This week, the New York City Council is expected to pass a bill that would ban gas hookups in new buildings, a big step towards the electrification of New York City.
Twenty-nine of 51 City Council members have sponsored the bill, which would effectively do away with all gas stoves, gas furnaces and gas water heaters in new NYC buildings. The law would go into effect for buildings under seven stories tall at the end of 2023 and apply to taller buildings starting in mid-2027.
“I think our city is really in a leadership role here. If we can pass this bill to electrify buildings at New York City’s level of government, it’s going to demonstrate to the entire state and the entire country that this is absolutely achievable,” Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, representing Assembly District 50, said about the bill.
When asked if the plan is realistic and if the city has enough energy supply to sustain it, Ben Furnas, the director of the Mayor’s Office on Climate and Sustainability noted, “We have a very high level of confidence that this type of shift towards electric heating, towards types of deep carbon emission reductions, are possible.”
At the state level, Senate Bill S6843A, the “all-electric building act,” would require new buildings to be fully electric starting in 2024. The bill was introduced in May by State Senator Brian Kavanagh, a Democrat representing the 26th Senate District. Currently, the bill is being reviewed by the Senate Committee on Housing, Construction and Community Development and has not been set for a vote yet.
The state, though, doesn’t currently produce enough electric supply for its demand, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Additional supply is brought in from other states and from Canada. And yet, New York State uses less electricity per capita than most other states. This means that if electricity consumption is to increase, more electricity supply will need to be generated in the state or brought from elsewhere. A positive sign, though, is that in 2020, for the first time, more electricity in New York State was produced by renewable resources than by nuclear plants.
All the while, the fight against the North Brooklyn Pipeline, which brings in natural gas through areas of Brooklyn, continues. It’s hard to parse how the city will arrive at its outlined plan to move towards greener energy sources when non-renewable energy infrastructure is still being built.
For years, Bushwick residents and activists have opposed a natural gas pipeline National Grid has been building in the neighborhood. Colloquially known as the North Brooklyn Pipeline, its construction is in direct opposition to the strides the city is making to leave natural gas behind and transition to renewable energies.
Three out of five homes in the state of New York use natural gas for heating, and there is a predicted 21% increase in natural gas bills this winter compared to last year, according to the Department of Public Services.
Yet, in recent years, there have been some significant advances in moving away from fracked gas. Following a 2014 study that revealed the quality of air and water were affected in areas of fracked gas extraction, fracking was banned in the state by executive order of the governor. That ban was made more permanent last year, when it was codified in the 2021 state budget.
That’s particularly significant because New York is one of many states on the Marcellus Shale, an area rich in natural gas. The area, which also covers parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky is estimated to be the largest natural gas reserve in the United States.
Lee Ziesche, who works at Sane Energy project and is an organizer at No North Brooklyn Pipeline, explained over a telephone interview that it’s a challenge to inform neighbors about what is going on. “People don’t really understand how our energy system works — that there’s literally pipelines all over the place, pretty much bringing a dangerous fossil fuel … You can follow your pipe that connects to your building back to a bigger pipe, to a bigger pipe that leads to a fracking well.”
“Pipeline,” though, does seem to be a word that carries a recognizable negative connotation with it. Lee explained that when she’s out sharing flyers and reaching out to neighbors, “a lot of people will stop and talk to you because yeah, they do understand that pipeline is bad, but they don’t understand that this is how they get gas to their homes and that really the fight’s much, much bigger than than the North Brooklyn Pipeline.”
Last month, volunteers and organizers gathered at Kávé, a coffee shop in Bushwick, to write letters to neighbors, informing them about the pipeline that National Grid is building under their homes and businesses.
Kim Fraczek, an organizer of the group, who works at Sane Energy Project, explained that National Grid has been passing on the cost of the pipeline project to residents. That’s why No North Brooklyn Pipeline organized a strike to ask neighbors to withhold $66 from their heating bills. That amount represents what each of them is being billed for the project. To this day, Kim notes that 500 people have signed on to the strike. That’s a small fraction of the total population affected by the increase in cost, which she estimates is 1.9 million people citywide, since the rate hike started over a year ago.
In large, the natural gas that is consumed in New York comes from Pennsylvania, but fracked gas doesn’t only affect areas where it is extracted. It also has a direct impact on those who use it in their homes or live near it.
“Asthma is really a huge problem in Brownsville and in Greenpoint, bookending the top and bottom locations of the pipeline,” said Anna Tsomo, an organizer with No North Brooklyn Pipeline who also works at Sane Energy Project. She was first alerted to the fact that she and her family lived near the pipeline because of a flyer No North Brooklyn Pipeline distributed. She got involved in the group’s organizing because she was concerned about how the pipeline contributed to climate change but also out of a concern for her family and neighbor’s health.
There are currently two civil rights investigations open in relation to the pipeline. As first reported by The City on Nov. 19, the U.S. Department of Transportation agreed to investigate whether the New York State Department of Public Service “discriminated on the basis of race” when it approved the pipeline project “without analyzing the adverse disparate impact of the pipeline on the African-American and Latinx New Yorkers.” Among other neighborhoods, the pipeline runs through Brownsville, Bushwick and Bedford-Stuyvesant—neighborhoods that have predominantly Latino or Black residents.
The DOT investigation is the second of its kind. According to a separate letter, also first obtained by The City, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is investigating the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s actions.
Although most of the pipeline is already built, activists are now focused on fighting a permit that National Grid has applied for in order to install two new vaporizers at its Greenpoint facility.
In a report from May 2020, National Grid outlined the 59 million dollar vaporizer project as a possible solution to meet an estimated gap in gas demand and supply for the future. According to No North Brooklyn Pipeline, the vaporizers would increase greenhouse gas emissions as well as air pollution locally. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation was expected to give their decision on the permit on Dec. 6, but they have delayed it to Feb. 7, 2022.
No North Brooklyn Pipeline doesn’t have any upcoming events listed on its website at the moment, but the group is asking neighbors to spread the word by committing to distributing flyers, and joining the gas bill strike.
Ariana Perez-Castells is a journalist studying in the Bilingual Journalism Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly explained the process of vaporizing. The sentence was deleted at 1:20 p.m. on Dec. 14.
Featured image: Activists, volunteers and organizers at Kávé, a coffee shop in Bushwick, writing notes to neighbors.
All images: Ariana Perez-Castells.
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