EDITORIAL: Is it Nimby or Noop?

LITTLE BITS OF GOOD news about the environment have been dribbling out recently, including word that the Columbia County communities ordering special tests of their water supplies found no sign of the nasty chemical called PFOA. It’s enough to fill a glass above the half-empty line.

In Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh in neighboring Rensselaer County, PFOA, a suspected cancer-causing chemical, has polluted municipal and private wells. Now residents there must rely on belated government efforts to filter their water so it’s safe by current standards for bathing, cooking and drinking. They also face uncertainties about the long-term effects PFOA exposure will have on their health, not to mention how it’s polluted the value of their homes. By comparison, we’ve been lucky.

Depending on your point of view there was other good news this week with the decision by Kinder Morgan, a large gas pipeline company, which is withdrawing its plan to build a new gas pipeline through southern Rensselaer County and much of Massachusetts.

This is a Columbia County newspaper and if this editorial looks like news from somewhere else, remember that originally Kinder Morgan planned to run the pipeline through the northern part of Columbia County, where it already operates a smaller pipeline.

Residents here didn’t like the idea and organized to block it, arguing that the pipeline was too big and dangerous, and that it wouldn’t contribute to the economy because the gas would be shipped overseas. They also argued that the gas came from fracking wells in Pennsylvania and that the environmental costs of fracked gas is too high, regardless of how cheap the price is compared to other fossil fuels. Not long after pipeline opponents here got organized, Kinder Morgan announced that it had found a better route for the pipeline, one that would bypass Columbia County and run instead through southern Rensselaer County.

But Rensselaer County didn’t roll over for Kinder Morgan either. Residents there picked up where Columbia County left off. In the meantime the public has learned more about fracked gas, like how much methane gas escapes from wells and how methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. We know about earthquakes where fracking waste is injected underground and about swaths of Midwest farmland destroyed by mining for the sand fracking requires. Nice that they do these things somewhere else and not in on our part of the planet, huh?

Kinder Morgan didn’t mention community opposition in its letter to federal regulators withdrawing the pipeline application. The company said it just didn’t have enough customers to make the pipeline profitable. It sounds odd that an experienced firm with the money to build a $3-billion pipeline would get the route wrong and then, suddenly, discover that, Oops, the figures don’t add up.

Kinder Morgan’s decision to bail out hurts members of some building trade unions who are losing an opportunity for high-paying jobs during the construction of the pipeline. Reminding them that those jobs would have been temporary misses the point; that’s the nature of building projects. Natural gas consumers at wherever the gas would have been burned lose out on the pipeline’s benefits too–in Europe, perhaps, if the New England market is really as soft as the company claims.

The benefits to the winners are more difficult to measure though no less important. Communities and property owners on the pipeline route have escaped the disruption and anxiety that would have come with the project. But that narrow view of the outcome masks the larger value of local action to address a global threat head-on.

Right now and for some time to come we will need Kinder Morgan and the infrastructure and expertise of oil and gas companies to function as a nation and a society. What has changed is that Kinder Morgan and other fossil fuel companies are no longer entitled to assume that the rules will work only to their benefit.

What if Kinder Morgan is telling the truth? What if demand for fossil fuels, even cheap fracked natural gas, is dropping? What if that’s because people are switching to renewable energy? In that case the actions of community groups like the opponents of the pipeline and the people all around the region who demand to know what impact new development will have on humans and our environment can’t be written off as nimby fringe. Instead they’re expressing the will of the public. Call it NOOP, not on our planet. It’s good news.

Comments are closed.