This story was produced in collaboration with StateImpact Pennsylvania.
7:42 p.m.: This story has been updated to add that a stay on the Valley Lateral pipeline was lifted by a federal court on Dec. 7, 2017.
WAWAYANDA, N.Y. — In 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a bold statement by banning hydraulic fracturing in the Empire State, declaring alongside his health commissioner that “no child should live near” a shale-gas well because of its potential harm.
The governor’s proclamation made him a hero among environmentalists and persona non grata in the oil and gas industry. Energy in Depth, an industry-funded website, criticized Cuomo for basing the moratorium on dubious science “to kowtow to Yoko Ono, Mark Ruffalo, and all of the environmental pressure groups in New York.”
In truth, though, the picture is murkier, and Cuomo’s ban is less than absolute. Moratorium notwithstanding, New York is still reaping the rewards of fracking, importing shale gas from neighboring Pennsylvania and preparing to process it in a mammoth power plant under construction 65 miles northwest of New York City.
“It goes to the heart of the apparent irony that New York State would say, ‘No shale gas coming out,’ but we’re allowing any amount of shale gas into the state,” said Anthony Ingraffea, an engineer at Cornell University whose work has tied fracking to various environmental ills, including climate change. By his calculations, drillers outside the state would have to tap 130 wells each year, on average, to supply the plant with enough gas to operate. That translates into thousands of fracked wells over the 40-year lifetime typical for such a facility.
“I’m using the polite word ‘irony,’” Ingraffea said. “I could also use the impolite word ‘hypocrisy.’”
A mass of panels and tanks, the 650-megawatt CPV Valley Energy Center is rising in this town of 7,000 people in the wooded hills of Orange County. Its 275-foot stacks tower above apple orchards and dairy farms.
The plant, a $900 million project of the Maryland energy company Competitive Power Ventures, stands at a nexus of new and expanding gas infrastructure here — much of it fed by fracking. Seven miles south, a compressor station that pumps gas to keep it moving squats amid houses. To the west, a pipeline stretches toward the Marcellus Shale fields in Pennsylvania. Construction on another one could begin soon pending a court order.
The CPV plant, scheduled to go into service in early 2018, represents the leading edge of a broader trend in New York. It’s the first of two gas-fired power plants approved in the Hudson Valley. These plants, and 11 more that may come online across the state by 2020, collectively would add 5,708 megawatts of capacity to an electricity grid already fueled 57 percent by gas. New York has a surplus of gas-generated capacity. Statewide, the demand for electric power has grown, on average, only .23 percent per year since 2004.
The gas boom comes at a time when the Cuomo administration is undertaking a major clean-energy initiative. The governor unveiled the plan in 2015, calling it a roadmap for “a clean, resilient, and affordable energy system.” His administration has vowed to double the amount of electricity generated by solar, wind and other renewable sources — to 50 percent, from the current 24 percent — while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 — an aggressive target. Last year, a Cuomo press release described climate change as “a very real threat that continues to grow by the day.”
New gas plants would work against the state’s clean-energy goals, said Eleanor Stein, a former administrative law judge at the New York Public Service Commission who managed the initiative from 2014 to 2015. That plan may not prohibit new gas plants, she said, but building them will lock in fossil-fuel use for decades, boosting greenhouse gases as officials strive to cut them.
“We are in a state of emergency,” said Stein, now a climate law professor at Albany Law School. “Every year we don’t act is lost forever.”
Cuomo’s top energy advisers didn’t respond to multiple interview requests by the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania over the past month. A spokesman for the New York Public Service Commission declined to make senior officials available for an interview. Instead, he pointed to an agency order, issued in 2016, adopting a series of “deliberate and mandatory actions” to implement Cuomo’s energy plan. In the order, the commission recommends preserving New York’s carbon-free nuclear power plants as a bridge to clean energy, and recognizes that “significantly increased air emissions due to . . . the construction of new gas plants” would complicate the ability to meet carbon limits.
A CPV spokesman declined to comment and didn’t respond to a list of written questions. In a 2015 press release, the company touted its Wawayanda project’s “low emissions profile.” The highly efficient gas plant will replace older, less efficient facilities in New York, lowering carbon emissions by approximately 494,000 tons per year for its first 15 years, CPV says. “We are delighted to be bringing this project into construction at a time when the region is in need of new, clean electric generating capacity,” then-CEO Doug Egan is quoted as saying in the release.
Neither the company nor its Valley Energy Center has been a stranger to controversy. Last year, federal prosecutors brought criminal charges against a former CPV executive and a former Cuomo adviser for allegedly participating in a scheme involving bribery, extortion and fraud. The executive, according to the 36-page indictment, paid “hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes” to the aide for help trying to secure a contract with the Cuomo administration for it to buy electricity produced by the plant, to no avail.
The case has yet to go to trial, casting a shadow over the project.
The plant has also been the focus of an escalating regulatory skirmish over a 7.8-mile pipeline planned to deliver gas to the facility. In September, state environmental regulators denied a permit needed for construction of the pipeline, setting off a chain of legal appeals. Last month, a federal court halted construction until a hearing could be held, threatening to leave the plant without a viable gas supply.
“It’s one of the most amazing infrastructure debacles, and nobody is paying attention,” said Stephen Metts of The New School, whose work includes mapping new gas plants and pipelines in New York.