Environmental activists protesting changes to National Grid’s Greenpoint hub for more than a year are claiming a legal victory — but the utility is pushing back.
Following a court order, National Grid last week stopped construction work at the Brooklyn site that could be used to load and unload trucks containing liquefied natural gas, or LNG.
LNG is predominantly methane gas cooled to liquid state and kept at minus-260 degrees — nearly as frigid as Saturn. The process reduces the gas’ volume, making for easier transportation. But trucking the combustible gas within the city has raised concerns around environmental and safety risks.
A state Supreme Court judge on July 27 ordered National Grid to temporarily halt construction that would support possible LNG trucking to its North Brooklyn site, which is also at the center of a controversial pipeline plan.
The move came after the Sane Energy Project and Cooper Park Resident Council sued the city, the Fire Department and National Grid to stop the work. The suit alleges required approvals haven’t been obtained and that an environmental review of the impact of trucking-related activities hasn’t been completed.
“Any moment they’re not moving forward with this is more of a chance we can stop it for good,” said Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator for the Sane Energy Project.
But in a legal filing submitted Thursday, National Grid argued against the restraining order and suggested environmental groups are misunderstanding its plan for the Greenpoint site.
The work, National Grid spokesperson Karen Young said, has been “undertaken in compliance with all applicable laws, rules and regulations.”
Rate Hike Sought
National Grid proposed bringing LNG to its Greenpoint facility by truck from outside the city through The Bronx and Queens.
In November 2016, following up on a previous application, the company asked the FDNY for a “transport variance” to do so, since trucking LNG is illegal within city limits, but the request has not yet been granted or denied.
Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Karen Rothenberg found that construction related to National Grid’s variance petition must stop until the case is decided.
In a legal filing, the company indicated the variance petition was old and related to a project that never came to fruition. National Grid sent a letter to the city Law Department and Fire Department on Tuesday saying it wanted to formally withdraw its application.
If in an emergency the company would want to truck in LNG, it would have to apply to the city for an “event-specific” variance, rather than a general one.
The company was building the “fully and lawfully permitted” truck unloading station, according to the filing, in order to be prepared for such an emergency event. The construction was about half complete.
A lawyer for the city argued in a filing that the complaint filed by the environmental groups doesn’t implicate the city or its Fire Department and supported National Grid’s motion to dismiss the case.
The work is part of National Grid’s plans to update its Greenpoint facility and make investments the company says are necessary to ensure reliability, especially in the winter when demand for gas is high.
The project is part of a rate case before the state utility regulator about whether the company can raise its customers’ bills to pay for facility upgrades and new gas infrastructure. That includes the in-progress Metropolitan Reliability Project, a pipeline that will run nearly seven miles from Brownsville to North Brooklyn. Construction started on the pipeline in May 2017, but remains unfinished.
In addition to the pipeline, the utility company proposes a slate of other investments — including two new vaporizers that would heat the LNG to turn it back into gas and inject it into the pipeline to provide homes the gas they’re expected to need.
The company will need permits from the city and state to install the new vaporizers. That could prove tricky: Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to not permit new gas infrastructure in the city. He also came out against the pipeline, and the city filed comments opposing the company’s proposal.
Looking for Heat
With an eye towards further moving away from reliance on fossil fuels and slashing building emissions, de Blasio vowed to ban gas hook-ups in new buildings by 2030 — a goal Democratic mayoral nominee Eric Adams has indicated he agrees with.
The City Council introduced a bill to make the plan happen. But opponents, especially those in the real estate industry, say it’s impractical without adequate renewable sources available to provide clean power to newly electrified buildings. Tenants, they say, will end up footing hefty bills to cover upgrades.
National Grid imposed a moratorium on gas hookups for new and existing customers in parts of the city in May 2019 after the state blocked a Pennsylvania-to-New-York pipeline the company said was essential to meet the demand for gas.
That left thousands of customers in a lurch. The company reversed course six months later after Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to suspend its operating license.
In the meantime, the amount customers will be on the hook for to cover National Grid’s current proposal will depend on what exactly the state Department of Public Service approves, but it could be hundreds of millions of dollars. A decision is expected this month.
The proposal also includes measures to reduce customer demand through electrification and energy efficiency programs, as well as incentives to entice homeowners to heat dwellings with gas instead of oil, which produces higher particulate and carbon dioxide emissions.
Ire Directed at Pipeline
It’s not the first time the activists have sued National Grid and the state in the hopes of stymying the pipeline and other elements proposed in the rate case, which they say poses health and environmental risks to the surrounding community.
Groups have been opposing the pipeline for more than a year and sounding the alarm over the adverse effects of National Grid’s construction on the banks of Newtown Creek, which is contaminated and a designated Superfund site.
To Elisha Fye, vice president of the Cooper Park Resident Council, the temporary restraining order against the LNG truck loading dock construction is merely “a Band-Aid,” not a lasting answer to the activists’ wider demands.
“We hope to see it be permanent. I don’t wish that we would have to continue this fight,” he said. “The depot is about 1,000 yards from where we live, and the end result is the possibility that this plant could explode, not to mention the toxins they’re releasing into the air.”
Members of the anti-pipeline groups and neighborhood residents demonstrated against the pipeline and LNG trucking proposal last week, suspending on a fence an orange banner that read in part, “Nat. Grid poisons NYC.” The protest came as part of an international day of action against fracking and projects that expand the use of fossil fuels, exacerbating climate change.
“The newsreel of the apocalypse is playing out in front of our eyes and we have the chance to stop some of it right here,” said Margot Spindelman, a retiree who has lived in Greenpoint for more than two decades.
“I want [the city and state] to say no, that people don’t actually have to pay for their own poison,” she added, referring to National Grid’s proposal.
Activists and residents on Saturday plan to march from Brooklyn Borough Hall to the Greenpoint facility in protest of the proposal.
Pollution Concerns Billow
As the energy transition is underway, policymakers and customers are grappling with how to make sure no one’s traditional source of heat is cut while moving towards a clean energy future.
“The transition away from relying on fossil gas in buildings will involve intermediate solutions. But some solutions carry fewer physical risks and are easier to eventually cast aside than others,” said Justin Gundlach, a senior attorney at the Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU School of Law.
So while National Grid argues trucking LNG will be a stop-gap measure to provide fuel in case of emergency, the activists decry the danger trucking the gas poses to the surrounding area. LNG dissipates if released, but with an ignition source, has the potential to blow up.
In 1973, a liquefied natural gas storage tank in Staten Island exploded and killed 40 workers.
This happened in 1973, when a LNG storage tank in Staten Island exploded and killed 40 workers. New York City has maintained a ban on new LNG storage tanks since then, and trucks carrying LNG aren’t allowed in the city, either.
“How dare [National Grid] even apply for something like that knowing we outlawed that,” Fye said. “It’s concerning that the city would even entertain that idea, first of all… If someone pulls the wrong switch, ka-boom! We’ll all be done. It’s really serious. That’ll wipe us all off the map. It’s nothing to play with.”
And the increased truck traffic, the activists say, will lead to more congestion and worsened air quality in their neighborhood, which already absorbs some of the city’s highest air pollution.
The activists argue the project runs counter to New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which mandates reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and maintains reliability on fossil fuels when a shift to less carbon-intensive electricity and carbon-free renewable power is needed.
Jeff Wernick, a spokesperson for DEC, said the agency “carefully reviews all applicable federal and state standards to ensure the agency’s decision is protective of public health and the environment, and meets the applicable standards,” including those related to the act.