Friday, January 24, 2014

Media Sleep at the Wheel as Cuomo's "Energy Highway" Plan Gets Ready for its Closeup

[Original post Jan. 20, but I'm adding this note after learning something new from Capital New York on Jan. 23:  From the docket for this overall case, which should update for you here, there was a Jan. 17 "development" that I hadn't noticed:  "PLEASE TAKE NOTICE that, in light of policy objectives designed to avoid landowner and environmental impacts, as well as policies to be considered in a new proceeding to be initiated in the first quarter of 2014 (as announced by the Commission in its December 26, 2013, order in Case 07-M-0548), the Commission has decided to consider whether modifications are needed. The Commission expects to address this matter at its February 20, 2014 session."  What this might mean in the long run remains to be explained.]

I got the PowerPoint on this today:

Anybody still remember the New York Regional Interconnect (NYRI)?

Or its predecessor — Marcy South (which was, in fact, eventually built after a fashion)?

Well, this is a new electric powerline plan that's been strategically crafted so as to avoid prior train wrecks, partly by falling beneath the radar of most media and citizens in New York, for as long as possible.  In a nutshell, this is the story, which is an old story:  Greater NYC needs more electrical power (especially if Gov. Cuomo makes good on his promise to close the nukes at Indian Point).  Turns out, Upstate and Canada have at least some of that power.  But both the private and public sectors have struggled in the past to deliver the juice south, due to very predictable local opposition.

Sure, everybody wants the juice, just not so much of it flowing through their backyards.  (Yes, this is in some ways a lot like New York's 5.5-year-old drama with shale gas — stuff which it consumes daily from out of state, but still drills for nowhere inside the state, even though it's holding.)

What do to?  Re-brand and re-launch — AC Transmission Upgrade, 1,000 Megawatts, Energy Highway.  It's not a new powerline; it's an initiative.

The plan so far is nicely obtuse.  Most people can read every word of the PowerPoint above and still not know what the hell any of it means, which is most of what the authors hoped for.

Why is this so under-reported?  Other than the built-in technical obtuseness, this is under-reported because New York's Albany-based media pay close attention to press releases from pretty much just two primary sources — those from the governor, which do a great job of disguising his plans in buzzwords and platitudes, and those from the full-time crisis jockeys on the "good government" left — who can certainly play "Mum's the Word" when it suits their interests.

In this case, new, enlarged, or improved high-voltage powerlines, especially if they're carrying renewable power, are certainly preferable to New York's ascendant greens than any of the alternatives (which include keeping nuclear power alive along the Hudson River, or trying to add frack-fueled natural gas power plants and their associated pipelines much closer to downstate).  If New York's environmentalists have to throw a couple hundred hapless upstaters under a high-voltage powerline to get it done — even a couple hundred hapless upstaters from their own base — well, then, so be it.

There was an especially telling piece from the environmental side recently which complained about an "unfair disadvantage" for renewables, as compared to natural gas — having to do not so much with price, but with transmission.  The message was that the U.S. system is rigged with a supposedly cumbersome, over-reaching bureaucracy, suppressing the development of high-voltage lines, and a supposedly porous and inept bureaucracy, blithely green-lighting the development of fossil fuels pipelines.
  (I just love it when the left starts complaining about "burdensome regulations.")

In time for New York State's Oct. 2013 first-filter
AC Transmission Upgrade deadline, the private sector succeeded in putting four entrants into the horse race for the work:  New York Transco (a consortium of state utilities and, therefore, something of an old-guard front-runner), North America Transmission, Boundless Energy NE, and NextEra Energy Transmission.  The state intends to choose only one plan, or possibly some kind of hybrid.

The marketing departments for each of these competitors are undoubtedly torn between two internally conflicted needs:  To drum up support, on the one hand, and to avoid alarming the local populace, on the other.  But lately I'm noticing that the pressure to stay quiet and obtuse is starting to give way.  The entrants appear to be making some very local rounds, judging from some dazed press coming from the hard-hitting likes of
the Herkimer Telegram, or The Altamont Enterprise (which errs in allowing a flack to misdirect a reporter from the fact that government-sanctioned seizure of (and payment for) an easement undoubtedly ranks as a form of eminent domain).

Gov. Cuomo announced a streamlining plan in his 2014 State of the State address in order to fast-track transmission projects which manage to somehow stay entirely inside the lines of existing rights of way.  But the AC Transmission Upgrade is a pre-existing condition that will have to be grandfathered-in under New York's old, familiar plod:  Yes, there will be an official preference for disturbing as few upstaters as possible, but it's not mandatory, and it certainly won't go fast.

