When Governors Face Real World Energy Choices

Hand holding light bulb in front of global show the world's consumption with icons energy sources for renewable, sustainable development. Ecology concept

Last week, New York City area utility Consolidated Edison notified regulators that, as of March 15, it would accept no new natural gas customers in Westchester County due to supply shortages.  It is possible that cutoffs in the City itself may follow.  While this is happening, New York City is requiring customers to switch out of dirtier burning fuel oil.  Most are seeking natural gas.  Already, over 5000 buildings in the City have made the switch.  Meanwhile, as prior commentary in this blog has noted, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration have stymied all attempts to build a new pipeline that would be capable of supplying the City and other areas, like New England, with plentiful and inexpensive natural gas from the nearby Marcellus Shale region.

Once again we are seeing the Alice in Wonderland effects of New York State environmental incoherence.  It desperately needs energy to grow, and also to improve environmental air quality, but does everything possible to prevent that energy from being available.

New York’s inconsistent energy policies make Amazon’s decision to build massively in Long Island City quite curious.  The metropolitan New York area has numerous advantages, but it simply may not have access to enough energy needed to power the growth it seeks.

The energy dilemma cannot just be wished away.  The implications of not building pipelines and securing our energy future are real and starting to bite.  Without reliable energy supply, regions can’t grow.  Without growth, there will be no jobs for an expanding population.  Intellectual discussions and arguments about the large job opportunities available in the renewable sector are nice, but where are they?  More to the point, where is the consistent supply of energy that will be provided by these renewable sources?

Out west in Oregon, newly reelected Governor Kate Brown, who ran on a progressive, clean energy platform, faces a challenge from her left with a new Clean Energy Jobs bill.  Back in 2007, Oregon set goals for reducing its carbon emissions in 2010, 2020 and 2050.  It met its goals for 2010 but admits it will not do so for 2020.  In fact, the Oregon Global Warming Commission predicts the State will over-pollute in 2020 by 20%.  There is an interim goal for 2035, but lawmakers may choose to ignore that and concentrate on 2050.  This has environmental advocates alarmed.

Ironically, one proven way for the environmental advocates to reduce CO2 emissions is through increased use of natural gas.  They have not been inclined to accept that option, however, putting all their eggs in the basket of renewables.  Governor Brown then likely will face the problem Governor Cuomo faces.  She will run a left-leaning state with a well-meaning yet unrealistic program for achieving goals about which most of us can agree.  Governor Cuomo has chosen one path.  It won him electoral platitudes but now faces future trauma.  It will be interesting to see which way Governor Brown goes.

In Pennsylvania, the long battle over the Mariner East 2 pipeline appears over.  Last week the Public Utility Commission ruled that a landowner group had failed to show that safety concerns necessitated an emergency shutdown of the pipeline.  In typical fashion for this matter, two days later another sinkhole exposed a section of the older Mariner 1 pipeline.  Chester County emergency service officials stressed there was no damage to the pipeline and no danger, but the entire situation continues to be messy and delicate.  It does not help public perception that a horrific gasoline pipeline explosion in central Mexico predated the Mariner 1 sinkhole occurrence by a few days.

Internationally, and ironically, the country with the world’s largest proven oil reserves, Venezuela, falls deeper and deeper into turmoil.  President Nicolas Maduro’s security forces put down another mini-uprising Monday, but nationwide demonstrations have been called for Wednesday, the anniversary of the end of the most recent military dictatorship in 1958.  Venezuela’s oil production has plummeted along with the rest of its economy, and President Maduro has given away large amounts of it to Russia in exchange for needed foreign reserve to service its enormous debt.

Despite starving his nation, Maduro retains the loyalty of large segments of the military command.  Those commanders don’t carry the guns that fire on the starving people, however.  The weapons themselves are in the hands of individual soldiers commanded on the street by junior officers.  It remains a confounding question as to why the opposition, which still exists in Venezuela, has been so unsuccessful in convincing the junior officers that their long term interests do not lie with Maduro and the senior military commanders but with the starving people in the streets.

Of course, should Maduro’s regime eventually fall, it would set in motion the need for some fancy diplomatic footwork and military readiness, something neither the Trump Administration, nor its predecessor, have shown much capability to implement.  Under those circumstances, energy markets would be thrown another huge curve ball.  Both our government and companies retaining any interest in Venezuela, either directly or indirectly, should be planning for these scenarios right now.

