Here’s What Governor Cuomo Could Do Today to Really Tackle Climate Change

New York needs to transition its electric grid off fossil fuels. That means Cuomo must create a schedule to shut down polluting power plants—and stop approving new ones.

Pete Sikora   ·   November 21, 2020
Astoria Generating Station, on the East River waterfront in northwest Queens. | Wikimedia Commons

This article is published in our Perspectives section, featuring analyses and views by New Yorkers uniquely qualified to weigh in on high-stakes political debates. Pete Sikora, our climate columnist, is director of climate and inequality campaigns at New York Communities for Change.

If you take a walk up the Northwest Queens waterfront, you can stroll past long industrial fencelines enclosing hundreds of acres of electrical transformers and power lines. Inside this complex crouch hulking beasts: the city’s biggest electricity plants, smokestacks raised high to the sky. The turbines in these massive fracked gas-fired plants produce about two thirds of the electric power generated within the five boroughs.

Governor Cuomo needs to shut it all down.

The power plants along this strip produce over six million metric tons of climate-heating air pollution a year, according to the most recent publicly-reported data. The sprawling complex is a key node in New York City’s electrical grid, which relies on fossil fuels for about 70% of its power.

Under the new climate law passed last year, New York state must reach 70% renewable electricity by the end of the decade and a 100% carbon-free grid by 2040. The state can’t meet these commitments without closing all fracked-gas fired plants, including the polluting giants in Northwest Queens.

But instead of shutting them down, the Cuomo administration has been quietly advancing a permit request to build a new polluting plant in the same complex. And with the administration’s approval, National Grid is currently building a new fracked gas pipeline that will snake across Brooklyn.

Unlike in states like California and Texas, development of new utility-scale wind and solar has stalled in New York. Under Cuomo, the state is stuck in a doom loop: replacing aging fossil fuel infrastructure with newer fossil fuel infrastructure, rather than renewable energy.

If he chose, Cuomo could take a different path and rapidly transition the electric grid off of fossil fuels. His administration has the authority to deny all new fossil fuel energy projects, a basic first step. And to close down existing fossil-fueled power plants in an orderly manner, he could set tighter air pollution limits that would force polluting plants, starting with the dirtiest, to close.

A rapid transition away from fossil fuel infrastructure to renewable energy would create tens of thousands of good new jobs, including union jobs in low-income communities of color, while making the air cleaner to breathe.

Here’s how Governor Cuomo could make it happen.

Stop Approving All New Polluting Power Plants and Pipelines

If you’re in a car careening toward a cliff, it’s not enough to slow down. You’ve got to stop the car. New York can’t keep approving some new fossil fuel power plants and pipelines and rejecting others. Cuomo’s got to halt all new projects.

NRG’s proposed fracked gas power plant would be in Astoria, adding yet another plant to that stretch of Northwest Queens waterfront. The plant would be a “peaker”: it would fire up when electricity demand rises highest, typically on the hottest summer days. These are also the city’s most dangerous air pollution days; ER visits for respiratory illnesses like asthma also peak as the chemical precursors of smog, emitted from smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes, combine with hot, humid air.

It’s no coincidence that the nearby working class neighborhoods – Astoria, Queensbridge, the South Bronx and East Harlem – have elevated rates of asthma.

In promotional materials, NRG says it is seeking the permit in order to replace creaky old generators, built almost 50 years ago, with state-of-the-art technology. It’s true—the proposed turbines would be brand-new, fired up to burn fracked gas for the next several decades.

Comparing the impact of their proposal to older, less-efficient plants that are on the verge of closure is a clever regulatory and PR sleight-of-hand. It’s intended to make it seem reasonable on climate grounds to build entirely new fossil fuel infrastructure. But this lesser-of-two-evils framing is a false choice.  As older polluting infrastructure expires, New York should choose not to replace it with more dirty energy.

Yet so far, the Cuomo administration has been advancing NRG’s proposal through favorable regulatory decisions. In 2017, the NY Public Service Commission ruled that NRG could opt out of New York’s high-scrutiny Article 10 power plant siting process. Article 10, enacted in 2011, has held up dozens of proposed utility-scale wind and solar utility plants over the past decade, but the state dubiously ruled that NRG could avoid the process for its Astoria proposal.

