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Trump orders may limit states’ power to block pipelines

File photo
Anti-pipeline activists rally in Albany in April 2016.

Demand for natural gas is growing across the Northeast. Meanwhile, natural gas production is booming in Pennsylvania.

Connecting the two requires building pipelines across New York state -- something Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation have persistently blocked, declining to grant the necessary water quality permits.

On Wednesday, President Donald Trump may have handed pipeline developers a new weapon, signing executive orders aimed at clearing up red tape in the oil and gas industry.

Darren Suarez with the Business Council of New York says three pipeline projects in particular -- the Millennium, Constitution, and Northern Access pipelines -- have been stalled by New York water quality reviews.

“Traditionally, it should take a year for the review process,” Suarez said. “In New York state, that process has been extended out for over six years.”

Suarez said that’s hurting the bottom line of businesses in the Northeast who want to switch to natural gas for heating and transportation. Gas is generally cheaper than oil, and burns more cleanly as well.

What’s the holdup?

“First, fracking has terrible consequences for not only our environment, but the communities that live around fracking wells,” said Kimberly Ong, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Secondly, the pipelines themselves are terrible for the environment.”

Ong recognizes that burning fuel oil produces more carbon emissions. But, she said, pipeline companies haven’t proved there’s a need to switch to natural gas instead. She wants to see the region move toward so-called “non-pipe solutions,” like solar or wind energy.

Enter President Trump. His executive orders seek to limit states’ power to block pipelines and to give the federal government more leeway to speed up or approve environmental permits.

Suarez said it’s unlikely the executive orders would affect the three pipelines that are currently stalled. He said it’s more likely to affect future permits instead.

Ong maintained that states must play an essential role in protecting their own waters.

State water quality standards are often stricter than federal standards,” Ong said. “And also the state has specialized knowledge about its own water bodies ... you need that expertise when you’re evaluating the impacts of a project.”

That seems to be the state’s line as well. The Department of Environmental Conservation said in a statement that New York would “vigorously oppose any efforts to reduce states’ ability to protect our water resources.”

After Trump signed the order, Cuomo issued the following statement:

"President Trump's executive order is a gross overreach of federal authority that undermines New York's ability to protect our water quality and our environment. States must have a role in the process for siting energy infrastructure like pipelines, and any efforts to curb this right to protect our residents will be fought tooth and nail.

"Especially at a time when the federal government has abdicated its responsibility to protect our environment and public health, states like New York are on the front lines protecting our clean water and the public health. While the Trump administration continues its hostile assault on our environment, we are proud to be leading the way forward to build the clean energy economy of tomorrow in New York."