In September 2018, the JCCP launched the Student Political Engagement Fund to support students to do political campaign work over Fall Break. Grantees were given up to $500 to do work locally, in their home communities, or beyond. Read other reflections here, and visit the JCCP website to learn more about our other programs.
Joshua Nodiff ’19
Major(s): Environmental Studies and American Studies
Hometown: New York, NY
Location of Political Action: New York, NY
Fight the Frackers: Preventing The Williams Pipeline
Climate change is the most cataclysmic issue facing the planet, and it is up to our generation to fight back. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently announced that we only have 12 years to drastically curtail global greenhouse gas emissions until we’re stuck in an irreversible climate catastrophe. In order to mitigate climate change, we need to transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030 and decommission all existing fossil fuel infrastructure — both on Wesleyan’s campus and in our communities at home. In my home community of New York, the government is colluding with the fossil fuel industry to build new fracked gas infrastructure in various counties across the state. Even though the State of New York banned fracking, the government still allows fracked gas power plants, compressor stations, and pipelines to be constructed across the state. Similar to the crude oil pipelines that are under construction across the United States, including the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, and the Keystone XL Pipeline, fracked gas pipelines transport fossil fuels in ways that pose significant risk to the climate, local ecology, marginalized communities, and public health.
Fracked gas is also known as “natural gas,” but this name is a misnomer intended to greenwash and guise its environmental detriments. Fracked or “natural” gas is no bridge fuel. Rather, it is a fossil fuel primarily composed of methane, which is a greenhouse gas 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide. “Natural” gas is typically extracted through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which produces radioactive isotopes of polonium, lead, and radon. Radon is the number one cause of cancer among non-smokers, according to the EPA, and is responsible for 21,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. every year. Methane and radioactive radon are a bad mix for human, climatic, and ecological health, and so “natural” gas is not renewable, nor is it an effective strategy to mitigate anthropogenic climate change. There are numerous incidents of fracked gas leaking into the water supply, posing a serious crisis to communities throughout the United States.
Within New York, forthcoming fracked gas pipelines include the Millennium Pipeline, Valley Lateral Pipeline, Minisink Compression Station, and CPV fracked gas power plant in Orange County that began operation earlier this month. They also include the Cayuga Power Plant, a coal-fired power plant that is being converted to burn fracked gas in Tompkins County around the Finger Lakes. In addition, these pipelines include the Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) Pipeline, a fracked gas pipeline being constructed 105 ft away from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant in Buchanan, NY. High levels of radioactive tritium waste have already been discovered in the groundwater near the power plant. Should the AIM pipeline burst, the Indian Point power plant could explode, causing a nuclear meltdown that could be disastrous for the entire American Northeast.
Over Fall Break, I joined the fight against another fracked gas pipeline — the Williams Pipeline. The Williams energy company is proposing to construct a 23.4-mile long interstate transmission pipeline that will carry fracked gas from the Marcellus shale of Pennsylvania across the Lower Bay of New York’s harbor. The pipeline will run along the south coast of Staten Island, and then cross the harbor south of Brooklyn, past Coney Island, to join existing pipelines 4 miles south of the Rockaways. This segment of the pipeline, called the Northeast Supply Enhancement, is 26 inches in diameter and is set to expand the existing Transco pipeline by the winter of 2020. Construction on the offshore portion of the pipeline will require labor for 24 hours/day, 7 days/week for over a year. This will create conditions that are hazardous to the health and safety of workers — many of whom do not receive a living wage — while disturbing the neighboring communities with heavy noise, pollution, and excavation of the land.
The Williams Pipeline, which is being fought by eleven environmental organizations, transports fracked gas that is bought, processed, and shipped by Williams Companies, Inc. The gas is then sold to utilities, which hold a monopoly on fracked gas. For example, Williams Companies, Inc signed a 15-year contract to sell all fracked gas to National Grid, a British utility company that has a monopoly on gas and electricity operations in New York, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts. In New York City, National Grid will serve the fracked gas to Brooklyn, Staten Island, and parts of Queens, while Consolidated Edison will have a monopoly on fracked gas operations in the rest of Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx, and Westchester. Williams Companies, Inc will also construct a new compressor station in Somerset County, NJ to pump the fracked gas across the pipeline.
There are multiple reasons to oppose the Williams Pipeline. The most important reason is that we need to be transitioning to 100% renewable energy instead of building new fossil fuel infrastructure in order to combat climate change. Fracked gas will release methane into the atmosphere, exacerbating greenhouse gas emissions and accelerating anthropogenic climate change. A second reason to oppose the Williams Pipeline pertains to its toxicity. The seabed that would be dug up for the pipeline contains unsafe levels of PCBs, arsenic, and dioxin. In addition to carrying radon, the pipeline will reintroduce these toxic substances into the New York harbor. This will have a detrimental effect on human health, but it will also damage marine life as well. The New York harbor, which has a long history of toxicity, has been significantly cleaned up in recent years thanks to the bioremediation efforts of community organizers, grassroots groups, and environmental regulators. In fact, there were over 100 reported sightings of humpback whales, dolphins, and seals in the New York harbor in the summer of 2018 along Sheepshead Bay, Jamaica Bay, Rockaway Beach, Staten Island, and Long Island. While the water is still too toxic for humans to consume most fish caught in the harbor, the presence of diverse marine life indicates that the harbor is on track to recovering as a healthy ecosystem. The pipeline, which will be constructed under the harbor, will threaten this recovered marine biodiversity. The pipeline will require a trench to be drilled between 4 ft and 16 ft beneath the New York harbor to bury the pipe. The ecological damage, introduction of toxic substances, noise, and water turbidity from pipeline construction will cause irreversible harm to marine life and return the harbor to its toxic past. The decades of struggle for marine remediation would have all been for nothing, only to be defeated by the fracked gas industry.
