Williams Transco, an Oklahoma based energy company, proposed to construct the Northeast Supply Enhancement Pipeline (NESE), a 23-mile fracked methane gas pipeline that would carry methane from Pennsylvania across the Lower Bay of New York’s harbor. This project was canceled in 2020: the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) denied the permits, as the project did not meet the state’s rigorous water quality standards .
The NESE Pipeline would have run under the seafloor from New Jersey to the Rockaways in Queens, NY and connect with the Rockaway Lateral pipeline, which runs under Jacob Riis Park and Jamaica Bay in the Rockaways, NY. The project would have included 3.5 miles of pipeline in Middlesex County, NJ, and 10 miles of pipeline in Lancaster County, PA, as well as a new compressor station in a residential section of Somerset County, NJ. The pipeline would have connected in Pennsylvania with another Williams pipeline, the Texas-originating 10,200 mile Transco pipeline .
Communities in Middlesex County, NJ, protested the pipeline due to concerns about it affecting their water quality and the construction (and location) of the compressor station, as it would be in close proximity to preschools, places of worship, a shopping center, and over 800 homes . In June of 2019, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy (Democrat) and his administration denied three key permits for the construction of the NESE pipeline under Raritan Bay. While Williams Transco waited for the NY State DEC to respond to the permit request, New Jersey residents initiated petitions against the pipeline, and freeholders filed as "intervenors" with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which granted them access to all relevant findings and documents related to the pipeline . The strong public opposition to the pipeline was a result of multiple factors. The NESE pipeline would be harmful to both human health and marine life, and its construction and operation would have disproportionately affected low-income communities, especially communities of color, that are more vulnerable to the climate crisis. In addition to the high costs associated with the pipeline and the negative effects of fracked gas (methane leaks and burning fossil fuels) on climate change, Williams Transco has a poor safety record that raises concerns for many residents who would be in close proximity to the pipeline.
The Northeast Supply Enhancement Pipeline was expensive to construct, with an estimated cost of $926.5 million . If built and put into service, however, Williams Transco would still be making a high profit. The fracked gas would be purchased from producers in Pennsylvania, then would be processed and shipped to customers through the pipeline, and Williams would pay itself back for construction costs by adding the price of construction to the cost of the gas. In addition, regulatory authorities like the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission typically allow companies to charge an additional return on its investment as high as 14% . For Williams, building this pipeline would therefore have been highly profitable, as they would receive a fixed revenue in the form of sales of the fracked gas and a high return on its initial investment. However, the pipeline would be less profitable for customers of National Grid, Williams Transco’s only customer. National Grid would be purchasing the fracked gas, but the cost of the pipeline’s construction would be passed off to their customers in Staten Island, Brooklyn, and parts of Queens and Long Island, who would likely have little to no say in paying this bill. This is due to National Grid’s 15-year contract with Williams to buy all of the fracked gas that the NESE Pipeline delivers, and these purchases can only be supported if National Grid passes on the costs of the gas itself and the costs of the construction, plus Williams’ return on investment, to its 1.2 million customers . Williams and National Grid claimed that this pipeline was needed in order to meet rising demand; however, they provided no evidence for this claim.
Not only was this project costly and unnecessary, but it would also be disruptive to the natural habitat(s) and residents living nearby. New York City and New York State have made tremendous progress over the years in guaranteeing clean water and air for its residents, but the NESE pipeline could have reversed this progress. To lay the pipeline, Williams would have to dig out a giant trench at least six feet deep over a 23.5 mile-long path under Raritan Bay and New York Harbor. This process would release toxins that contaminated the seabed, such as PCBs, dioxin, lead, and arsenic . These toxins would then churn up (be resuspended) into the water, threatening human and marine health.
Over the period of construction, the engines of the necessary marine construction vessels would have produced noxious gases that pollute the air, which would be especially hazardous to the health of shoreline community members. The vessel engines, along with the dredging, excavating, and drilling associated with the pipeline’s construction, would create an incredible amount of noise for 24 hours a day over the course of several months. The noise and vibrations of the construction, in addition to the industrial wastes being churned up in the water, would have been damaging for marine and human life.
