Watershed Matters: It’s Time to Take Our Foot Off the Gas

December 23rd, 2016

from Executive Director, Jim Waltman

You’d be excused for believing that natural gas is a “clean” fuel. After all, the oil and gas industry has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years on television commercials in an attempt to make you believe so.

The New York Times reported that in 2012 alone, more than $150 million was spent on TV advertising promoting fossil fuels, including the American Petroleum Institute’s “Vote4Energy” ads. Spending on the recent election was most likely even higher.

For decades, natural gas has been promoted as a “bridge fuel” to address our energy needs until solar, wind and other forms of carbon-free, renewable forms of energy can fully run our economies. But no matter what the gas industry says, natural gas is a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change and the construction of new natural gas pipelines is damaging to water and wildlife habitats. The economics behind pipelines also isn’t what you’ve been led to believe.

Methane is over 100 times more potent at trapping heat than CO2.

While the combustion of natural gas to generate electricity releases less carbon dioxide (CO2) than burning coal, gas is still a potent greenhouse gas. Producing, transporting and using natural gas releases considerable amounts of carbon into the atmosphere in the form of methane, which leaks from valves and pipes. In fact, methane is over 100 times more potent at trapping heat than CO2. Methane degrades faster in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, but even after 20 years, methane still has an impact that is 84 times more potent than CO2. The Obama Administration has proposed regulations to require reductions in methane leakage but the incoming administration has targeted the rules for elimination.

To achieve the highly ambitious climate goals established a year ago in Paris by nearly 200 nations will require major reductions in carbon emissions and a sharp break from the fossil fuel status quo.

A second major concern is the direct damage to our rivers, streams and drinking water that results from the construction of natural gas pipelines. In most cases, pipelines are built by ripping trenches through stream bottoms and uplands with backhoes and other heavy equipment. Doing so may release arsenic into groundwater, as well as polluting sediment into our water bodies, smothering all manner of aquatic life. Pipeline builders clear wide swaths of trees and other vegetation, which destroys habitat for birds and other wildlife, introduces non-native invasive species and removes shading over streams that keeps water temperatures compatible for fish.

The Watershed opposes the proposed PennEast Pipeline in central New Jersey in large part because of the pipeline company’s proposal to “trench” through dozens of streams that are tributaries to the Delaware River and the Stony Brook. Nearly three dozen of these streams have been designated by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) as “Category One,” ostensibly granting them the highest level of protection against harmful development because of their exceptional ecological importance.

Finally, there are mounting concerns surrounding the economics of pipelines. Interstate pipelines like PennEast are regulated, in part, by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which is charged with determining whether there is “market need” and “public benefit” from such proposals. If it makes these findings, FERC can grant pipeline owners with eminent domain authority to condemn private and public lands — including preserved open space — to construct the projects. (Even if FERC does so for PennEast, the company would still need to secure approvals from NJDEP).

EIA projects a decline in natural gas consumption in the region, not an increase.

But the federal Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects a decline in natural gas consumption in the region, not an increase. So if there is no demonstrated need for more gas, why have six companies invested in the proposal? The answer is that the six owners have contracted for most of the gas through their own affiliates, enabling local gas distribution companies to dump arrangements with existing pipelines so that they can essentially ship the gas to themselves and charge their customers for the cost of the new pipeline.

This self-dealing arrangement to promote an otherwise uneconomic project has set off alarms at the New Jersey Division of Ratepayer Counsel, a state consumer watchdog agency. In comments to FERC, the Ratepayer Counsel argued that there is no demonstrated need for PennEast and that, in the current financial environment, the FERC-regulated return of 14 percent on equity is “tantamount to winning the lottery.”

But it’s not just environmentalists and consumer watchdogs that are calling for changes in energy policy. A recent survey by Farleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind found that more than 70 percent of New Jersey’s voters want the state to move more quickly towards clean, renewable sources of energy, rather than further use of fossil fuels and pipelines.

Natural gas is not really clean. It’s a fossil fuel that contributes to climate change. And pipelines built to transport natural gas do real damage to our water. The fact is that there are smarter, cleaner solutions to our energy needs, like solar, wind and energy conservation.

Jim Waltman is the executive director of the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, a member-supported non-profit organization that works to keep water clean, safe and healthy in central New Jersey. For more information about the Watershed Association, including how to volunteer and donate to its efforts, visit or call (609) 737-3735.

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