Another reason to oppose the pipeline is due to the safety record of the Williams energy company. Williams Companies, Inc and its subsidiary Transco have a record of multiple safety violations, including fires that left 6 dead and 102 injured. Based on this previous history, a leak or rupture of the Williams Pipeline is not unlikely and would severely threaten shore communities — both human and non-human. Another reason to oppose the pipeline is due to its monetary cost. The Williams Pipeline will cost $936.5 million, and residents who buy fracked gas from National Grid will bear the brunt of this cost. As part of their contract with National Grid, the Williams energy company will earn a 14% interest rate over the next 15 years. Williams Companies, Inc is also involved in shady business practices. The company distributed $3 million to nonprofit organizations in New York, including the Brooklyn Public Library, WNYC, the New York Nature Conservancy, the New York League of Conservation Voters, the Audubon Society, New York Public Radio, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, United Way of New York City, and others. It is no surprise that these financial contributions correspond with political motives as well to strengthen and sustain the fracked gas industry within a state that banned fracking. For example, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo hired Maggie Moran as his campaign manager for his 2018 gubernatorial primary reelection campaign. Moran is a registered lobbyist for Williams Companies, Inc, in addition to other fossil fuel companies. Williams Companies, Inc also donated $100,000 to the Democratic Governors Association, a group that supports Cuomo’s campaign. This is not the only case of collusion between the New York government and the Williams energy company. Vicki Fuller, the former CIO of the New York State Comptroller’s Office, increased the State of New York’s pension investments in the Williams Pipeline from $75 million to $160 million over five years. Fuller, a vocal opponent of fossil fuel divestment during her tenure under State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, then left her position at the New York State Comptroller’s Office in July 2018 and immediately assumed a $300,000 director position with Williams Companies, Inc. The pension fund for the State of New York is now one of Williams’ 100 largest institutional shareholders, demonstrating the deep collusion between the government and the fracked gas industry.
The collusion between the government and the fracked gas industry extends to public housing. The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) has been promised fracked gas from the Williams Pipeline in an agreement to phase out the oil burners that currently provide heat to residents in public housing. Williams Companies, Inc has deployed a scare tactic to make low-income residents afraid that they will freeze in the winter without a heating system powered by fracked gas. In reality, there numerous ways in which renewable energy can be used for heating without involving oil or fracked gas. For example, existing houses can be retrofitted and new houses can be designed to incorporate geothermal or passive/active solar heating. These heating methods do not require fossil fuels and are efficient, effective, and essential. It’s important to note that biofuels are not a viable alternative, as burning biofuel releases formaldehyde into the atmosphere and creates a monoculture system that competes for space against small-scale agriculture and hurts local farmers, permaculturalists, and the food justice movement.
Since the Williams Pipeline is an interstate transmission pipeline, it is not regulated by the New York State government. Instead, it is regulated by the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), an agency that is notorious for its history of cronyism, plutocracy, and collusion with the fossil fuel industry. FERC is composed of five commissioners who are nominated by the U.S. President and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Since the U.S. President is a climate change denier, it is no surprise that FERC is the enemy of the environment. So how do we fight the pipeline? Many environmental organizations have collected petitions, sent letters to governmental agencies, and testified at public hearings. However, these are not enough. First, there needs to be a campaign to educate the general public that fracked gas is not clean — it is not a bridge fuel towards renewables, but rather a harmful greenhouse gas. The second step is to convince Governor Andrew Cuomo to deny the permits that allow Williams Companies, Inc to proceed with construction of the pipeline. The Williams energy company must receive a certificate from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) declaring that the pipeline will not violate the Clean Water Act. However, the pipeline will indeed reintroduce toxic substances into the New York harbor, which may be a violation of the Clean Water Act. If Governor Cuomo intervenes and denies the water quality certificate, then the pipeline will be stopped. However, this is no simple task, as Cuomo has an infamous tendency to side with the fossil fuel industry. The third step is to convince our elected officials to pass HR 3671: The Off Fossil Fuels for a Better Future Act, which proposes a just transition to 100% renewable energy by 2035. As of October 2018, 46 congress members and 38 candidates have pledged to sign the Act, and 85 have pledged to not take campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Similar bills exist in New York State Assembly (A5105) and Senate (S5908). With the passage of these bills, we can begin to design an alternative energy economy that prioritizes the planet and people over profit.
We need to immediately decommission all fossil fuel infrastructure and halt construction of new fracked gas pipelines. This includes the Williams Pipeline, but also includes other pipelines such as the AIM pipeline. Wesleyan sources fracked gas from the AIM pipeline via a connection point called the Atlantic Bridge. The fracked gas runs the co-generation power plant on campus, which accounts for up to 87% of Wesleyan’s on-site energy production and 75% of Wesleyan’s greenhouse gas emissions. Last week, Michael Roth agreed to a 3-year partnership between Wesleyan University and Eversource to conserve 3.2 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually. This partnership is intended to enable Wesleyan’s goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. If Wesleyan is serious about minimizing its carbon footprint and combating climate change, it must phase out fracked gas as the primary source of the university’s power. If we completely transition to on-site renewables and divest our endowment from all fossil fuels, we can strive to become a carbon-neutral — and maybe even a zero-carbon — campus by 2025, which is a commitment made by our peer schools, including Hampshire College and Oberlin College. Hampshire College is already producing 100% of its energy from on-site solar, and Bowdoin College has already achieved carbon neutrality. With only 12 years remaining to curb greenhouse gas emissions, what role will Wesleyan play in the struggle to avert this global climatic calamity?