A year and a half after Hurricane Sandy swept surging seas over the Rockaway spit, the neighborhood is finally beginning to claw its way back to a normal summer. Fort Tilden beach, closed to the public last summer season due to dangerous debris left by the storm, has finally reopened. And what better way to celebrate the partial recovery from a climate-change-fueled Superstorm than by laying a high-pressure fracked-gas transmission pipeline right under the beach?

At this very moment, work is underway on the Rockaway Lateral Project, a giant 26-inch diameter pipeline that will bring 647,000 dekatherms per day of fracked natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, under high pressure, beneath the beach, under a golf course, under the Marine Parkway Bridge, through Floyd Bennett Field, and into a new meter and regulator station in an old hangar at the airfield before connecting to distribution lines running up Flatbush Avenue into Brooklyn.

After all the noise about the Keystone XL and the Spectra Pipeline, the Rockaway Lateral is the pipeline no one has heard about. That’s partly because it doesn’t run through the back yards of any private property owners, whose NIMBY opposition often make up the majority of the popular resistance to new pipeline construction. Instead, this pipeline runs exclusively through federal property—specifically, the Gateway National Recreation Area.

The path of the pipeline (Williams)

Ordinarily, it’s pretty hard for gas companies to lay pipe through taxpayer-protected parkland. But less than a month after Sandy, ethically embattled and all-around-reasonable guy Rep. Michael Grimm pushed a law through Congress granting an energy company the right to do just that. At the time, the giveaway went mostly unremarked in the Rockaways. “People had just been flooded,” says Clare Donohue of the Sane Energy Project, which opposes the new pipeline. “They were displaced. They had more immediate fish to fry.”

That’s an appropriate phrase for shooting flammable gas through the ocean, because pipelines like these have an astounding tendency to explode. Over the last five years, transmission lines like the Rockaway Project have had 17 “serious incidents,” the federal regulator’s term for cases involving death or in-patient hospitalization.

Add in the “significant incidents,” those involving an explosion, damages of more than $50,000, or the release of a significant amount of liquid, and you’re looking at 367 incidents in the last five years, causing 82 injuries and more than $684 million in damages.

How bad can it be? To date the most spectacular explosion of a pipe like this is probably the 2010 San Bruno explosion, which flattened 35 houses in a suburban subdivision, killing eight people and carving out a crater 167 feet long and four stories deep. The explosion registered with the U.S. Geological Survey as a 1.1 magnitude earthquake.

More specifically, the company building the Rockaway pipeline, Williams Transco, and its parent, Williams, have a troubling safety record. Without reaching back too far, some of Williams’s most galling mistakes include:

The drill bit at the job site (No Rockaway Pipeline)

This is hardly an exhaustive list.

"When it comes to safety, we've been delivering gas to New York City for more than 50 years," said Chris Stockton, a spokesman for Williams Transco. "Most people haven't heard of us, because we've been doing it without incident." Asked about other Williams safety issues outside of New York, Stockton said Williams has a very good safety record within the industry, and exceeds federal regulations in a number of areas.

Stockton also disputed characterizing the New Jersey incident as an explosion and noted that the 13 people who were treated on the scene were not necessarily injured (another news report referred to it as a "flash fire," while the local mayor called it a "minor explosion").

Less spectacular than the threat of cataclysmic explosion, there’s the fact that gas derived from fracking has a relatively high radon content, and because it isn’t traveling as far as gas that comes from more traditional sources, the radon doesn’t have as much time to cook off before the gas enters your home. Activists are concerned that this could mean that consumers will be exposed to elevated levels of the radioactive gas, the leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.

Just how serious this issue actually is remains hotly contested, but pending legislation in Albany would put a limit on how much radon natural gas distributors can pump into people’s homes.

And thanks to some clever maneuvering, the leg of the pipeline that runs under the bridge was classified as a distribution pipeline, even though it runs at the same pressure and diameter as the other segments classified as transmission pipeline. This allowed that leg to be built without any substantial oversight at all, and it was built last summer. (It’s worth noting that a federal court ruling earlier this month makes it plain that splitting up pipeline projects like this to avoid regulatory oversight is completely illegal.)

Photography is banned on the job site (No Rockaway Pipeline)

Work has already begun on the meter station, where the high-pressure gas from the transmission line will be stepped down to a lower pressure for the distribution network in Brooklyn. Maureen Healy, a member of Coalition Against the Rockaway Pipeline, is worried that even when operating properly, gas vented from the station will affect people visiting Floyd Bennett Field. But she’s especially worried about what will happen to the equipment, built a foot off the hangar floor in an area 16 feet above sea level, in the event of a storm.

“When Sandy came through, the waters crested at 14 feet,” Healy says. “And Sandy wasn’t even a Category-5 storm!”

The other piece of construction that will begin any day now begins in a tiny plot of land on the Rockaway peninsula between the bridge and Jacob Riis beach. There, a drill will burrow about 70 feet into the earth before turning sideways, and drilling out, under the Riis Park Pitch and Putt golf course, under the beach and the shallows, before emerging from the sand about a half a mile out.

