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Editorial: Pipeline decision still leaves crucial need for natural gas

The Department of Environmental Conservation’s rejection of National Fuel’s plan for a natural gas pipeline across Western New York may be a defensible decision, but it’s one that should be further tested. There is enough benefit in the pipeline and enough history of careful construction that the decision shouldn’t be the final one.

That may call for negotiation. Meeting Tuesday with The Buffalo News editorial board, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the DEC’s concerns would have been around safety in general and as it relates to the likely economic impact of the project. But he also said, unreservedly, that natural gas is a critical fuel and that pipeline projects can be safely undertaken, achieving their goals while protecting the environment from hazards. The trick, he said, is in doing it right – and that can cost more.

The company’s initial response doesn’t sound like its leaders are in much of a mood for negotiating. “While New York proclaims it is ‘open for business,’ and a ‘premier place to invest and grow,’ the DEC’s action belies that claim,” said Ronald J. Tanski, the company’s president and CEO. Still, revisions to the project or an appeal of the decision are the only plausible ways forward.

National Fuel wants to build a 97-mile pipeline to carry natural gas from northwestern Pennsylvania to Elma and, after that, to export it to markets that include Canada. With hydraulic fracturing, Pennsylvania is producing large amounts of inexpensive natural gas, but the price is depressed by insufficient infrastructure to transport the fuel. That’s the problem the company, based in Amherst, was trying to resolve with the Northern Access Pipeline.

No one wants pipelines nearby, but they are a fact of life. Without them, millions of northern homes would have no heat. And delivery by pipeline is generally safer than other modes of transportation.
Some critics object to expanding the use of natural gas, which, as clean burning as it is, remains a fossil fuel. It is so inexpensive, they fear it will discourage development of even cleaner fuels.

But there is no plausible choice right now. Solar, wind and other renewable energies are not at the point where they can provide sufficient power. And natural gas is far cleaner than coal, and provides substantial environmental benefits when it can substitute for coal or oil.

The DEC’s decision was based on its conclusions that the pipeline, as proposed, created too big a threat to water quality and wildlife. There was special concern over its potential impact in crossing Cattaraugus Creek. That watershed supplies drinking water to residents in a 325-square-mile area.

That’s a significant issue and, along with other factors, it distinguishes the pipeline from other environmentally sensitive projects approved by the DEC and cited by National Fuel. They included the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River and demolition of the Route 219 bridge over Cattaraugus Creek.

National Fuel says it provided information that should have assured the DEC of the safety of the project but, plainly, something was amiss. Nevertheless, the project is worth pursuing. The company should be willing to rework the project to overcome environmental objections.

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