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News commentary

Progress stymied; the environment protected
by Stephen Kaye
Sun Apr 24th, 2016

The pipeline saga, related to the power line saga, is about transporting energy around the country in a system that is heavily regulated. Nevertheless, the system relies on a free market to propose the means and the route of the transportation corridors and then to build the system components.  Once they select the means and route, the private companies must apply to the regulators. The public weighs in, raising a host of environmental issues.  The process takes years. The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), whose purpose is to protect the environment, is one of the regulators.  

The most recent example of DEC action was its denial of a permit for the Constitution Pipeline, which would have brought Pennsylvania gas to the Southern Tier region of New York state. The Southern Tier has no access to natural gas. Two industries were relying on gubernatorial promises of natural gas delivery.  (John Faso, Republican candidate for Congress, mentioned this pipeline in our recent interview.) The DEC acted in response to the 15,000 public comments that raised issues that had not been adequately addressed by the applicants, namely, how to safeguard the 250 streams that would have been disturbed by running a pipeline under them. 

While environmentalists have rejoiced over the decision, the politicians and others who were planning on a new source of power are dismayed. Jobs may be lost.  Plants that hire hundreds of workers may close down. The clash of interests may be resolved in the courts, since the DEC decision can be appealed. 

One of the ironies is that the Southern Tier has ample gas in the Utica shale formation. Pennsylvania is tapping into that gas, using fracking.  New York isn’t, because the Southern Tier is an important water resource for New York City, the public is a jealous guardian of the environment and the DEC is given ample responsibility to make hard decisions.   

Politicians lament the slow process by which we in the twenty-first century make decisions affecting economic progress.  Our railroads were built within a few years of the granting of a single permit by the Federal Railroad Commission.  Canals, roads and railroads were built in anticipation of economic growth, which followed.  China built its high speed rail system in a single decade—a decade in which we have not been able to build a single high speed train, even in our most heavily traveled corridors, the New York–Washington corridor and the San Francisco–Los Angeles corridor.  Those in private industry who look at our record are dismayed and discouraged.

One might conclude that we need a better system. Or that we need better system designers. One might say the pipeline applicants should have foreseen the problems and designed better solutions.  They relied on traditional solutions that did not meet current standards. This is an age-old problem.