[A quick note made Feb. 23, 2014, but without updating the whole post:  A Feb. 20 press release from the PSC shows that I had this wrong:  The announcement more or less clarified instead that Cuomo's streamlining idea will, in fact, have the effect of sending the AC Transmission Upgrade suitors back to their drawing boards to modify their proposals, in accordance with newly adjusted selection criteria.  As New York's energy politics are increasingly governed by perception, rather than economics and other natural laws, a step back can be touted as a step forward.]

The biggest piece of withheld devil-in-the-details detail so far, of course, is how much any of these plans will require new or wider rights of way, and where.

Not a good time to be further pissing off upstate, but what're you gonna do?

Should get interesting.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New York State's Current Quest
For a Frack-Agnostic State Geologist

Professor James Hall was first to actually name the Marcellus Shale, a key investigator in NY's first Geological Survey, its first State Paleontologist, and late in his career returned to serve as State Geologist — a job title that NYS Education Department happens to currently seek to refill.
Embedded below is a screen shot of the official job announcement showing New York State's Education Department is currently reviewing candidates to fill the now year-old vacancy of State Geologist, a very specialized official appointment initiated as far back as 1836, when Governor William L. Marcy ordered the state's first geological survey.

(A year later, a contemporary colleague of Prof. James Hall (pictured above), geological surveyor Ebenezer Emmons, led the first note-taking hike up the Adirondack Mountains' highest peak, naming it for this governor, as if in gratitude for the work.)

If you're potentially qualified, but late to this job opening, I am sorry about that; applications closed Dec. 27, 2013 for the job, which pays $82K per year.

But there does lurk a problem — the fracking problem.

State Ed's problem with professional geologists and fracking is that they go together all too well.

Virtually all educated, experienced geologists are going to hold to the sober, professional view that the technological feat of producing oil and gas from tight shales has now been established as a do-able proposition.  (Some, it's true, may sagely counsel that whether or not, or how, you want to let the private sector do this sort of thing is largely a societal or political or legal question — not a scientific or technological question.)

Yes, there are impacts, all geologists understand, but nothing that well-planned regulation of the enterprise can't handle.  Most geologists also understand that fossil fuels and other mineral resources remain necessary for the operation of current human society — even if the working classes must put in overtime to prop up the sumptuous, hypocritical lifestyles of all anti-frackers in New York for the next 50 years.  In fact, these kinds of broad-based societal benefits might be a lot of the reason why they went to school for geology in the first place.

Inside the touchy bureaucratic confines of New York State government, however, anything like "do-able" is a dangerous sentiment to hold to — even more dangerous to speak out in public.  In fact, it's gotten to the point in New York where even a mild-mannered, studious, even-handed, and fairly dull exposition on the process of fracking — including its pros and cons — would bring a state-paid geologist nothing but public vilification from over-heated fractivists, and muzzlement from know-nothing state administrators (who, frankly, have gone over to the dark side of George Orwell's Thought Police).

We have already seen a number of recent, embarrassing examples of this — all the more glaring, to me, for the stunning failure of educated New Yorkers to raise any righteous stink of protest about it, on the very simple grounds of tolerance or freedom of thought.

This state actually already had a fairly quiet, uncontroversial State Geologist — Dr. Langhorne "Taury" Smith — whose appointment extended back in time prior to 2008, the year when fracking first started getting widespread public discussion in the Northeast U.S.  Then, as now, Smith's State Geologist job represents a peculiar hybrid of archivist, researcher, and deep subject matter expertise.  The work involves maintaining the state's informational archive (much of it based on well logs handed off by statute from the oil and gas industry), fulfilling a legislative mandate to weigh in on proposals for storage and withdrawal of fossil fuels in deep spent reservoirs (such as the now kindergarten-aged Watkins Glen propane storage plan), and engaging in public-private research on certain forward-looking topics of particular geologic relevance to New York (the resource potential for carbon capture, geothermal, black shales, sandstone, limestone, etc.).

After several years of near-daily media coverage on the fracking question (during which time not a single reporter appears to have bothered to phone Smith for a quote), New York's State Geologist was finally asked about it by state bureaucracy specialist James M. Odato of the Albany Times Union, for a column running March 11, 2011.

"The worst spin on the worst incidents are treated as if it's going to be the norm here," Smith was quoted.  "This could really help us fight climate change; this is a huge gift, this shale…  I'm for a strong regulation by DEC. They have no vested interest. The environmental groups have a vested interest. The companies have a huge profit at stake, so I wouldn't trust them either… If there's one group you can trust it's the DEC."
It may not occur to you that this sort of vanilla, bottom-line, balanced-regulation kind of thing would have led to Smith being essentially forced out of his State Geologist job at the State Museum.  But this is a new New York.  And it eventually did.  With relief from the daily grief, Smith quit his job in January 2013 and instead set up a private consultancy in the Albany area called Smith Stratigraphic LLC.

