New York State Refuses Permit for Constitution Pipeline in Major Victory for Anti-Fracking Organizers

Read time: 8 mins

In a striking victory for grassroots environmental and community groups, New York state's Department of Environmental Conservation announced on April 22 that it had denied a key permit for a pipeline that would have carried fracked gas from Pennsylvania to planned natural gas export facilities in New York state.

The Constitution Pipeline, planned to stretch 125 feet wide and 124 miles long starting near Dimock, PA and crossing over 275 streams and waterways, would have required the cutting of as many as 700,000 trees in Pennsylvania and New York, part of a build-out project estimated to cost investors as much as $1 billion.

But in recent months, the project faced escalating opposition, not only from larger environmental nonprofits, but also from a coalition of local landowners and activists who adopted tactics ranging from collecting over 15,000 public comments for New York state's review of the project to civil disobedience at federal hearings.

In its April 22 letter to the Constitution Pipeline Co., LLC, New York state's Chief Permit Administrator John Ferguson cited not only concerns about tree-felling in watersheds, but also the impacts the pipeline and its construction would have on the New York's streams and wetlands, and even threats to old growth forests — extraordinarily rare in the eastern U.S. — from the proposed construction.

Although New York state had requested detailed information about how the company would handle stream-crossings, the company had failed to explain how it would avoid or mitigate damage to the state's waterways, the administrator said.

“Constitution's failure to adequately address these concerns limited the Department's ability to assess the impacts and conclude that the Project will comply water quality standards,” he wrote. “Accordingly, Constitution's request for a [401 Water Quality Certificate] is denied.”

Williams Co., which had partnered with Cabot Oil & Gas and Piedmont Natural Gas to form the Constitution Pipeline Co., had first broached construction plans with regulators in 2012. In 2014, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved the project – as long as the pipeline company obtained all required state permits.

Environmentalists hailed the decision. “Governor Cuomo's rejection of the Constitution Pipeline represents a turning of the tide, where states across the nation that have been pressured into accepting harmful gas infrastructure projects by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) may now feel emboldened to push back,” said Roger Downs, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter.

“This is also a tremendous victory for the thousands of citizen activists and impacted landowners who through four years of sacrifice and grassroots organizing created the political space for this decision to be made,” he said.

Organizers in the state said they planned to push for a broader shift away from fracked gas and other fossil fuels. “This landmark decision should serve as a precedent,” said Walter Hang, President of Toxics Targeting, Inc., “for denying New York State authorization for all proposed fossil fuel pipelines and infrastructure projects in order to safeguard public health and the environment.”

The pipeline's backers said they were considering an appeal through the courts. “We are very disappointed by today’s decision,” Williams Partners said in a statement. “We remain absolutely committed to building this important energy infrastructure project.”

New York state's decision comes on the heels of a string of cancelled oil and gas infrastructure building plans. Just days earlier, Kinder Morgan announced it was dropping its plans to construct a $3.1 billion pipeline, the Northeast Direct, that would have crossed Pennsylvania and New York state on its route to New England. And plans to build two different Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) plants recently collapsed when a pipeline and export terminal scheme was dropped by Oregon LNG, citing “a funding decision” and the Jordan Cove project, also in Oregon, failed to demonstrate to federal regulators that anyone was willing to buy the LNG they planned to sell.

Oil and gas industry groups reacted by warning that the price of natural gas might rise as a result. “This decision impacts not only the residents of New York, but also the families and businesses in the surrounding states whose consumers currently pay the highest energy costs in the country,” Marty Durbin, executive director for market development at the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement.

But fossil fuels have historically been subject to sudden price spikes, and environmental groups have argued that a shift to renewable energy can help save consumers money. “The costs of renewable energy technologies have declined steadily, and are projected to drop even more,” the Union of Concerned Scientists notes. “In contrast, fossil fuel prices can vary dramatically and are prone to substantial price swings,” – risks so great that utilities spend millions to hedge against price uncertainties, adding to the costs borne by consumer.

“Clean, renewable energy is the only responsible path forward for New York,” Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement responding to New York state's rejection of the pipeline project.

New York state's decision drew the support of anti-fracking celebrities. “This is what real climate leadership looks like,” Mark Ruffalo, a member of New Yorkers Against Fracking, said in a statement. Actor James Cromwell had also been a public opponent of the project.

The permit denial was extraordinarily unusual, observers said, with the state's top environmental official recently telling Politico that “he could not recall another pipeline that had been rejected by the state in recent years.”

Opposition to the Constitution Pipeline had seemed to surge after a Pennsylvania family whose 23-acre maple sugaring operation was condemned under eminent domain allowed grassroots organizers to camp on their property and activists turned back a first wave of tree cutters. As DeSmog reported, dozens of supporters, many from New York state, encamped on the property to try to protect the Holleran maple farm from being clear-cut before New York had granted its water permits.

A federal judge ordered U.S. Marshalls to arrest anyone who tried to prevent the tree cutting on that property – and the Marshalls arrived with assault rifles and flack jackets to enforce that order. Tree felling on the Holleran land began on March 1st.

“We tried to tell Williams and Cabot that this might happen before they cut our trees, and why couldn’t they please wait but they insisted on doing it anyway, ours and many other peoples,” Catherine Holleran, 59, told State Impact after New York's decision was announced. “And now it’s for nothing, it looks like they are not going to get their go-ahead at all.”

As DeSmog previously reported, a January 2016 survey by the Pipeline and Gas Journal reported 34,112 miles of new or planned pipelines across North America, but many of these projects have run into a nearly unprecedented level of public opposition. “I think at FERC we have clearly seen increased opposition to infrastructure,” Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Norman Bey testified before Congress in December. FERC has been labeled a “rubber stamp machine” by activists who say that permits are rarely denied by the agency.

Organizers in other states said that today's decision on the Constitution pipeline could serve as a precedent for their own local battles.

New York “has demonstrated that states are not just at the mercy of FERC when it comes to reviewing interstate gas pipelines,” said Tom Gilbert, campaign director for ReThink Energy NJ and New Jersey Conservation Foundation. “We urge the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to take a similarly prudent approach when it considers permit applications for the proposed PennEast Pipeline, which would significantly affect preserved open spaces, cross protected C-1 streams 49 times, and threaten the drinking water supply for over 1.5 million New Jerseyans.”

The battle had drawn the attention of Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who before New York state acted had called for the project to be abandoned.

“The possibility of methane leaks from the proposed Constitution Pipeline would be catastrophic to our air and our climate — and if this pipeline were approved, eminent domain would be used to seize land from farmers and homeowners,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement earlier this week. “We need to move to a 100 percent clean energy economy. Building more risky pipelines that encourage the production of dirty fossil fuels is not the path forward.”

Some of those most directly impacted by the pipeline project welcomed the news but kept their eye on the next battles to come.

“In response to the decision by the DEC, I could not be more thrilled,” Megan Holleran, whose family's Pennsylvania maple sugaring operation was clear-cut to make way for the proposed pipeline, told DeSmog.

“I'm sure that Williams will seek to appeal this decision and I'm interested to see what alternate plans they will consider to recoup the shareholders funds spent on meaningless tree clearing in PA,” she said. “However, I am optimistic that in the future they will find it harder to convince the judges and regulatory agencies in PA that their project is inevitable and urgent. Hopefully this will lead to more careful and reasonable decision making in the future.”

Photo Credit: Laura Evangelisto, Copyright 2016

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