The 33 species of fish that live in the waters of Raritan Bay and New York’s Lower harbor would particularly be at risk, because the increased water turbidity makes feeding more difficult and can result in slower growth rates and increased vulnerability to predators. Bottom-feeder species would be negatively affected by the exposure to industrial toxins unleashed by the trenching process, and migratory species’ migrating patterns might be disrupted by the noise and vibrations of construction .
The NJ Department of Environmental Protection and the NY DEC have both set protective restrictions on disruptive activities during migration and spawning periods, but Williams still planned to construct the pipeline during these periods. Williams was clearly not concerned with how construction would affect marine life, which not only includes various species of fish, but also shellfish, harbor seals, humpback whales, and sea turtles, among others. Williams claimed that they would take certain measures to protect marine life, such as posting people to visually scan the surrounding waters to look out for marine mammals and sea turtles, but this promise cannot be reliable due to Williams’ safety record.
In 2015, the Rockaway Lateral pipeline, another Williams Transco Project, resulted in a decline in Atlantic Surf Clams populations, an essential piece of marine ecosystems . Past occurrences of safety hazards and accidents that include Williams workers and communities living near its projects have also proven that Williams is not a dependable company.
Williams Transco has repeatedly failed in efficiently and safely managing its pipelines, compressor stations, and processing plants. Over the past ten years, its pipelines and compressor stations have exploded and/or caught fire ten times, and there have been five other explosions in other Williams natural gas facilities. These events led to six total deaths and 102 injuries. The fires and explosions also released methane into the air, damaged buildings, and contaminated groundwater .
Methane is 26 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, therefore these events will only exacerbate the effects of climate change. Even without an accident occurring, methane can still be emitted by the routine operation of compressor stations, and in addition to methane emissions, communities near the station are exposed to high levels of ozone, volatile organic compounds, benzene, and other toxic chemicals that are emitted by the station. In 2017 in Middlesex County, where the compressor station would be located, the County Board of Freeholders announced that they were filing a motion to intervene in the pipeline proposal in response to hundreds of residents packing a Freeholder meeting demanding that action be taken to stop the pipeline’s construction. Activists were concerned that the pipeline would threaten the water quality of Raritan Bay which provides water for South Brunswick. Franklin residents also did not want a compressor station near their homes .
Despite strong public opposition in both New York and New Jersey, Williams Transco and National Grid inaccurately claimed that demand for natural gas in New York is rising. New Yorkers, particularly those of low-income areas that live in NYC Housing Authority units, have been consistently dealing with heating problems in the winter. These heating problems do not correlate to access to gas, they are instead due to the local government’s neglect for these housing units, deteriorating infrastructure, and years of little to no federal investment. Williams paid Urban Strategies, a PR firm, to claim that the NESE Pipeline would solve these heating problems by delivering more gas, but more gas would not erase the years of neglect that have led to the terrible living conditions that the communities residing in these buildings have to endure. Because of this neglect, and since many of these buildings are situated along the coastline, NYCHA buildings are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as super storms (like Hurricane Sandy) . NYCHA residents, the majority of whom are low-income and identify as people of color, are victims of the injustice that stems from government neglect, and instead of working to improve heat efficiency, Williams Transco wants to make profit off of simply producing more gas under the guise of aiding residents.
The NESE Pipeline would inflict adverse effects on many groups of people in both New York and New Jersey. In response to this, environmental justice groups such as 350 Brooklyn held rallies and protests at NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office, holding signs and chanting at his appearance. They have also sent letters to his office with a list of the organizations against the pipeline, and have created and signed petitions . Civilians have joined in the protest as well, and not just in affiliation with environmental justice groups. For instance, New Jersey residents in Middlesex County have organized protests through social media. Over 14,000 New Yorkers signed a petition against the pipeline and over 200 environmental, civic, justice, and faith organizations signed a letter of opposition.
On May 15, 2020 the New York State DEC denied Williams Transco’s construction permit due to inability to meet “the state’s rigorous water quality standards” . The company’s next steps have not yet been stated, though it is possible that Williams Transco and National Grid will reevaluate their environmental standards for the project and create a new proposal in the near future. The perseverance of community and environmental group organizing is necessary to ensure that the residents, marine environment, and atmosphere are kept safe from further fossil fuel infrastructure projects.