford, an economist with the federal Energy Information Administration. He said the biggest challenge facing the state is the lack of pipelines to transport the gas from Pennsylvania. The Constitution pipeline will bring gas directly from the Marcellus to Schoharie County, outside of Albany. Another pipeline under consideration would bring fracked gas across New York to New England.
Governors in six New England states joined together this winter to call for more natural gas supplies to their states, even though some have banned fracking there or are considering doing so. Gas prices have spiked during the cold of the last two winters and the governors called for an additional one billion cubic feet of gas line capacity to alleviate jumps in utility bills across the entire region.
Critics have referred to an increased reliance on natural gas as a dangerous precedent, at a time when New York appears to be falling short of its goal to shift 30 percent of the electrical grid to renewables by the end of next year. Natural gas expansion puts that goal out of reach, and deflects spending on alternative energy sources, environmentalists argue.
Still, Energy Information Administration data shows Obama’s “bridge fuel” theory could also come true here, according to Ford.
In New York, E.I.A. projections over time show eventually natural gas usage will grow flat as renewables increase and squeeze out other types of fuel, Ford said.
“Natural gas is more apparent in the short term, but in the long-term we see renewables playing a bigger and bigger role,” he said.
This article appeared in the April issue of Capital magazine.