In September, even after passage of the state’s new climate law, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) greenlit NRG’s proposed scope for its key permit, a critical step in the regulatory process.

Until this past summer, NRG had successfully kept their proposal from public scrutiny. They couldn’t have been happy when members of the Democratic Socialists of America found out about their proposal—and promptly started organizing against it.

You can imagine the typical response in the neighborhood: people don’t want yet another polluting power plant near their homes, and hundreds have taken to the streets to protest the proposal.

Cuomo could step in and deny the permit by directing the DEC, run by his appointed commissioner, to stop the proposal through the regulatory review process. Alternatively, he could direct the state’s power plant Siting Board, also controlled by his appointees, to reverse the regulatory gift it gave NRG by exempting the company’s proposal from the Article 10 review process.

The Astoria power plant is just one of the large new fracked gas power plants developers are proposing across the state. Danskammer Energy, a private equity backed vehicle, wants to build one in Newburgh on the Hudson River’s shores. The hedge fund ArcLight backs the proposed Gowanus Generating Station, which would be another large new peaker plant on the Brooklyn waterfront.

Cuomo has approved other new fossil fuel infrastructure, including National Grid’s fracked gas North Brooklyn Pipeline. The pipeline runs from Brownsville to Bushwick—right through the low-income communities of color that typically get shafted by public policy captured by private utilities.

Governor Cuomo could halt all of these proposals using regulatory and administrative levers. The Danskammer and Gowanus fracked gas power plants should be stopped in the Article 10 process. The North Brooklyn pipeline could be halted by directing the state’s Public Service Commission to condition National Grid’s next rate hike on stopping the pipeline.

Under pressure from local and climate activists, Governor Cuomo has blocked some big fracked gas pipelines, to his credit. Yet he continues to approve new fracked gas power plants and the routine development of major local gas pipelines, such as the North Brooklyn pipeline.

That split logic can’t continue. When you’re deep in a hole, the first step is to stop digging. Cuomo should block all new fossil fuel projects.

Shut Down Existing Fossil Fuel Infrastructure

We’re surrounded by dangerous gas infrastructure. Sometimes it explodes or poisons people with carbon monoxide. The gas pollutes the air when burned for energy, causing smog and respiratory illnesses—and heating the climate.

A slow, steady transition clamping off new fossil fuel development begun back in the 1980s could have worked by now without forcing closure of infrastructure before the end of its operational lifespan. The oil and gas companies made sure that didn’t happen.

At this late date, the state should set air pollution limits to retire all operational fossil-fueled power plants on a predictable, orderly schedule over the next fifteen years. The Governor could begin to shut down the state’s largest-scale fossil fuel infrastructure through regulatory rule-making.

Cuomo is already using these powers to close down some of New York’s dirtiest peaker and coal power plants by capping the rate of pollution coming from power plant smokestacks, which is a positive but limited step forward. Ratcheting down pollution limits for all the fossil-fueled power plants across the state would retire a greater and greater proportion of polluting generation each year.

With a proper plan, the state could ensure that the workers in these plants would receive salaries and benefits after the infrastructure was shuttered. The localities that play host to power plants and are dependent on their payments to maintain municipal services also deserve the state’s support.

Of course, retiring these plants would require building renewable energy sources in their place. Fortunately, renewable energy is now typically cheaper to build and develop than new fossil fuel infrastructure.

After years of industry and advocacy groups’ complaints, the governor simplified the state’s process for approving new wind and solar plants by amending Article 10 in this past year’s state budget. That’s a good, albeit very late, step. He should also allow the New York Power Authority to build and own renewable energy projects, which it is currently prohibited from doing. Public utilities, as opposed to reliance on for-profit entities like Con Ed, National Grid and NYSEG, would also help speed a transition.

A binding schedule to close oil and gas infrastructure combined with rapid development of  energy efficiency and renewable energy would create tens of thousands of good jobs. The state could also maximize good union jobs and hire from low income and communities of color in all new development, which would help remedy the state’s rampant inequalities.

The need to bend the curve of climate pollution is so great that the state has no room for delay in meeting its commitments. Stopping large-scale fossil fuel infrastructure is a critical component of success. Governor Cuomo must answer the call.

Pete Sikora is the Climate & Inequality Campaigns Director at New York Communities for Change.
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