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Berkeley Bans Natural Gas

Will other cities follow?

It wasn’t that many years ago that natural gas was being trumpeted as “the bridge fuel” to a cleaner energy future. Natural gas was said to be much cleaner-burning than any other fossil fuels, and replacing coal-fired electric generation with cleaner-burning natural gas was going to significantly reduce carbon emissions as we transitioned to new green sources for electric power. Wind and solar has always been the goal, but natural gas was going to buy us time to get there, and with a smaller carbon footprint.

Well, that narrative didn’t last very long.

As the utilities and interstate pipeline operators began to respond to the new “bridge fuel” gift that was handed to them, they hit a stone wall. In order to replace coal, the industry needed to be able to move plentiful natural gas from the source to the generation points. In the case of New England, it was a short journey; that path was from the Marcellus Shale Play in Pennsylvania to a distribution hub in Dracut, Massachusetts. Kinder Morgan’s Tennessee Gas Pipeline company planned to build the NED (Northeast Energy Direct) pipeline to bring the needed fuel into New England; and a second Constitution Pipeline was planned to bring Marcellus gas from Pennsylvania to feed the NED pipeline at a connection point in Wright, New York. But environmental opposition to both pipelines was fierce, including from New York Governor Andrew Como whose administration banned fracking (hydraulic fracturing) in New York State. Ultimately, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation denied the Constitution Pipeline project a needed Water Quality Certification permit and the project was canceled. Days later Kinder Morgan also abandoned its plan to build NED.

Emboldened by their success in defeating the Constitution and NED pipelines, environmental groups continued to oppose any new northeast pipelines. They have successfully opposed other new projects, including Enbridge’s Atlantic Bridge pipeline, and Williams Energy’s Northeast Enhancement Supply Project. As a result, recently imposed moratoriums placed on new gas connections in Westchester County, New York City and Long Island will continue. Ironically, the Williams project was a very modest one. It called for a new pipeline, only 23.5 miles long, to bring Marcellus gas from Pennsylvania, through New Jersey, to the Rockaway peninsula in New York.

The anti-fossil fuel lobby continues to escalate its war on all forms of carbon-based fuel; and it has a new victory to celebrate in that battle. But before I get to that new victory, let me just add that these environmental zealots also oppose nuclear energy and hydro-electric power, both carbon-free forms of energy. After the closing of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, carbon dioxide levels in the region actually increased the following year, reversing an established trend. Can we expect similar results in eastern Massachusetts, where earlier this year the Pilgrim nuclear plant closed? Just last month, an Eversource project to bring electricity from Hydro Quebec through New Hampshire to Massachusetts was defeated. Eversource spent millions on the project. Abandoning it hurt the utility’s earnings in the recent quarter.

The most recent victory came from the West Coast where the City of Berkeley, California, passed an ordinance (the first in the country) banning any “new” natural gas connections after January 1, 2020. The stated goal of the ordinance is “fossil-free new buildings,” using electricity as the energy source for cooking, heating and hot water for new buildings. Other California cities and towns are considering similar ordinances. The utility serving Berkeley, PG&E, did not oppose the ordinance, presumably because they are also the provider of electricity for the city, and any lost gas customers will be picked up by the electricity side of the house.

A Philadelphia Inquirer story that ran following the adoption of the Berkeley ordinance, asked if Philadelphia would follow suit. The Green New Deal movement may be in favor of such a move, but the Philadelphia energy and political landscape is very different from Berkeley’s. To begin with, Pennsylvania sits atop the Marcellus Shale Play, and the state’s economy is booming, in large part because of its natural gas fortunes. And, unlike Berkeley, the local gas utility is Philadelphia Gas Works, a city-owned municipal utility. Philadelphia Gas Works, unlike PG&E, does not have an electric counterpart. Any move to ban new gas service in Philadelphia will likely face opposition from both the city and the state.

My, has the world of energy changed, and so quickly. What will the next few years have in store? Maybe a new clean, green, renewable liquid fuel? I don’t know; but I’m sure there will be more surprises. Stay tuned.–Thomas J. Tubman

Thomas J. Tubman is executive director of the American Energy Coalition, which promotes the benefits of oil heat in comparison to other energy sources, particularly natural gas.

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