Long Island Politicians Claim Victory for Hochul Wind Power Veto

Climate watchers say the state can’t meet its renewable energy goals without overriding local opposition.

Julia Rock   ·   October 26, 2023
On Tuesday, Governor Kathy Hochul announced the largest state investment in renewable energy in United States history. | Photos: Dennis Schroeder / National Renewable Energy Lab; Don Pollard / Office of Governor Hochul | Illustration: Maia Hibbett

Local residents and Republican lawmakers on Long Island claimed a remarkable victory on Friday, when Governor Kathy Hochul vetoed legislation that would have helped a major offshore wind project deliver power to the grid. The bill had passed with the support of nearly every Democrat in the legislature, but with elections weeks away, members of both parties have seized on local opponents’ zeal. They’re now clamoring to take credit for Hochul’s veto.

The bill would have authorized the city of Long Beach to allow Equinor, the developer of a major wind farm project off the coast, to place a transmission cable under a stretch of city-owned beach. Locals had a bevy of concerns: The turbines, planned at least 14 miles offshore, would be a visual blight. The city would lose out on tourist revenue during construction. The turbines would kill whales. The transmission cable would produce carcinogenic electromagnetic fields.

“We couldn’t withstand it, it was going to alter everybody’s life,” said Long Beach resident Kelly Martinsen, who worked to inform her neighbors about what she saw as the project’s downsides. “We should have the same protections as, say, the piping plover.”

It’s unclear whether the veto will be the wind farm’s fatal blow. Equinor was already reconsidering the project, which would power an estimated 700,000 homes, after New York regulators earlier this month declined to hike subsidies for renewable projects slammed by inflation. If the company does decide to move forward, it could look for another site for the cable.

Climate watchers worry the veto may set a precedent of local deference that isn’t compatible with the state climate law. To comply with its mandates, New York needs to build renewable energy infrastructure 10 times faster this decade than it did in the last — and Hochul’s veto suggests that she may be unwilling to override local opposition to get there.

“The courage to overcome local opposition is going to be the defining factor in whether the projects will be successful and will get built,” said Daniel Zarrilli, a climate advisor at Columbia University who led climate policy for former New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio.

Local opposition tends to combine “propaganda from the fossil fuel industry, rumor mongering in local communities, and basic NIMBYism” into “a heated mix,” Zarrilli said. “It takes real leadership to overcome that.”

“We can’t allow NIMBYism to stop our climate goals,” said Senator Kevin Parker, a Democrat who chairs the chamber’s energy committee.

In June, Parker had introduced the most controversial provision to his Planned Offshore Wind Transmission Act: an amendment to allow Long Beach to “alienate” a parcel of its beach from its use as parkland, enabling Equinor to lay the transmission cable and connect turbines from its Empire Wind II project to Long Island’s grid.

Republican Senator Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick, who represents Long Beach, first drafted the provision, but she later shelved it due to backlash from her constituents. The Long Beach City Council passed a resolution in March requesting the alienation provision, and backed Parker’s bill in June.

Republican lawmakers fought the bill, citing opposition from Long Beach residents. But environmental groups cast it as vital for the state’s ability to meet its climate goals, and construction unions said it would protect hundreds of jobs associated with the wind farm’s supply chain.

“Without passage of this bill this session, the Empire Wind 2 project will not stay on its timeline, jeopardizing not only this critical initiative but also creating a domino effect delaying and potentially derailing other crucial projects,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and Sierra Club wrote in a letter to Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

“We should have the same protections as the piping plover.”

—Kelly Martinsen, Long Beach resident

“There is no requirement that someone whose district is affected by a particular project has the ultimate say in this body as to what happens to it,” Senator Michael Gianaris, the chamber’s second-highest ranking Democrat, said during legislative debate.

After the bill passed the legislature, over the opposition of every Republican and a few Democrats, community opposition in Long Beach swelled. The Long Beach City Council flipped its position, sending a letter to Hochul announcing the body’s unanimous opposition to the wind project and transmission cable.

Christina Kramer, a commercial photographer and Long Beach resident, helped lead the local opposition.

“It was February of this year, and I received a letter from Equinor that says, ‘Hey, we are going to run 245,000 volts of electricity in front of your house. And if you’re interested in learning about it, hop on this call,’” Kramer told New York Focus. “So I hopped on the call.”

The Equinor representatives on the call weren’t able to answer her “simple questions” about the precise route of the cable, Kramer said. When she asked if it was safe, they told her it was the electricity equivalent of a toaster oven. “It sounded like nonsense to me.”

Kramer started the Protect Our Coast Facebook group, which now counts more than 4,500 members. She collected donations for yard signs, pamphlets, banners, and a lawyer. Frustrated that the City Council wasn’t educating the public on the project, she made her own visual presentation and delivered it 10 times, she said, including in local bars and Veterans of Foreign Wars halls.

