EDITORIAL: Got energy?

SEE IF THIS MAKES SENSE: Gasoline prices have dropped around the country because so much oil is being pumped out of the ground in the US, and when oil prices go down because of abundant supplies, so do natural gas prices, because big users, like electric utilities, can use either oil or natural gas, whichever is cheaper, and both are now extracted by hydraulic fracturing–fracking. So if the price of oil and gas gets too cheap (image that!), fracking won’t be as profitable for the frackers, but that possibility hasn’t discouraged a company that wants to build a natural gas pipeline three times the size of the ones it now operates through northern Columbia County so it can pipe gas from wells in Pennsylvania to the Massachusetts coastline. You still awake?

These random snippets of news from the nation’s energy matrix don’t explain why gasoline is now 25 cents a gallon cheaper here than it was a year ago and almost a dollar less than in 2008 as the nation lurched toward the Great Recession. But they suggest it isn’t just coincidence that the Kinder Morgan Company wants to expand its natural gas pipeline facilities here at the same time that electric utilities are vying for the right to build new, higher voltage power lines through other parts of the county.These expansion plans are not about us, the people who live here. We just happen to be in the way. There are pipelines and power lines already in place in our back yards, and it makes sense to locate new facilities alongside old ones, or so the companies would have us believe.

A third factor is that the companies who want to build these lines to transport fuel and electricity say this new infrastructure is merely a response to public demand. They have a point.

But let’s go back to the notion that routing the projects through rural areas like ours is the best place to put the pipes or wires regardless of what the people who live in these areas think of the idea. Suppose the pipe and power line companies were given preference in the regulatory process for proposing ways to avoid disrupting individual lives and properties and the public’s right to enjoy the landscape? Would it be technically impossible to bury pipelines or cables in the median of the Thruway?

On the face of it, running new energy conduits along existing corridors sounds like a smart way to move fuel and power to where it’s needed most. But maybe this is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist… or could be fixed by other means.
That was the conclusion of distinguished scientist and researcher who spoke recently about the proposed power line through Claverack, Stuyvesant, Stockport and Livingston. Gidon Eshel, PhD, a geophysicist and currently a research professor at Bard College, examined the premise advanced by Governor Cuomo and state officials that increasing demand by the metropolis to our south requires new power line capacity. Not so, said Dr. Eshel, whose data and calculations indicate the current system can deliver all the electricity New York City needs for decades ahead, especially if city residents would use energy a little more wisely.

Although Prof. Eshel did not address the gas pipeline, perhaps similar principles apply to the Kinder Morgan plan. Here, a private firm is willing to risk the investment in a new pipeline on the assumption that it can make a profit based on anticipated demand. That’s the type of risk that capitalists take in search of big returns. It also raises the question for people who live along the route of the pipeline about what happens if the demand doesn’t materialize as anticipated and the company fails, which is also a feature of capitalist systems.

Experts might say nothing will stem the demand for plentiful natural gas harvested by hydraulic fracturing. But what happens if the price of oil continues its astonishing drop from well over $100 a barrel to under $80, and gas follows suit? What happens to profits if taxpayers need help shouldering the costs of climate change accelerated by the extraction of gas and ask frackers to pitch in?

The subject here is money. It’s about who pays for the folly of believing that the more energy we use the better off we’ll be. These two projects, and others that surely will follow, must be subjected to greater scrutiny along the lines of Prof. Eshel’s work, if not by regulatory agencies then from the courts.

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