From there, a barge will lay the pipe on the ocean floor to its connection with the existing Lower New York Bay Extension pipeline two miles offshore. Activists like Healy are worried about what sort of drilling fluids will spew out into the coastal waters when the drill bursts out of the sand off the beach. Williams Transco is not.

Neither is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency which reviews and approves proposed pipelines, and which is funded entirely by fees collected from the industry it’s charged with regulating.

Environmentalists call FERC a rubber stamp machine, a regulator completely captured by the industry it’s supposed to oversee. The commission has approved every single pipeline proposal companies have ever brought before it, except for the ones the applicants withdrew themselves.

Originally, the Rockaway Lateral was approved for construction in the winter and spring months, when there would be less vulnerable sea life in the ocean and fewer humans on the beach, and piping plovers, a threatened sea bird species wouldn’t be building their delicate nests in the sand.

But as soon as the draft environmental impact statement came out last October, Williams Transco announced that the pipeline would be built in the summer after all. The environmental review premised on winter construction? Close enough, no need to revisit it, FERC ruled.

Far Rockaway after Sandy (via)

Whatever the local impact of the pipeline may be, there’s a broader argument that building out natural gas infrastructure is actually a net positive for New York and for the environment. It’s true that natural gas burns cleaner than some other fossil fuels. Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City instituted regulations requiring buildings to phase out boilers that burn some of those, fuel oils #4 and #6, in favor of alternatives like natural gas. Despite hitting some snags, the NYC Clean Heat initiative has been good news for the air quality in parts of New York.

But the initiative is also a huge driver for the city’s demand for natural gas. According to a commissioned by the Mayors Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability in 2012, the city’s demand for natural gas was going to grow at less than one percent a year. The completion of the Clean Heat program, the report estimated, would increase the city’s average daily needs by 30 percent. “The increases stemming from conversions from heavy oil to natural gas, when added to other growth forecast by the [gas suppliers], will require additional upstream gas supply capacity, including new pipelines,” the report concluded.

Environmentalists disagree about whether replacing the heavy fuel oils with natural gas is ultimately wise if it means significantly expanding the city’s reliance on fracked gas. Groups like Citizens Against the Rockaway Pipeline contend that building out more fossil-fuel infrastructure is foolish in the face of pending climate disaster. “You don't build a house to live in it for one summer,” Healy says. “Infrastructure is a commitment for 40 or 50 years down the road.”

Others say there’s little choice, and that for the moment, natural gas is our best option for putting the brakes on climate change until we get more sustainable sources like wind and solar energy up and running on a sufficient scale. “Natural gas is here,” says Adam Peltz, a lawyer at the Environmental Defense Fund. “We’re the fifth largest user in the country. we have been for some time. We are switching to renewables, but it’s not an immediate process.”


For all the construction and potential for environmental disruption, the pipeline isn't actually going to increase the city's supply of natural gas that much. Most of what it carries will be gas that would have come in on other pipes anyway. As FERC regulators wrote, "We note that a small portion (about 15 percent by volume) of the natural gas to be provided by the Projects to National Grid is incremental (i.e., additional).The majority (about 85 percent by volume) is replacement gas, which currently is provided to National Grid via the existing delivery point in Long Beach."

What is becoming clear, is that natural gas is hardly the magical bridge that gas companies have sold it as. Sure, the methane in natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than many fossil fuels when it’s burned, but when that methane leaks unburned into the atmosphere, it’s as much as 84 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. And it turns out that between the fracking and the extraction and all the pipelines, shale gas infrastructure leaks a lot.

A 2011 Cornell study found that as much as 7.9 percent of fracked gas ends up in the atmosphere unburned, leading the researchers to conclude that from a climate perspective, shale gas is hardly an improvement over coal or oil.

And while fracked gas is cheap now, there’s reason to believe that won’t last. The industry is furiously building liquefied natural gas terminals and retrofitting pipelines to allow gas to flow backwards, all so the bounty of the Marcellus Shale can be exported overseas to Asia and Europe, where prices are sometimes double those in the domestic market. As soon as the international trade opens up, it’s a fair bet that the cheap natural gas Americans have been enjoying for the past several years will get a lot more expensive. If that’s true, New York could be getting hooked on a cheap energy source right before the dealer jacks up the price.

Of course, with the approval process concluded and construction virtually underway, the Rockaway Lateral looks like a done deal. Even the CARP activists who fought long and hard against it consider the pipeline inevitable at this point. But this summer, a new group calling itself No Rockaway Pipeline has popped up on the beaches and on social media, distributing flyers that declare their intention “to take over the beach and stop the Rockaway Pipeline for good.”

Whether that’s a realistic goal at this late stage remains to be seen (representatives from the group declined to comment or elaborate on their plans), but the newcomers seem determined to try. Still, time is running out. Construction on the pipeline will begin any day now, and Williams says it expects gas will be flowing under your favorite Rockaway beaches by the fourth quarter of this year.

Nick Pinto is a freelance writer living in New York.