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New pipeline for natural gas makes sense — but just for now

National Grid is seeking state approval for a

National Grid is seeking state approval for a 24-mile gas pipeline, which includes about 18 miles under New York Bay and connects with existing infrastructure at sea beyond the Rockaways. Credit: Transcontinental Gas Pipe Line C

New York State faces a deadline this week to decide whether to grant a water-quality permit for a proposed natural gas pipeline under New York Harbor. If only it were that simple.

The $1 billion plan to lay a 24-mile pipeline from New Jersey’s Raritan Bay to an existing offshore pipeline off the Rockaways has become the latest battle in larger wars being waged over the need to convert energy production from fossil fuels to renewable sources. That’s why the Department of Environmental Conservation’s decision will be seen as signifying more than a bureaucratic determination on water regulations.

The timing stinks. The pipeline would bring an additional 400 million cubic feet of natural gas daily to Long Island and New York City. National Grid, which would get the gas under a 15-year contract, says it’s badly needed. Some environmentalists say it’s not.

Grid’s argument is more convincing. At this moment. But it won’t be further down the road. The transition to wind energy and solar is underway, but not quickly enough to solve today’s problems — a lack of gas for heat on peak cold days in winter, for new critical development projects like Belmont Park and the Ronkonkoma Hub, and for the thousands of customers seeking to switch from heating oil to cleaner natural gas each year.

But gas also contributes to global warming, and we need to wean ourselves off it.

The Public Service Commission is testing Grid’s claims by doing a statewide review of gas infrastructure needs. That’s good. In December, the PSC accelerated energy efficiency goals for utilities that are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030. That’s better. The PSC must keep up the pressure on the utilities it regulates. All options should be explored, including heat pumps, biogas from food waste, and better insulation for houses. In its current rate-increase request, Grid smartly included innovative programs to conserve and decarbonize the heating sector, like geothermal heating and cooling.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will soon award contracts for large-scale wind farms — 1,200 megawatts is a good guess — which when operating in 5 years or so will allow inefficient gas-fired power plants to be closed. Miles of Long Island Rail Road rights-of-way could and should host solar arrays.

As National Grid’s other gas contracts expire in the years ahead, they should not be renewed as these greener measures take hold.

Whatever the DEC rules, the losing side likely will sue on grounds that process was not followed, miring the pipeline in a judicial slog that could last several years. Then it would have to be built. By then, the landscape might have changed. Natural gas once was part of the climate-change solution by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Now it’s part of the problem by locking them in. Today, it’s needed. Tomorrow, not so much.

In letting the gas flow now, the state also needs to make sure we can start closing the valves soon.  — The editorial board