Here's what happened between the original 2011 ruckus, and his 2013 departure:  Smith found himself commuting daily to a preposterous clampdown by State Ed, the department within which his State Museum branch was long ago shelved.  Smith was forbidden from answering media inquiries without running everything past Public Relations first.  (Not that there were all that many calls from in-state media, which does very little independent research on anything that hasn't already been run through a spin mill beforehand by interested factions.)  And then State Ed bosses — urged on by conspiratorially minded Googlers within the fractivist community — launched an ethics inquiry, apparently fishing for any improper industry income in either Smith's background, department, or private life.  If there were any results from this, I never heard.

The torrent of questions were basically something along the lines of… Are you now, or have you ever been, directly or indirectly on the payroll of the oil and gas industry?  This despite the fact that there has been, for many years, and still, at least some private sector money getting institutionally spent on various geologically-related projects that are thought to be in the public interest — by both the State Museum's Hydrocarbon Reservoir Characterization Group (RCG), and by similar specialists working directly or on contract with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA).

Between 2011 and 2013, equally crazy stuff started going on within the SUNY system.

First, Smith gave a lecture on the geology of black shales at SUNY's University at Buffalo as part of an industry-regulator-academic series which tilted decidedly away from giving equal time to the views of elsewhere-dominant activists on the subject.  But the geology department organizers, for some reason, refused to post the video of Smith's lecture afterwards.  It took this blog seven months of sticking with a Freedom of Information Law battle to get that video kicked free, which, afterwards, turned out to be about as sleepy and uncontroversial as cooler, prevailing heads might have expected.

Then, bosses at SUNY Central were pressured by anti-frack fever — which appears to be especially strong, spiteful, and over-the-top within Western New York's liberal enclave — to take notice that SUNY UB had seven months previously launched the Shale Resources and Society InstituteThe brass responded by simply killing it off.  The infraction?  Institute planners hadn't yet raised any industry money to speak of, but they sure as hell weren't ruling it out.

Somewhere along the line, New York's interminable fracking debates have come to mean that the old rules of public-private partnership, and knowledge-based leadership, have changed.  That sort of thing might still be okay for the state's teaching hospitals, for the ag college at Cornell, for the state forestry school at Syracuse, for the nanotech industry at Albany, and so on.  But all branches of New York State government are simply no longer comfortable with the oil and gas business (except as resource consumers).

So this is the sort of environment in which politically twitchy administrators at State Ed must now try to hire a replacement State Geologist.  This is more along the lines of observation (and accusation) than actual documentation from State Ed's opening announcement, but, to keep such a clampdown fully clamped down, the State Museum is undoubtedly needing a Museum Scientist 4 (State Geologist) with at least two to five years of professional experience —  but none related to the resource extraction industry, and none on a project directly or indirectly funded by industry.

Anybody is free to double-check this with any personnel or funding administrator at any public or private college in New York, but I think it's fair to say this is a completely impractical, counter-sensical standard. 
It's a manic black-listing of actual expertise.

In fact, it's the sort of standard that would disqualify an Agriculture Commissioner who now or ever actually worked as a farmer (anybody remember Darrell Aubertine, or take notice of his replacement, Richard Ball?), an Energy Commissioner who ever did time with a utility, a President at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry who ever led a private environmental consultant (anybody remember Dr. Cornelius Murphy?), or even a State Forester who ever cruised timber.

On the fracking thing, such a geologist must be either very quiet, very afraid, or very undecided. 

If State Ed's HR Department can manage to somehow track down a professional geologist who actually professes to be a fracking opponent — well, then, so much the better.  It could always happen, but I'm doubtful.

Anyway, could get interesting.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Trouble with Maps of U.S. Pipelines:
National Security vs. Public's Right to Know
[Originally posted Jan. 11, but I'm backing off much of my criticism a short day later on Jan. 12, after learning something new from a Natural Gas Forum for Landowners participant: 

1) The National Pipeline Mapping System's public viewer here currently resolves down to a scale of 1:24,000 (or 1" of mapped screen space representing 2,000' of on-the-ground reality) — and then at finer scales takes away the pipeline layers for national security reasons.  That's far more detailed than I previously would have thought advisable, but at least the decision is in the hands of officials, rather than activists. 

