I attended the NJSpot Roundtable Natural Gas Pipeline Expansion in New Jersey: Good or bad? yesterday in Mercerville, NJ. I’m working on a full report of the meeting but I wanted to share a quick summary of important points that came up during the discussion. For those interested the unedited complete live stream is available here:
The forum was essentially two anti-pipeline speakers spitted against three prop-pipeline speakers, with a wild card extra person thrown into the mix. The anti-pipeline speakers were Maya van Rossum, Delaware RiverKeeper and Doug O’Malley of Environment New Jersey. On the pro side of the equation were Phil Beachem of NJ Alliance for Action, Thomas Bracken of the NJ Chamber of Commerce, and Greg Lalevee of the Operating Engineers Local 825 union. The wild card was Matthew Tomich of Energy Vision, a company that engages in research in renewable natural gas (RNG) culled from waste sources such as landfills.
At a very broad level Doug and Maya did a very credible job of defending their positions. They had hard number and statistics to back up their positions and cited numerous papers and research programs to support their view.
With the exception of Greg Lalevee, the pro-pipeline speakers Phil and Thomas appeared to be lacking in concrete information and basing their decisions mostly on hearsay and scare tactics being thrown at them. Greg spoke more from a numbers and detail perspective and made some good points, but I think he was missing some critical details that taken together undermined his view.
Maya was, in my opinion, the most passionate and informative speaker, with Doug bringing up a close second. She spoke at length about the dangers of fracking, threats to our water safety, threats to the Delaware River, the cost of building all this infrastructure is extracting from residents and businesses in the region. She spoke of the total lack of justification for the PennEast pipeline and others, stating for the record that the PennEast Pipeline alone would put NJ over capacity by 53% (she’s right – NJ averages 1.88 billion cubic feet of natural gas usage per day, and the PennEast pipeline by itself carries 1 billion). She cited studies showing the horrific impact fracking has had on residents in PA, and how that threat is just as real here in NJ as it is in PA. We too have shale formations in our state (Utica shale), we simply do not allow for its exploitation. But that could change.
Doug O’Malley gave a very broad argument against pipelines, and included a wide range of arguments for renewables and against fossil fuels. He also had statistics and studies to back up his opinions. Along with Maya he pointed out to the union representative that renewable jobs are much more plentiful and lucrative than fossil fuel ones, and that union members should really be pushing renewable energy as a rich source of jobs in the region.
I’ll have a lot more on Doug’s speaking points in the full roundtable report.
Greg Lalevee spoke well and had some numbers to back up his claims, but I think he is slightly misinformed or lets his union bias lead him a little too strongly. He spoke of the fact that 2/3 of NJ residents are served by natural gas and that it’s a critical part of the energy infrastructure that keeps us all going as a whole. I agree with that entirely – but this alone does not serve as an argument for PennEast or any other pipelines. We are already sufficiently served by the existing pipeline infrastructure and don’t need anymore. His argument also lacked punch given the large number of Hunterdon County residents in attendance at the meeting who do not have natural gas and most likely never will. He spoke at length about safety as well and the impressive track record overall of safety in pipeline construction, but he didn’t address the fact that eminent domain means you’re forced to take a risk against your will. Many of us would prefer 0 risk to a possible one, no matter how small it may be statistically. Residents of Edison NJ and Ewing may agree.
I think his argument was also weakened a bit when he stated that his union included just over a hundred members in NJ. A hundred jobs here or there isn’t going to materially impact anyone.
Thomas Bracken of the NJ Chamber of Commerce and Phil Beachem of the NJ Alliance for Action were a disappointment. Their fundamental argument is that energy is one of the three pillars that drives business in the state, and we should do everything we can to support energy companies so that we can fuel job growth in NJ. That’s all well and good, but both speakers fell terribly short on details. You can’t generalize about topics like this, you must dive into the details to see the true shape of what you’re dealing with, but unfortunately both gentlemen stuck primarily with exactly generalizations and some obvious scare tactics that have been thrown at them by industry.
Phil spoke repeatedly about his time as a mayor in NJ many years ago. He spoke about the pipelines coming through his town and how they never had any issues with them. He also said he had never heard anyone say that coal could be cleaner than natural gas, with a strong implication that anti-fracking activists were a bit nuts (without quite saying so).
He lacked specifics to back any of his claims up, and relied on anecdotes instead of statistics and citations. He seemed confident that his experience as a mayor 30 years ago was still relevant today when talking about pipeline infrastructure, which I take as odd given his position today.
Finally we had Thomas Bracken, President and CEO of the NJ Chamber of Commerce. Thomas spoke repeatedly about the answer to pipeline issues to simply be bringing everyone involved into a room together and hash it all out in a compromise. He said that the process was basically what it was, and we should shut up and accept it, and if we didn’t want to accept it we should get the laws changed (but in the meanwhile, touch luck). There were loud murmurs in the audience from this.
He said that high energy costs in NJ are driving the need for more infrastructure, which is why he supported it. I didn’t have a chance to ask questions at the end (time was very limited), but if I did I would have asked him if he knew that NJ and the 4th lowest natural gas prices in the country. And if he also knew that our electric prices were higher than some states only because we lack significant hydro and wind power. States out west have ridiculously low power rates because they are located next to sustainable and renewable supplies. Our electric is higher because we’re stuck here in NJ on fossil fuels.
He also stated at many points throughout the roundtable that he didn’t actually know any of the details of what was being discussed (and didn’t seem interested in finding out). He said he didn’t know what the FERC process was or how it worked. He said he didn’t know any of the particulars of any of the pipelines. He said maybe they could just “turn the fracking off” and gas would still flow to NJ (the answer to this is a resounding “no, that won’t work”).
He also stated forcefully that he was vehemently against any export of natural gas, doubly so for gas going through pipelines in NJ. Phil shook his head in support of this. Unfortunately no one was able to follow up on this and show him the export scenarios playing out.
Thomas indicated that energy companies were perhaps the most powerful companies in NJ driving our economies, and stated that since they were so powerful we should more or less be quiet and let them do what they want to do. They bring us tons of money so why should we oppose them in any way?
Needless to say this did not sit well with most audience members.
I’ll be sending Phil and Thomas white papers showing the economics of the pipelines and exactly how much is projected to be exported overseas in the coming years. I hope they read them, but fear they will not.
In all I was highly disappointed that people in such positions of power were so misinformed about pipeline issues, and seemed content to more or less parrot pipeline company’s PR people. With this situation it is clear why we need people like Maya and Doug to counter pipeline company’s propaganda – we need strong voices that will give our leaders detailed, informed, and nuanced information about pipelines backed up by research and numbers, not hyperbole and anecdotes.