Activists opposed to the new gas pipeline approach the Brooklyn construction site. All photos by the author
Construction on the Rockaway Lateral natural-gas pipeline in Brooklyn was briefly halted on Saturday when protesters entered a gate and stormed into the drilling site while chanting, "Go home, go home!"
Saturday's protest was the latest escalation in an 11th-hour campaign to halt the construction of the 26-inch pipeline, which will carry fracked natural gas under high pressure from an interstate transmission line off the coast into Brooklyn. The pipeline will run under the Rockaway beaches of Fort Tilden and Jacob Riis and through the heretofore federally protected Gateway National Recreation Area before terminating in a metering and regulation station being built in a hangar at Floyd Bennett Field. There, the pressure will be stepped down and the gas will flow into British gas giant National Grid's distribution network.
Supporters of the pipeline say it's necessary. While most of the gas it will carry is already coming into New York by a more circuitous route through Long Island, the Rockaway Lateral will offer a more direct route, and help meet the city's increasing reliance on natural gas. That growing demand is driven in large part by a Bloomberg-era policy phasing out the use of much dirtier heating oils in building boilers.
"The ironic thing about the protests is that those who oppose this project for environmental reasons ignore the fact that the environmental benefits of natural gas is exactly what is driving this project," said Chris Stockton, a spokesman for Williams Transco, the company building the pipeline. "This project was specifically cited in [former] Mayor Bloomberg's PLANYC 2030 as important to helping the city achieve its clean air goals by eliminating the use of high-sulfur fuel oil."
But not everyone is convinced the pipeline is a particularly wise idea. For one thing, the pipeline runs under two of New Yorkers' most beloved beaches and a delicate wildlife habitat that includes nesting grounds for endangered piping plovers. Ordinarily, energy companies can't just run gas pipelines through federal land. But in 2012 Staten Island Congressman (and former FBI agent) Michael Grimm, who infamously once threatened to throw a reporter off the Capitol rotunda in Washington, introduced a give-away bill granting an exception to permit Williams to build the pipeline.
There are safety concerns: When high-pressure gas lines like the one being built in the Rockaways explode, the results are often spectacular. In 2010, a transmission line detonated in San Bruno, California, a suburb of San Francisco, blowing out a crater four stories deep, leveling 35 houses, and killing eight people. The blast registered at earthquake monitoring stations as a 1.1 on the Richter scale.
According to federal regulators, in the last five years there have been 367 serious or significant incidents involving gas-transmission lines, causing 10 deaths, 82 injuries, and more than $684 million in damages.
Williams, the parent corporation of the company building the Rockaway pipeline, has its own dismaying safety record. In April, one of their plants in Wyoming caught fire, leading to the evacuation of an entire town. In March, an explosion at one of the company's liquefied natural-gas plants injured five, forcing another evacuation. Last June, two people were killed and more than 100 injured in an explosion at a Williams plant in Louisiana. The month before that, 13 people were injured when a pipeline Williams was building in New Jersey exploded. And that's just lately.
Opponents of the pipeline also question whether the city's increasing reliance on fracked natural gas is the environmental boon some backers say it is. Natural gas burns cleaner than many other fossil fuels—especially the heavy heating oils phased out in the New York City Clean Heat initiative. But when the methane in natural gas leaks into the atmosphere unburned, it's a greenhouse gas as much as 84 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. And from the fracking process to the wellheads to the pipelines, shale gas infrastructure leaks a lot of raw methane. As much as 7.9 percent of fracked gas ends up unburned in the atmosphere, according to a 2011 Cornell study. When it comes to global warming, the researchers concluded, shale gas isn't much better than coal or oil.
All of these concerns led groups like Coalition Against the Rockaway Pipeline to oppose the Rockway project when it was first proposed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2012. But appealing to the FERC has never been a winning strategy for pipeline opponents. The commission is widely regarded by environmentalists as a textbook example of regulatory capture. It has literally approved every pipeline energy companies have ever proposed to it, with the exception of those proposals the companies withdrew themselves. When the pipeline was finally approved earlier this year, most considered the project a done deal.