2) Based mainly on a single sample from my own personal knowledge of where the Dominion natural gas pipeline crosses the Tioughnioga River Valley — through "downtown" Blodgett's Mills, south of Cortland, NY — I'm concluding that the NPMS placement of pipelines is far more accurate and reliable than FracTracker, which in this case is off by miles.  With that as a "headnote" (rather than a "footnote"), I'll keep the rest of the commentary from my post intact, just because there is some useful information in there, and because it does show the evolution of my thinking.]

This is what I had to say on Jan. 10, 2014 in a not-yet "moderated" comment at the bottom of this FracTracker web page, which appears to have gone live earlier in the day:

A lot of the pipeline maps I see nowadays are highly generalized schematics, and I think there are legitimate reasons for that:  After 9/11, industry and the regulatory establishment made a concerted effort to withdraw detailed mapping of sensitive potential targets, such as what you appear to be showing here.

I can't say for sure whether your maps are intended to be truly accurate at an on-the-ground scale, but — if so — have you considered, before posting, that there might be an inherent conflict between the public's right to know, and the public's interest in discouraging vandals or worse from finding weak points at which to attack these things?

For what it's worth, here's what Wikipedia (currently) says on this topic (beneath a similar U.S. pipeline map which doesn't show much detail when enlarged):  "Many Americans have no idea where or whether a natural gas pipeline runs under their home or office, and since 9/11, for national security purposes, detailed maps of gas pipelines are not available to the general public" (emphasis mine).

I hadn't heard that there had been any relaxation in these guidelines (or whatever they are), but it looks to me as though you've taken matters into your own hands.  Beforehand, I think these questions are worth thinking about.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Some further thoughts:

Pro-drilling commenters such as myself have grown accustomed to having their point of view "moderated" out of anti-drilling platforms — which is a polite way of saying we've gotten way too used to being alarmingly censored by the left.  This is especially true within the fracking debates
, which have gotten very over-heated.  We'll still have to wait'n'see what happens with my comment, which I intentionally drafted as politely as I could muster.  But let me just say, generally, that I don't cotton much to that kind of fanatical isolationism and closed-mindedness, whether it's coming out of the far right (where I previously considered it to be a natural reflex), or out of the far left (where I previously preferred to believe there were a lot of big fans of free speech).  It might be a little late in life for me to be finally learning this, but it turns out that George Orwell was correct to warn about the even-handed nature of the tendency toward Thought Police.

As somebody who's very much interested in the economic and environmental impact of the fossil fuels business, especially in New York, I have often wanted to know and report much more geographic detail about the existing and proposed sprawl of various pipelines and associated infrastructure. 

[Long digression here, and I'm sorry about that, but I think it's worth pointing out:  In New York State — due to the now-kindergarten-aged shale gas drill ban — there has been way more for me to talk about on this blog within the realm of midstream activity, rather than upstream.  For instance, Bluestone, I've written about at least once, twice, three, four times — always seeking with mixed results to goad the Binghamton Press into doing its job.  TGP's short-lived predecessor to Constitution, pro-drilling landowners had the scoop on that as broadcast hereConstitution, during the early days, pro-drilling landowners and this blog were the primary source for details and first-draft maps here, and here, and hereEmKey's mid-state proposal — which is not going anywhere anytime soon, so long as NY's frack ban continues — I've been pretty much alone in detailingMillennium South-North (and now South-North-But-Shortened), I've endeavored to get the word out here and hereIroquois' proposal to export natgas to Canada — for some reason, no one seems to think that's a story.  The recent plan to double what was originally called "Laser Gathering" in Windsor, I had it here, again seeking to coax the Binghamton Press into doing its job, which it eventually did.]

[More digression, and, again, I apologize:  Though it could be relatively easily done, no scribe, to my knowledge, has yet tried to pull together all this new activity — along with much additional inconvenient stuff, such as the Cornell University and Dunkirk coal-to-natgas power plant conversions; the anti-frack Village of Hamilton voting overwhelmingly to form a non-profit municipal natgas utility; Leatherstocking Gas winning franchises for very local natgas service in Windsor and other small towns nearby; NY's pending reversal on LNG as a cheaper and cleaner transportation fuel; the bipartisan consumer-level economic and environmental benefits of NYC's ongoing switch from fuel oil to natgas for building heat, including Yoko Ono's digs at the Dakota; Millennium upgrading compressors on downstate-bound pipelines; Spectra and others enlarging the capacity of their entry into Greater NYC; and even crude oil trains now wanting a barge transfer station in Albany — and used this full, seemingly disconnected roster of current news to illustrate The Big PictureAll of this has been triggered by fracking!  In fact, like it or not, there has been a technological revolution in domestic fossil fuels that's already occurred, far outside the power of any state or federal governmental program to either make it happen, or to clamp it down.  And it's already affecting New York State in many good, bad, or traded-off ways — no matter what Gov. Cuomo ever decides on the in-state high-volume fracking question.]

