Calling on Governors: Take the Road Less Traveled to a better climate future

Robert Frost’s famous poem is often quoted in connection to personal choices: “Two paths diverged in a yellow wood…and I took the one less traveled by…and it made all the difference.” Today, elected officials in New York and other states wishing to be climate leaders should also heed this wisdom.

Earthworks recently released New York’s Energy Crossroads, a report asking the question “If proposed natural gas pipelines and associated infrastructure are built and used, can Governor Cuomo’s Administration achieve its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030?”

The answer is a resounding no. A commissioned technical analysis by Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE), which underpinned our report, found that the buildout of gas pipelines and associated infrastructure would cause New York’s use of natural gas to increase by 23% and greenhouse gas emissions by 12% above 2015 levels (which are much higher than 1990 levels).

This jump would result from increased levels of natural gas delivered to and through New York, combined with methane leakage throughout the state’s natural gas system. The emissions include methane and carbon dioxide from natural gas infrastructure associated with pipelines (including compressor and meter & regulator stations).

Fortunately, there’s still time to prevent some of the worst impacts from the gas infrastructure buildout. In New York’s Energy Crossroads, Earthworks provides a detailed overview of policy and regulatory options available to state decisionmakers that can both halt new projects and significantly limit air pollution from any projects that do move forward, or existing ones that require new permits.

PSE’s analysis shows that the vast majority of additional greenhouse gas emissions would come from pipeline and compressor station projects currently on hold or in planning stages—making careful decisions on these projects more critical than ever. DEC has been willing to exercise its legal authority to protect water resources even when that has meant putting natural gas pipeline projects (like Constitution and Northern Access) on hold; it should do the same when projects threaten air quality and the climate.

DEC should also seize opportunities available in New York’s 2017 Methane Reduction Plan and the agency’s plans to develop new air pollution control regulations for oil and gas operations. Both have great potential, but currently lack the timelines and strategies needed to move from vision to reality.

Advocates and residents living on the frontlines of fossil fuel development applaud when Governors set ambitious goals to address climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, using more renewable energy, and improving energy efficiency. But they rightly throw up their hands in frustration when states simultaneously pursue the expansion of natural gas delivery and consumption statewide.

With the climate-denying Trump Administration pushing hard for more oil and gas drilling both onshore and offshore, states need to take the lead to reduce pollution. New York has already shown leadership in doing so; just a few years ago, the Cuomo Administration took the bold step to prohibit fracking-dependent shale gas production in New York because of risks to health and the environment.

Given this, it’s disingenuous to effectively support expanded fracking in neighboring Pennsylvania and other states in order to serve New York’s energy needs. True energy leadership means acknowledging the inherent contradiction between achieving climate goals and building more pipelines to move and consume more natural gas.

As the relative price of renewable energy declines, states have more choices. A top Arizona utility just signed a contract to supply the grid with renewable energy rather than gas to meet peak demand. Maryland just passed the first-in-the-nation tax credit for residential battery storage. Even the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—often called a rubber-stamp agency for pipeline projects—recently adopted a rule to encourage renewable energy operators to integrate storage options into electricity markets.

The two energy paths before us are diverging more and more. One leads to increasing pollution from fossil fuel development, the other to renewable sources. Choosing isn’t easy, nor is getting through the woods to effective, permanent change. But it’s high time for  Governor Cuomo and other elected officials nationwide to recognize they have to make a choice—and then to step boldly toward a clean energy future.