But a new group calling itself No Rockaway Pipeline was just getting started, launching a social media campaign and distributing flyers on the beach to raise the project's profile. That effort culminated in Saturday's protest, as roughly 60 people gathered at the shore near Beach 169th Street, carrying banners that read "Defend Rockaway," "Stop the Pipeline," and "Get the Frack Out of New York City."
An organizer who would not give his name offered a short speech, tying the pipeline construction to the vulnerability of the Rockaways to the broader effects of global warming. "We're standing in an area that's slated to potentially not be here in something like three to four decades," he said. "In our lifetimes, this could be gone. But you know what's still going to be left? You know what's still going to be under the water? The pipeline."
Gesturing out to the enormous pipe-laying platform just offshore, he continued: "We're looking at something that's posing a very serious question to us. Not just about where we're going to get energy, but what kind of world we're going to be living in."
Park police watched the protesters warily from the boardwalk. By law, banners and flyering are banned from the beach, except within a designated free-speech zone far from the pipeline site. Two weeks earlier, police had challenged organizers for displaying banners, and demanded their identification cards. This time, though, police gave the protesters space—at least initially.
Inside the drill site, protesters chant, "Go home!" to construction workers manning the equipment.
The group marched up Beach 169th Street, chanting "No Justice! No Beach!" and "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! The pipeline has got to go!" In several hundred yards, they came to the fenced-off site where the horizontal drilling for the pipeline is taking place. The chain-link fence is shrouded with opaque fabric, and a large sign warned, "Use of Cameras Prohibited; Strictly Enforced." Evidently undaunted, protesters found an unsecured gate, opened it, and stepped into the drill site. Construction workers in hard hats gazed, nonplussed, at the activists chanting, "Shut it down!" Within a few minutes, the machinery did, in fact, grind to a halt, and the crowd erupted in cheers. "Y'all got the night off!" someone called to the construction team. But outside the fence, the street was filling up with NYPD and Park Police cruisers, as well as a noisy K-9 unit named "Vice." The protesters streamed back out of the drill site, chanting, "We'll be back," before retreating back to the beach and dispersing.
Stockton, the Williams spokesman, confirmed that "as a general safety precaution," construction was halted for about ten minutes. "Clearly there are individuals who feel very passionately about energy issues in NYC," he said. "We can respect that. At the same time, we believe that any protests should be conducted peacefully. We appreciate the efforts of local law enforcement in helping to ensure that order was maintained and our employees remained safe."
Afterwards, sitting on the sand deeper into Fort Tilden park, one of the protest organizers said he considered the day a success.
"What's really interesting about today was we didn't have a ton of people," he said. "But together people just did a very straightforward thing, which is march on the beach and walk into the site. And they shut the machines down, showing pretty simply what might be the logical steps—if such a thing is going to be stopped, it would have to be stopped in that particular way."
Saturday's action showed shutting down the pipeline construction might be easier than it seems, the organizer said. "It wasn't some crazy over-the-top thing today," he said. "If people around here decided, 'Hey, we don't want this,' they could sit down there for a few days and shut it down. To me, that's what's interesting. Is that going to happen? I don't know."
Saturday's brief pipeline shutdown is hardly the only example of protesters using their bodies to halt fossil fuel infrastructure construction. A week ago a dozen protesters halted pipeline construction in Toronto—again. Last October, Mi'kmaq activists blockaded gas-exploration trucks in New Brunswick, Canada. A recent study suggests that, in some parts of the world at least, local protests against extractive industries can be surprisingly effective at shutting down unpopular projects. Even the ordinarily staid Sierra Club has joined Bill McKibben's 350.org and other groups in pledging to risk arrest to oppose the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
A ten-minute pause in work is a far cry from stopping the Rockaway pipeline dead, however. Williams says the project remains on target for completion by the end of the year. But the No Rockaway Pipeline leaders insist they're just warming up.
"We need more people, and people who are willing to shut this down," said one organizer after the action Saturday. "People who say, 'Hey, that's what we did on Saturday. That's what we need to do Sunday, that's what we need to do Monday, and that's what we need to do every day until they stop the pipeline.'"
The day after the protest, No Rockaway Pipeline updated their Facebook event page to announce that they'll do it all again this coming Saturday. With Williams and police on guard and protesters determined to stop the pipeline, summer in the Rockaways may be about to heat up.