January 6, 2012

New York State energy policy (and home rule)

[repurposing a long email message. Update: this New York Times article tells a similar story with a lot less background.]

New York State energy policy is a game that's largely about territory and players and not so much about principles. I obviously don't work in Albany, and would be happy to be wrong about much of this, but this is the story I tell based on what I've seen.

The key pieces of this story aren't us, unfortunately - they're New York City and Westchester County.

New York City depends on power generation from outside of the city much the same way it depends on water from outside of the city. One of the key tasks of state government for the past century or so has been keeping New York City supplied.

Electricity has been a particular challenge, as NYC's supplies sometimes get stretched, especially in summer, and the temporary generators Con Ed pulls out haven't been very popular. On top of that, there's a pretty loud call to shut down the Indian Point nuclear power plant just north of NYC, which needs its licenses renewed in 2013 and 2015 to keep operating. Sure enough, it's on a fault line, and Westchester is too densely populated for the evacuation plans to make much sense.

Back in the late 1980s/early 1990s there were hopes to buy electricity from HydroQuebec's ever-larger hydroelectric plants, but Governor (Mario) Cuomo stopped that, or at least barred one set of plans for doing so. The Shoreham nuclear plant could have provided power too, but a nuclear power plant in Long Island had even crazier evacuation plans than one in Westchester.

More recently, the city has been looking to Upstate for power. Around 2004, NYRI, a Canadian company, proposed a major power line from around Utica to Middletown (map), serving NYC, and residents fought hard (rough summary). After a lot of wobbling, Governor Pataki denied them the use of eminent domain in 2006, and it's more or less died since.

However, the Federal Government created a "National Corridor Designation" including roughly the same area. We didn't hear too much about it here because neither Tompkins nor Cortland County is included, but Cayuga, Chenango, Otsego, and Broome are.

That's designed to make it easier for power companies to build corridors. From their FAQ (49KB PDF):

On a more specific level, the designation of a National Corridor is a necessary first step in providing the federal government - through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission - siting authority that supplements existing state authority. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides a potential siting venue at FERC for transmission facility proposals within a National Corridor.

In practice, this will mean that if an applicant does not receive approval from a State to site a proposed new transmission facility within a National Corridor, the applicant may then apply to FERC for a permit and authorization to construct the facility. If FERC accepts the application, before it would issue a permit, it would conduct a full National Environmental Policy Act review and consider alternatives.

Such a federal permit would empower the project developer to exercise the right of eminent domain to acquire necessary property rights to build the facilities. However, that authority could only be exercised if the developer could not acquire the property by negotiation, and even then would not apply to property owned by the United States or a State, such as a national or State park. (Emphasis and paragraph breaks added.)

Powerlines, of course, are just one piece of the story. (For more on them, this article on a proposed Champlain-Hudson line has good background.)

Article X, a law for fast-tracking power plant placement decisions, had expired in 2002. Its long failure to get renewed had a lot to do with the past crazy powerplant siting decisions, but it finally moved ahead this year. Why?

I think the story politicians (Governor Andrew Cuomo in particular) were hoping would yield political happiness was:

  1. Add powerlines and/or gas pipelines from Upstate to the NYC area.

  2. Generate power Upstate with wind farms and new plants running on natural gas. (Article X helps with both of these.)

  3. Shut down Indian Point.

Point (3) appeals to most Downstate environmentalists. Until recently, natural gas seemed like the miracle fuel, burning cleaner with less climate change impact (yes I know that's questionable), and wind farms were the future, so point (2) also appealed to Downstate environmentalists. Point (2) tied in nicely to growing desperation Upstate for economic development of any kind as well.

Point (1) has always been ugly, but maybe the Feds would take care of that for the state, and let Albany off the hook?

Until it became clear that hydrofracking had massive side effects, this was a plausible story. It's not the only possible story - see, for example, this expensive offshore possibility - but it at least sounded like a balancing of Downstate consumption with clean Upstate production. (And yes, Liquified Natural plants, pipelines elsewhere, etc., mean that this is not just a New York State story.)

This plan, of course, isn't going over very well in a lot of Upstate communities, largely because of hydrofracking. Powerlines don't make people happy, but pollution can force them to desert a place.

How does this tie to home rule and Senator Jim Seward?

Seward's home rule position lets him find political balance on most of this, except with the relatively small group of voters who have the time to see how the pieces don't fit.

He can tell places like Dryden and Middlefield that overwhelmingly want to avoid hydrofracking that they can stay out of it, while letting places that cheer it on move forward. It takes the heat off of him for the ugliest piece of this puzzle, while letting him stay more or less in the general story Albany is pushing. (And it leaves the conflict open place-by-place for the long run, too.)

It's a classic Albany compromise, in which elected officials can make themselves look better than the oil and gas industry who are busy suing us, while still permitting the companies to do a lot of what they wanted anyway.

(If you have time for the broader story, I suggest the classic Why There Will Always be an Upstate.)

Update: Also posted at The Albany Project.

Posted by simon at January 6, 2012 12:22 PM in , ,
Note on photos