For someone who describes himself as the silent partner in a business, Charles Linksman is pretty vocal. He’s also pretty furious.
“We invested over $400,000 for construction. We got all our permits,” the would-be restaurateur said this week. “We filled out our application for gas, and it was approved. We got a letter of approval but, still, they’re not gonna give us gas.”
Linksman, along with his wife and business partners, own Pho 86, a Vietnamese restaurant in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. But they find themselves in the middle of a tug of war between the utility company National Grid and New York State.
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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in May rejected the regional utility’s application for a new natural gas pipeline, and National Grid promptly responded by declaring a moratorium on new gas hookups. It said it won’t connect any one until it gets the Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline, or NESE for short.
“Nobody ever mentioned this moratorium or this ‘neesy’ thing, when they took our application,” Linksman said, in an event organized by Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. “We lost the whole summer months. That’s very important for getting established. We’re losing $9,000 a month [in rent]. We’ve got employees who can’t work, who can’t support their families. Two more months of this, and we’ll be out of business. We’ll lose our life savings.”
National Grid says it needs the NESE pipeline to increase the supply of natural gas–and without that expansion, it would be dangerous to take on new customers. The company declined a request for interviews, but in an emailed statement, spokeswoman Karen Young said she sympathized with customers like Linksman.
“We’re equally as frustrated that we can’t serve requests for new or expanded gas service for our customers and communities,” Young wrote. “The infrastructure serving the region with gas supply has reached full capacity and is unable to meet growing demand. To add additional service would pose a risk to the operational integrity of our system and jeopardize reliability of service for the existing 1.8 million customers.”
It’s not just small business owners who are in limbo. Housing developers and homeowners undergoing renovation are also facing potential losses, including many who already had gas hookups but temporarily shut them off for repairs. In all, 2,600 applications are on hold, for service to 20,000 residential and commercial units.
“They do not need to have this moratorium,” State Senator Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn), Chairman of the Energy and Telecom Committee, said at a press conference outside National Grid’s office in downtown Brooklyn. “They cannot blackmail legislators by saying, ‘If you do not approve this pipeline, people are not going to have gas.’”
At the same time, Parker spoke about the larger backdrop to the pipeline debate: in the long run, New York wants to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy resources from solar panels and wind turbines. The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act passed last spring requires the state to be “net zero” on greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and an advisory panel will soon begin mapping out a blueprint to get there.
But in the short run, natural gas is much cleaner than oil or coal; it’s relatively cheap and plentiful in the northeast, thanks to technological advances that have tapped major geological reserves; and its explosive growth in this region over the past decade has helped carbon-based emissions plummet.
“Natural gas is a ‘bridge fuel,’” Parker said. “I think eventually we’re going to have to be off of it, but that day isn’t today.”
National Grid said the 20-mile offshore pipeline between New Jersey and Queens would add 400 million cubic feet of gas a day to the current supply of 2.8 billion, a 14-percent increase. Environmentalists say the more infrastructure gets built, the harder it will be to wean everyone from homeowners to power companies off of a non-renewable fuel.
The Department of Public Service is investigating the claims of National Grid and Consolidated Edison – which has imposed a similar freeze on new gas lines in Westchester. A report was expected in July, but Cuomo increased the scope of the investigation.
“If National Grid is unable to provide safe, affordable and reliable service to existing customers, or is unable to properly plan so that it is able to serve new customers,” Cuomo wrote in a public letter to DPS, “I direct you to consider alternatives to National Grid as franchisee for some or all of the areas it currently serves.”
The Cuomo administration declined to be interviewed, citing the ongoing investigation. Last month Cuomo said the timing of the National Grid moratorium following its permit rejection was “suspicious,” and he “won’t be extorted” into approving the pipeline.
In addition to impacting homeowners who have temporarily shut off gas lines to do renovations, the moratorium is throwing a wrench into commercial and residential construction projects.
Standing on a rooftop in Jamaica, Queens, Reuben Jaffe Goldstein looked forlornly at a massive backup generator and a trio of boilers slated to provide heat and hot water to the 159-unit senior housing project he’s helping build.
“We’re looking at scrapping them,” said Jaffe Goldstein, a construction manager for the Fifth Avenue Committee. “They’re built to spec, and you can’t just return them.”
In theory, the building could switch to electricity, but the project has progressed too far to easily retrofit, plus the operating cost of electricity currently would be much higher. And since this housing will be designated affordable, and has special tax breaks, the landlord can’t pass along cost increases to tenants.
So, Jaffe Goldstein is looking at swapping the generator and boilers to dual-fuel, a system that will allow them to run on oil which emits much more carbon dioxide than natural gas.
“It’s the wrong thing to do environmentally,” said Goldstein, who’s proud that the complex is being built to top-energy efficiency standards. “But we might not have a choice.”
If he does have to install dual-fuel units, the building could improve its energy rating in the future, if it eventually gets the natural gas. By then the project will have had to incur millions of dollars in added construction costs, and those would have to come from somewhere.
“It might mean that those solar panels which we were going to put in the parking lot would have to disappear,” he said.