Print materials distributed by Protect Our Coast. | Christina Kramer

“We don’t want to have high voltage cancer cables running through our communities,” she told New York Focus. “They call it renewable because it’s supposedly serviced by the wind but they are strip mining to get all of their precious metals. The turbine blades are made with microplastics which will pollute our water. We are the actual conservationists.”

Most scientific studies have not found a link between high-voltage power lines and cancer. Researchers on the topic told The New York Times in 2014 that if such a link exists, exposure might increase the odds of leukemia in children from one in 20,000 to two in 20,000. Asked about the evidence, Kramer said, “I don’t think it’s up for dispute at all.”

Protect Our Coast shares a name with a New Jersey-based group that has conducted similar organizing against offshore wind and used similar language. In 2021, The Intercept reported that Protect Our Coast NJ’s fundraising link redirected viewers to donate to the oil-funded libertarian think tank Caesar Rodney. Asked if the groups are affiliated, Kramer said, “We’re not connected but we do look for information from each other. We all count how many dead whales together.”

Republican legislators soon took up the cause. Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick and Ari Brown, a Republican assemblymember from Long Island, sent their own mailers this summer urging constituents to sign a petition opposing the project, which they warned involved “intrusive electromagnetic cables,” was “harmful to marine life,” and had a “potential high cost of environmental damage.” The mailers reportedly cited claims from the fossil fuel industry-funded Texas Public Policy Foundation.

“We’ve had a huge number of whales that are showing up on our beaches,” Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick told New York Focus. “I don’t have good answers as to whether the risks to marine life are stemming from offshore wind.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that conducts autopsies on dead whales, has found no link between offshore wind surveys and whale deaths, instead blaming the recent spike on entanglements with debris and large vessel traffic.

Mailers sent by Republican lawmakers opposing wind transmission bill. | Adrienne Esposito

The battle has scrambled local politics on Long Island, where competitive elections are just two weeks away and some Democrats are trying to claim the veto as a political win for themselves.

“I see Republicans trying to take credit — that’s ridiculous,” Jay Jacobs, chair of both the statewide and Nassau Democratic parties, told Newsday. “This demonstrates it’s Democrats that get things done.”

Last year, Republicans picked up two Democratic congressional seats on Long Island, fueling party leaderscalls for Jacobs to resign. Hochul, who lost Nassau and Suffolk Counties the same year by double digits, has rebuffed their demands.

Assembly Deputy Majority Leader Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Nassau County, said Republicans spread misinformation about the bill, which she voted for in June — but that Hochul was right to nix it.

“I always believe the local community has the final say. And the local community spoke loud and clear that they didn’t support this bill, and the governor listened,” Solages told New York Focus.

“The state has to get over their fear of talking to the public.”

—Adrienne Esposito, Citizens Campaign for the Environment

In an election for an open seat on the Nassau County Legislature, both the Republican candidate Patrick Mullaney and Democratic candidate Alexis Pace have claimed their advocacy helped urge Hochul’s veto. “My position is, as a candidate or as a legislator, you have to listen and protect your community,” Pace told New York Focus.

Other Democrats say it’s a vocal minority of residents that oppose the project. “It’s a small group on Long Beach, not the entire community, that was against us,” said state Senator Kevin Thomas, a Democrat from Nassau County. He has made the project a key issue in his attempt to unseat US Representative Anthony D’Esposito, a Republican who won his House seat last year.

D’Esposito said in a statement he was pleased that Hochul “heard our calls.” Thomas said his opponent was “celebrating killing union jobs. He has pushed us back from reaching our climate goals.”

Climate advocates are now sounding the alarm that New York’s target of getting 70 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030 — which the state had until recently been seen as on track to achieve — is in serious jeopardy.

“This whole time I’ve been sailing along on the assumption that the state will have its act together on the generation necessary to transform the electric grid,” said Pete Sikora, climate and inequality campaigns director of New York Communities for Change. “Hochul is shaking that entire structure.”

In her veto memo, Hochul laid the blame with Equinor, arguing that the company had not done enough to build local support. “It is incumbent on renewable energy developers to cultivate and maintain strong ties to their host communities throughout the planning, siting and operation of all large-scale projects,” she wrote.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Long Island-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the Hochul administration has a role in educating residents and combating misinformation, too.

“We asked them, for instance, to do presentations on ‘electric and magnetic fields,’ presentations on how wind works, why we need wind,” Esposito said of the administration. “The state has to get over their fear of talking to the public.”

Julia Rock is a reporter for New York Focus. She was previously an investigative reporter at The Lever.
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