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Gas customers are casualties in fight over new pipelines




Chris Miles and his partners were ready to open their new, seaside barbecue joint just in time for the summer season when they got stunning news: There would be no gas to fuel the fryers, griddles and stoves.

National Grid, the utility that serves the Rockaway Beach section of Queens, refused to turn on natural gas service. It had declared a moratorium on new hook-ups after the state rejected an application for a new pipeline in May.

Unless that pipeline or others were built, the utility said, there simply wouldn’t be enough gas to serve additional customers.

“It was hard to believe,” said Miles, co-owner of Batesy’s restaurant. “We had spent a year and a half of our lives and invested our hard-earned money to bring something to the community and this giant corporation was standing in the way.”

The restaurateurs were casualties of a fight between utilities trying to meet expanding demand for gas and environmentalists, who say building new infrastructure to deliver cheap fossil fuels will worsen climate change and make states less likely to switch to less-polluting energy sources.

They have plenty of company. Nearly 3,000 gas hookup requests have been denied in recent months across National Grid’s territory in New York City and Long Island, said company spokeswoman Karen Young.

In radio ads last month, the utility urged customers who need gas to “tell New York state officials to approve NESE,” the Northeast Supply Enhancement Project.

The nearly $1 billion pipeline would bring natural gas to New York from Pennsylvania’s prolific shale gas fields. Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Williams Companies and National Grid say the 23.5-mile-long pipeline extension under Raritan Bay between New Jersey and New York is sorely needed and can be built with minimal environmental disruption.

“Lack of approval would be devastating,” Williams spokesman Christopher Stockton said. “Over $300 billion of economic growth is at risk.”

Stockton said the pipeline would have a positive environmental impact by replacing 900,000 barrels of heating oil with cleaner-burning gas.

Opponents say the pipeline isn’t needed now, based on current demand, and will be needed less in the future if New York is able to meet its legally mandated target of producing zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Environmental groups also worry it would stir up tons of polluted sediment and reverse decades of hard-won environmental improvements in Raritan Bay.

“There is no need for this, and the numbers show it,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action, an environmental group in New Jersey that has held three rallies against the pipeline proposal this year, including one near New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s waterfront home. “This pipeline would be making a 50 to 70-year commitment to burning more fossil fuel.”

The refusal to connect natural gas customers in New York is a political ploy, she and other pipeline opponents said.

“It’s outrageous that National Grid is attempting to hold people hostage to obtain approval of a pipeline that is controversial and that they don’t need,” added New York Assemblyman William Colton, who represents neighborhoods affected by the moratorium. “During peak demand times, if there’s not enough gas in their system they can purchase it from other suppliers. Eventually, when we switch to renewable energy, they will have an oversupply.”

Regulators in New York and New Jersey have denied key permits for the project but allowed Williams to adjust plans and reapply. New Jersey’s deadline to decide on a revised application is Sept. 25. New York’s deadline is next May but a decision is expected sooner.

National Grid is the second utility in the region to impose a gas hookup moratorium citing limited pipeline capacity.

In March, Con Edison imposed a moratorium on new hookups in a swath of New York’s northern suburbs, saying its existing pipeline network couldn’t satisfy rising demand driven by new construction and conversions from oil to cleaner-burning natural gas in existing buildings.

It later announced an agreement with a gas pipeline company to increase capacity, but the expansion work is expected to take four years.

Several local utilities in western Massachusetts have also imposed moratoriums on gas hookups, citing pipeline constraints and opposition to expansion.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, has directed the state commission that oversees utilities to investigate the New York moratoriums.

The NESE project is the second interstate pipeline blocked by Cuomo, who in 2014 banned fracking for natural gas in the state because of environmental concerns.

Environmental groups that fought fracking in New York are now focused on preventing the construction of infrastructure that could bring gas from other states.

While the fight plays out, apartment building developers, entrepreneurs and home-buyers say they can’t get the fuel they need for heat, hot water and cooking.

“They are using us as a hostage to deal with the government,” said Ansen Tang, office manager at the United Chinese Association community center in Brooklyn, which was denied a gas hookup under National Grid’s moratorium. “It’s not fair.”

Miles and his partners managed to open Batesy’s on Sept. 1, three months after their target date, but only after spending $30,000 to replace gas appliances with electric ones, Miles said.

“We’re petrified to see what the electric bill is going to be,” he said. “Cooking with electricity is a lot more expensive than gas.”

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