Anyway, so far as pipelines in New York go, I have been admittedly frustrated by the post-9/11 clampdown on that kind of "general public" information.  And FracTracker's map looks like a decent answer to my wants and desires.  But, sometimes, I think, you know, you gotta be careful what you wish for.

It's true that a determined vandal, or a determined terrorist — similar to a determined burglar — would be able to find a place along the U.S. pipeline system to cause mayhem, regardless of official or voluntary attempts to withdraw sensitive geographic data from the general public's view.  But I don't think FracTracker's map helps matters much.  If anything, I don't think these guys — or their well-heeled anti-frack funders such as Heinz Endowments, Park Foundation, William Penn Foundation — are even thinking anymore.  Their cause is trumping all.

I'm just one person.  But I'm hoping that just talking about this might lead whoever's in charge of this sort of thing to quickly persuade FracTracker to make obsolete my links to their map.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Draft NYS Energy Plan Released: It's Official — 54,000 Square Miles Surrounded by Reality

Pic from New York's 2014 Draft Energy Plan: Young people check the iPhone.
Here's the Cuomo Administration's internal marching orders yesterday, on the eve of his State of the State address:

Release the gloss!

Young hipster pictures! 

Hold the infrastructure! 

Extra techy! 

More buzzwords!  (You can never have too many buzzwords.)

The state's 2014 (it was previously due 2013) Draft Energy Plan was put out for public consumption and comment with the flick of a web page switch yesterday here.  The plan is a somewhat belated update of previous tomes from 2009 and 2002,
both written in unparsed bureaucratese, as I previously discussed here.

So far, this seems to have gotten noticed only by Capital New York, with the for-once-pointed headline, "State plan calls for renewables and cost savings, skips fracking."

Volume 1, effectively the plan's executive summary, looks like some kind of wet dream shot out of the Twenty-Tens' incarnation of Fifties/Sixties adman Don Draper:  Glossy pics of multicultural young people, high tech lab geeks, a folksy greenhouseman, seductively lit solar installations, cool-looking windmills, a plug-in car, and even an Adirondack beaver pond!

The state's energy policymakers and their Apparently Hired Gloss Team felt no obligation whatsoever to actually illustrate the full panoply of New York State's current (and on-the-horizon) energy reality:  Power lines — I see them all the time, but no pics here.  A nuclear power plant?  I'm using some of those charged electrons right now, here in Syracuse, a short distance from Nine Mile Point on the Lake Ontario coast.  Hydropower?  I actually love that kind of renewable canoeable technology, but, sorry, no.  A flannel-shirted upstater prepping some renewable firewood?  I've done that — a lot of that, but, sorry, no such illustration.  A utility lineman, working overtime to recover New York State from Hurricane Sandy?  A train carrying crude oil through downtown Albany — because the Obama Administration has balked at getting the Keystone pipeline built?  A natural gas pipeline carrying largely fracked heat to anti-frack urbanites in NYC or New England?  A very topical, coal-burning plant, soon-to-be retired in favor of cheaper and cleaner natural gas?  A
fuel oil truck driver, handing off the bill?  Or an electric meter?  Or a gas meter?    

And, of course, never mind a drill rig.  And never mind a Southern Tier landowner, standing with beseeching open arms on the Pennsylvania state line, two miles above millions of dollars of the very same shale gas that New York State consumes more of every day — but still refuses to allow the drilling for, inside its precious jurisdiction.

This is not energy policy or governance; this is the governance of wishful perception.  It's a totally disgraceful corruption to the professionalism of the state PSC, NYSERDA, NYPA, and DEC — agencies which have to grapple with the real world of New York's energy needs every day.

Here's a quick count of buzzwords, set against some real-world alternatives, just from the summary:

"sustain" or versions thereof — 16 times.

"renewable" — 20 times.

"clean" — 67 times!

"solar" — 15.

coal" — 0.

fossil fuel" — 4.

natural gas" — 9.





"nuclear" — 0.

Don't get me wrong — I'm all for clean energy, alternatives, renewables, and conservation, especially if they are at least close to competitive, and especially if the New York economy gets as much of the action as possible.

But I'm not for disguising the reality of the situation.

I'm not for catering to the uninformed, wishful desires of everybody in New York who wants to feel vaguely good about the future, but to stay lit and warm throughout, burning what's extracted out of Pennsylvania. 

I'm not for NIMBY hypocrisy now rising up to become official state energy policy.