On Friday, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation dealt a final blow to the Williams Pipeline, a contentious $1 billion proposed pipeline extension that the state had denied twice already. Yet, that same day, National Grid, who is also building a related controversial pipeline, right underneath North Brooklyn, quietly announced that it plans to resume construction on Monday, after the project had been paused by the still-ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know the fight is not over,” Kim Fraczek, director of the Sane Energy Project, told Bushwick Daily. That night’s ruling against the Williams pipeline was widely celebrated as a win for organizers and activists and for organizations and activism, a suggestion that people who lived in a place might have the right to dictate what happened to it. It was celebrated by the local DSA, by former gubernatorial candidate Cythia Nixon and by Mark Ruffalo too.
When the Williams pipeline had been approved back in May by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, National Grid agreed to buy vast quantities of gas for which they claimed to now need to expand their own pipelines under Brooklyn to accommodate. When the planned Williams pipeline first showed signs that it didn’t have very much local support and, in fact, had become a symbol of something that people were very much against, National Grid suddenly issued its now-notorious moratorium on new gas hook-ups in the borough, a decision that forced restaurants all over Bushwick to suddenly shutter their doors.
The impression one gets speaking to activists like Fraczek is not only that the fight is not over, but that it is part of a never-ending struggle with companies who are motivated, financially, to build as much natural gas infrastructure as they can. More construction means more business and a larger pool of money from which they can take a cut. The companies don’t pay for the pipelines either; in fact, the money is taken from consumers in the form of rate hikes. Fraczek and her group have spent much of the past year before the New York State Department of Public Service, fighting the approval of these hikes.
National Grid’s decision to vastly expand their network of pipelines underneath Brooklyn was not motivated by actual increases in their customer’s needs, activists say–in fact, according to a report earlier this month, the COVID-19 pandemic, among other other factors, has led the company to decrease its projections for demand for the next 15 years.
Preventing the Williams pipeline from being built was a year-long effort, complete with, just last week, a petition signed by 11,663 people outlining their continued opposition to the move. They say fighting the pipeline in northern Brooklyn will take a redoubling of just the same amount of effort.
“They’re tunneling us from every point they can,” Fraczek said on Friday of her fight against the pipe-laying efforts of the two gasoline giants. Her and her colleague Lee Ziesche, Sane’s Community Engagement Coordinator, also pointed toward National Grid’s efforts to expand its methane gas refinery on the tip of Greenpoint and suggests the company will propose expanding those facilities as well. The company’s thirty-inch piping project under Brooklyn had continued until the very last minute, calling itself an “essential infrastructure project” until it appeared likely that an actual ban on non-essential construction projects amid the COVID-19 pandemic would force that claim to be investigated.
A day before announcing that it would resume construction in East Williamsburg, National Grid attempted to get in touch with Bushwick Daily, via outreach the company had bought from the public relations firm SKDKnickerbocker. Owned these days by Clinton-era pollster Mark Penn, the shadowy firm became notable for making ads for the Keystone XL pipeline and, more recently, the Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group, a company that was sued last year for spying on journalists and activists. An executive at SKDKnickerbocker, a certain Todd Williamson who had once been a bureaucrat at the USDA during the Obama administration, mysteriously found my number and called me to say that the company wanted readers to get a better understanding of the vital infrastructure that the company needed to get done in the neighborhood.
Morgan Hook, a former TV anchor for various local news channels who now also works for SKDKnickerbocker, told Bushwick Daily that he wanted to to talk “about how these projects get approved, the outreach Grid has done over the years and, just myth vs. reality of the projects [and] the kind of information that gets missed when we’re responding to advocacy groups.” Hook had called the next day and brought along Karen Young, who manages media relations for National Grid’s Brooklyn project.
When Bushwick Daily declined the opportunity to hear what they had to say off the record about the company’s work in the neighborhood, they immediately hung up.
“I’m maybe a little cynical,” State Senator Julia Salazar told Bushwick Daily that day about whether or not National Grid would keep to its stopping construction amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already counted over 20,000 confirmed and probable deaths in New York City alone.
Among the first politicians leading efforts to stop National Grid’s project, which is partially in her district, Salazar says that, as far as her office is aware, the project is “indefinitely stopped,” but cautions that we can never be too sure.
“It’s completely counterintuitive to our climate justice goals that we would be expanding gas infrastructure at all,” she says.
She’s among a number of New York state senators who have co-sponsored a package of legislation that would radically change how electricity is managed in downstate New York, including an effort that would force companies like National Grid and Con Edison out of the marketplace and replace them with a state-owned power authority, instead of allowing the companies to run the local monopolies they have. Another of the bills, which she authored, would also require all state and municipal properties to be powered with renewable energy. This would include all of the public housing run by the New York City Housing Authority; back in January, Ziesche had noted that a number of National Grid’s plans involved tunneling underneath numerous NYCHA apartment buildings in Crown Heights and Brownsville.
Fraczek, who lives near the latest site where National Grid was last laying its larger pipe project, amid protests, says that she’ll be keeping watch at those stilled bulldozers, inky black tubing and road-stoppage signs.
“This is just a moneymaker for their shareholders and it’s poisoning us in the meantime,” she says. The fight will go on.
Top photo shows National Grid workers at work shortly before work in Brooklyn was stopped by the COVID-19 pandemic, courtesy of Erik McGregor.
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