For those of you in most of the country, try to stay warm.  I’ll be in Texas in two weeks.  Hopefully the wind chill will be in the positive numbers down there at that time.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.

 

Pipelines and Politics

Marcellus Shale Update by Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

The tortured story of the Mariner East 2 Pipeline construction may be coming to an end.  If so, it will end the way it began, mired in controversy and inconsistent with what had been proposed and promised by the developers.

Last Thursday, Energy Transfer Partners announced that it will start shipping natural gas liquids through the pipeline by the end of the year.  That pipeline, however, will look different from what had been expected.  The original plans called for a 16-inch pipeline (Mariner 2X) and a 20-inch pipeline (Mariner 2) that each would run along the same right-of-way as the original Mariner East Pipeline from 1931.  ETP now says it only will construct one pipeline, that will merge an existing 12-inch pipe with certain areas of 16-inch pipe and other areas of 20-inch pipe, and this will be called Mariner East 2.  ETP did not explain why its plans had changed, how much of each size pipe will be used, and why the final route through Delaware and Chester Counties in Pennsylvania will be slightly different than previously stated.

Not surprisingly, local residents and elected officials were not pleased.  Pennsylvania State Senator Andy Dinniman, who has been a longtime critic of the pipeline and has also pointed out instances of ETP’s failure to follow State regulations, released a statement that said in part “the cobbling together of new and antiquated pipelines of varying sizes appears to have the potential for even more safety risks and concerns.”

As Mariner East limps toward the finish line, natural gas prices surged this week to five-year highs.  The early storm combined with low stockpiles to produce spot market prices over $4/Mcf.  With winter still a month away, this should be a good time for the natural gas industry to redouble its efforts to convince the Northeast public about the virtues of the pipeline buildout.  The industry has an excellent case to make, both economically and ecologically.  Stories like Mariner 2 however, put the industry in a deep hole.  It’s hard to convince the public of the environmental benefits when a feature project is recycling antiquated pipe at the last minute without explanation.  If the gas industry wants to thrive in the Marcellus, it might try doing itself a favor and treating the public like the concerned residents most are.

Elsewhere, judicial and administrative rulings affected other Marcellus pipelines.  Last Wednesday, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a temporary halt to a water crossing permit in West Virginia needed to build the Atlantic Coast Pipeline from West Virginia to North Carolina.  The Court ruled that two conditions required by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to protect the state’s water quality, including a requirement that the stream crossing must be completed within 72 hours, had not been met.  The three judge panel in Charleston, which in October had issued a similar stay to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, overruled an Army Corps of Engineers grant which was issued following a route change.  This should be worked out without much difficulty, but it adds to the suspicion with which pipeline projects currently are viewed.

Finally, FERC granted the Constitution Pipeline, which would run from Dimock, Pennsylvania to Schoharie County, New York, a two-year extension to complete the project.  The unanimous ruling came from two Democratic commissioners and one Republican commissioner.  The Constitution is much needed and was the source of the original power grab by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo regarding the Section 401 Clean Streams Permit, a power play that has been copied by other activist governors (and in spirit by Premier John Horgan of the Canadian Province of British Columbia).

The ruling may be prophetic.  Just one week after winning reelection, Cuomo is in serious political trouble.  Details of the extraordinary giveaways New York State made to the richest man in the world, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, so that Amazon would locate one of its new headquarters in Long Island City have put Governor Cuomo squarely on the defensive.  From an Upstate New York perspective, Amazon is another case of Upstaters getting taxed heavily and having their industry stymied so that New York State Government literally can give their money away to a multi-billionaire for the benefit of Downstaters.

New York’s natural prices already are rising.  A difficult winter possibly is approaching and New York needs gas, which it may have to import again from Vladimir Putin.  None of this looks good for Governor Cuomo, especially with the 2020 Presidential Election season approaching.  It is possible that the Governor may have to do something that actually helps the Southern Tier and build the pipeline.  This will begin to unlock the Marcellus potential for the benefit of New York, New England and the entire United States.  If so, it means we could be less dependent on the Russian dictator for our energy.  That should strike all of us as a good thing.

Questions? Let Dan know.

Daniel Markind of Flaster Greenberg

Daniel Markind is a shareholder at Flaster Greenberg PC with over 35 years of experience as a real estate and corporate transactional attorney. He has represented individuals and companies in the energy industry for over 20 years. Dan is a frequent lecturer on Marcellus Shale and other mineral extraction issues and is regularly asked to speak at conferences, in the media and at other venues regarding energy issues and their legal and political implications.