ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) - With a decision expected soon on whether to allow hydraulic fracturing in New York state, natural gas pipeline operators are already looking at setting up shop and opponents are predicting environmental damage, safety problems and land seizures through eminent domain.
There's already a proposal for a pipeline to carry low-cost natural gas from Pennsylvania to major Northeast markets, such as New York City and Boston. A $750 million pipeline proposed for southwestern New York would also provide a route from wells in New York if Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifts a 4-year-old ban on hydraulic fracturing and lets drillers use the technique.
Opponents claim that's the real motive for the pipeline plan.
"The only reason they'd spend $750 million would be to get the infrastructure in place for a hoped-for future based on Gov. Cuomo's decision," said pipeline opponent Mark Pezzati, a resident of Andes, along the proposed pipeline route in rural Delaware County. "They'll be sitting pretty to control all the gas flow" from New York wells.
But the company proposing the pipeline said New York wells aren't factored into current plans and additional capacity would have to be added to accommodate them.
Vast reserves of natural gas lie in the Marcellus Shale formation beneath Pennsylvania, New York and nearby states, and advances in drilling have created an energy industry boom, with Pennsylvania one of its earliest benefactors in the form of jobs and profits. The new supplies have helped boost the national gas supply so much that prices have dropped to historic lows.
The gas is freed from the ground through a process in which large volumes of water, plus sand and chemicals, are injected deep underground to break rock apart. Residents have complained of groundwater contamination and illnesses, but research is inconclusive and in the early stages.
Many state and federal officials say the practice is safe when done properly, but faulty wells have caused pollution.
"Natural gas isn't perfect, but from an environmental point of view, it's much better" than coal, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday. Bloomberg said the city needs more natural gas to reduce the greenhouse gases and unhealthy air quality caused by burning oil and coal.
Cuomo hasn't denied a New York Times report in June that he plans to allow hydraulic fracturing in the area near the Pennsylvania border, where the shale is richest in gas and communities have voiced support for the industry. He is widely expected to issue a decision this month.
Even if New York doesn't decide to be a host of the party, the pipeline feud will keep it very much a guest.
The Constitution Pipeline would run from Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania through New York's Broome, Chenango, and Delaware counties to connect with the existing Tennessee and Iroquois pipelines in the Schoharie County town of Wright, 80 miles southwest of Albany. It's proposed by Williams Partners, an energy infrastructure company based in Tulsa, Okla., and Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas.
The pipeline is fully contracted with long-term commitments from natural gas producers operating in Pennsylvania and isn't designed to facilitate natural gas drilling in New York, said Williams spokesman Chris Stockton. The initial capacity will be enough to serve the daily needs of about 3 million homes, he said.
Williams plans to submit a draft environmental impact report to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in October, followed by a formal permit application in January. If it's approved, pipeline construction would start in April 2014 with a goal of having it operational by March 2015.
The federal agency has directed Williams to submit documents showing the pipeline is needed, or whether existing pipelines could handle additional capacity.
At public meetings and in letters to the federal commission, residents have aired concerns about potential gas explosions and leaks, noise and air pollution from compressor stations that boost pressure along the pipeline, and destruction of forest land.
"We feel the danger and potential contamination as well as the destruction to the land, roads, beauty and serenity of our town will greatly affect the lives of all our residents," wrote Karen O'Neill of the Schoharie County town of Summit.
Bruce Kernan, owner of a 400-acre productive forest in the Delaware County town of Harpersfield, said the pipeline path across his land would destroy wetland habitat and remnants of historic farms, eliminate more than 80 acres of valuable timber stands, and reduce water quality.
Anne Marie Garti, of East Meredith, filed a complaint with federal commission saying residents have told her landmen working for Williams have threatened them with eminent domain proceedings to forcibly take their land.
"Eminent domain is a last resort," Stockton said. "We'll negotiate with each property owner for an easement giving us the right to install the pipeline across their property. The landowner can still use the land for crops or just about anything except planting trees or building structures."
But for residents who recall past pipeline disasters, the question of safety is paramount.
"The one thing I think we are all concerned about is if this pipeline is put in the ground, is it going to be safe," said Earl Van Wormer III, town supervisor of Esperance in Schoharie County. Two people were killed and the village of North Blenheim was flattened in 1990 when propane leaked from a pipeline and blew up.
In March, an explosion at a Williams compressor station in Pennsylvania's Susquehanna County shook homes a half-mile away, but damage was limited to the site. A Tennessee Gas Pipeline segment in eastern Ohio exploded in February 2011, shooting flames 200 feet into the air and forcing an evacuation of homes, but no injuries were reported. There were explosions on the Tennessee pipeline in Ohio and Mississippi in November 2011.
"Any time there's an accident, it's a tragedy, even if nobody is hurt," said Cathy Landry, spokeswoman for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. natural gas pipeline network has more than 300,000 miles of interstate and intrastate transmission pipelines and more than 1,400 compressor stations that maintain pressure to move gas along the lines.