Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Bluestone Pipeline Green-Lighted;
Local Press Still Asleep at Keyboards

[Original post Oct. 8; updated Oct. 9 with some additional details.]

Okay, I'm back from a several-months-long bout with especially complicated paid work.

First thing I noticed is this:  The glacial State of New York, through its Public Service Commission, has finally given the go-ahead on a PA-NY natural gas pipeline interconnect called Bluestone.

In Bureaucratese, this decision-making event is known as the issuance of a "Certificate of Environmental Compatibility and Public Need."  Bluestone now has it.  It's all on the web, if you know where to look for it (which is really not that hard).  It's been out there since Sept. 21.  I also put up a more directly linkable copy here. 

Also in the file, I see a letter written afterwards from the developer's lawyer showing an all-day pre-construction meeting is scheduled to take place in Windsor, NY, on Oct. 10.  (If you've ever been to Windsor, you know it doesn't get any more local than that.)  Also, if all the final construction wrinkles are successfully ironed out that day, the developer proposes to get moving on the ground in NY as early as Oct. 20 (the PA end has already started).  A report from one of the main PA drillers contracted to feed this new transmission capacity (see below) claims both the PA and NY phases of Bluestone will be completed by late November (though that does seem remarkably quick to me).

Maybe then there'd finally be some visuals for the news people.

Other developments directly or indirectly related to this:

• A week or so prior to Bluestone finalizing things with the NYS PSC, Southwestern Energy (SWN) officially foresaw the relieving of the takeaway pipeline bottleneck in its Susquehanna County, PA, leasehold area.  This has triggered a push to move from 40 to 90 producing Marcellus wells (most of them already drilled and completed) by the end of this year, and SWN is also boosting its rig count from 3 to 4 in that area.  All this is occurring despite continued, less-than-stellar economics in dry natgas areas, which is where this part of PA falls.  All these details are here.

• Days later, in Broome County's Town of Sanford, Bluestone put the last closing documents of record on a complicated, four-party, land, easement, and conservation easement purchase and swap, including an eminent-domain-forced deal with the anti-shale gas Delaware Highlands Conservancy.  Bluestone also formalized legal proceedings in order to take (for "just compensation") an easement from another reluctant landowner along the pipeline route.  The state's official blessing makes this action essentially a formality.  No, the details are not spelled out in a handy press release, but the nuts and bolts are of public record for any journalist worth his or her salt.  (Note to the file:  Contrary to popular, PA-inspired belief, eminent domain can be a factor for either larger pipeline projects overseen by the federal government, or smaller ones supervised by the State of NY, which is — in fact, in the end, as you can see — capable of not messing around when it comes to essential infrastructure.) 

• About the same time, the subscription-only Binghamton paper finally got around to reporting the remarkable tax impact of a parallel pipeline project nearby:  In one year, Broome County's Town of Windsor saw its overall tax base jump from $310.5 to $342.5 million, on the strength of just its 9.5-mile portion of the PA-NY pipeline interconnect known as Laser, plus a compressor station.  As a consequence, school district tax bills dropped 5.8 percent, and town tax bills can be expected to drop similarly.  (The county portion of folks' land tax bills would presumably be too diluted by the county-wide pool to show much of a response to such a localized bump.)  I have not seen any forecast for the similar pending impact of the Bluestone development on the Town of Sanford and whatever school districts will be affected by the pipeline route there, though certainly that could be pulled together.  You can get by the paywall on the gist of this Windsor story here.

Ordinarily, all this would be the sort of thing which a decent local paper would report, and which TV and radio stations would at least try to cover.  Sure seems like news to me.  But, by my search engine enhanced reckoning, local media have not yet taken notice of this latest development in the Bluestone project. 

Is this because we do things weird in New York, or just in Binghamton, NY?  The Bluestone pipeline job is now a $280 million construction project (according to the developer's latest explanations to its investors — see page 19 of a PDF'd PowerPoint here).  But our media reps don't seem to be able to see any worthwhile angles.  It's just unsubsidized private investment, leading to jobs, landowner income, significant spinoff activity, new tax base, and infrastructure development (including traffic, noise, and dirt) in especially depressed areas of Upstate NY and rural PA — even while the Empire State's indigenous shale gas opportunities continue to be thwarted by ceaseless debate, dragging on toward the 4-and-a-half year mark.

In this case, we see a rare burst of progress goes through, unstoppable, somehow making it non-news. 

I don't get that. 

I have some prickly philosophical questions about this.  Are we getting to the point where modern-day news coverage is inherently biased by: 

1) Lack of training, professionalism, and skill among the current generation of practitioners?

2) Lack of resources, on account of the fading economic fortunes of free-market journalism?

3) Lack of social feedback rewards for actually doing the journalistic work of gathering facts independently, outside the more efficient formula of re-writing press releases from agenda-driven sources?

4) Lack of interest in stories that don't mesh very well with the preferred, more interesting, more comfortable "decision hangs in the balance" narratives of reporters and editors?

5) A news-gathering engine that too often fuels itself on press releases engaged in easily over-dramatized, over-simplified conflict, rather than the sometimes technical flow of actual events?

1 comment:

Brian said...

Or maybe you should add a #6:

News that "doesn't fit the tint", as Bill Buckley would put it, of the politics of the people employed in mainstream journalism these days.

You know, why publicize and shine a spotlight on the indirect 2nd and 3rd order beneficial effects of private investment when your personal politics favor maximizing the size of the public sector and having as much control as possible over the private sector?

You've done a great job of covering the travesty of energy development and politics in NYS. Unfortunately, we deserve the economy we are getting due to the decisions of our political "leadership" (an oxymoron if there ever was one when used in the context of the NYS officials). Cuomo's true colors have shown through with the decision to punt on the DEC review.