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How Fracking In Pennsylvania Helps Clear The Air In New York

The building at 120 East 81st Street is among those converting from an oil- to natural-gas-burning furnace.
Jeff Brady
The building at 120 East 81st Street is among those converting from an oil- to natural-gas-burning furnace.

The state of New York effectively has a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing as the government figures out how to regulate the controversial drilling technology. Still, the state is benefiting from a fracking-fueled drilling boom in next-door Pennsylvania.

For decades, oil has been the fuel of choice for thousands of residential buildings in New York City. But now there are fewer chimneys spewing black smoke. That's because the city has a program encouraging owners to convert to cleaner-burning natural gas.

The switch is happening all over the city, including in a 100-unit building on the Upper East Side that Burt Wallack's company manages. The owners are spending nearly $300,000 to make the switch.

"In this particular building, it was a no-brainer — the payback will be in about three years," Wallack says. "The day we switch over, we'll start saving approximately 50 percent of our energy costs."

For now, the building is still burning oil because utility Con Edison is upgrading the city's natural gas distribution system. The system originally was intended for things like cooking. But now bigger pipes and updated equipment are needed so natural gas can be used for heating and hot water, too.

"This year alone we're going to have converted more than 1,100 very large buildings in New York City," says Christine Cummings, a section manager in the utility's gas conversion group.

Recently another company, Spectra Energy, put in service a large pipeline expansion that's bringing a lot more gas into Manhattan. That increased supply already is pushing down prices in the region.

"If we compare this November to last November, we actually see gas prices decrease about 13 percent," says Anne Swedberg, senior energy analyst with the firm Bentek Energy.

This is helping Con Edison persuade more people to make the switch from oil to natural gas. "A lot of times when you want to do the green thing, it costs you money. In this case, you're going to do the green thing and we're going to actually save you a considerable sum of money," Cummings says.

But not everyone sees the switch to natural gas as "green." Environmental groups concerned about the effects of fracking at well sites campaigned against the pipeline expansion.

In polls, New York City voters have opposed fracking. "It's varied anywhere from 1- or 2-point margin of opposition to as much as 14 points opposition over the last year or so," says Steven Greenberg, a pollster for Siena Research Institute.

Despite consistent opposition to fracking, it appears many New Yorkers have not made a direct connection between fracking and the increasing availability of natural gas in their region. Talk to people on the street and they focus more on the benefits here than the environmental consequences over in Pennsylvania.

"The oil, when it burns, it discolors my house — it's terrible. You get the smell," says Kevin Leonard of Pleasantville, N.Y. "Natural gas is much better. ... And it's much cheaper at this point in time."

Leonard says he's heard about the potential water quality and pollution problems associated with fracking. But he says as with most things in life, there are trade-offs.

The conclusion many New Yorkers seem to have reached is that until something better comes along, switching to natural gas seems like the best choice.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues, climate change and the mid-Atlantic region. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.