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A group of 31 New York state and local officials on Friday called on Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul to review a state commission decision that will result in customers paying for fossil fuel projects, including parts of a controversial pipeline in Brooklyn.
Representing Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan and Staten Island, the signatories of the letter — including Rep. Carolyn Maloney, and State Sens. Julia Salazar, Jabari Brisport, Liz Krueger and Diane Savino — ask Gov. Kathy Hochul to uphold the state’s climate law, which mandates cuts of greenhouse gas emissions in a way that provides substantial benefits to “disadvantaged communities.”
“At a time when we are seeing the impacts of climate change and New Yorkers owe nearly $2 billion in unpaid debt to corporate utilities it is unconscionable to force 1.9 million customers to pay for new pipelines and other fracked gas projects,” the letter reads.
The missive follows the state Public Service Commission’s August approval of a gas bill rate increase averaging about $5 per month for National Grid customers in New York City and on Long Island.
The hike would pay for some of the embattled Metropolitan Reliability Project pipeline and other infrastructure upgrades, as well as programs for energy efficiency, electrification and to encourage less demand for gas, according to the approved settlement.
The natural gas pipeline is slated to run nearly seven miles, from Brownsville to Greenpoint, with four of five phases already operational. The final phase is awaiting further review and approval before it’s built.
Karen Young, a National Grid spokesperson, defended the plan, saying it allows the company to ”prioritize energy affordability while investing in programs necessary to maintain the safety and reliability of our natural gas networks and implement new programs to accelerate decarbonization.”
She added the plan includes “an unprecedented set of commitments to advance the state’s climate goals and reduce emissions.”
In approving the rate hike, the PSC’s commissioners, who oversee regulated utilities, determined that the projects do not pose a disproportionate risk to disadvantaged communities, nor do they run counter to state mandates for emissions cuts.
James Denn, a Department of Public Service spokesperson, noted that the commission’s rate-hike decision instructed Natural Grid to halt construction of the pipeline’s final stage and “meet metrics on demand-reducing initiatives” before it could seek to recover costs for that portion.
He added that the commission applied the state’s climate law to the rate case and will continue to be applied to rate cases in the future.
But the elected officials contest that notion in their letter, writing that the commission approved the rate case without conducting assessments to account for the projects’ greenhouse gas emissions or impacts on communities that already shoulder disproportionate pollution burdens.
Spokespeople for National Grid and the governor did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the officials’ letter.
Hochul spokesperson Hazel Crampton-Hays said the governor’s team will review the letter, adding she is “committed to taking bold action to address climate change head-on, deliver environmental justice, and meet ambitious carbon reduction goals.”
A Long Fight
Environmental and community groups have been pushing back on National Grid’s investments in fossil fuel infrastructure for more than a year.
The Metropolitan Reliability Project, also known as the North Brooklyn Pipeline, was last month the subject of a civil rights complaint filed on behalf of community groups. They asked the federal government to intervene in an effort to stop the flow of gas.
The complaint is under review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but no decision about an investigation has yet been made.
National Grid’s plans to truck to its Greenpoint site liquefied natural gas (LNG) — predominantly methane gas cooled to liquid state for a reduced volume — has also garnered attention from climate activists.
The rate hike the PSC approved covers some of the expenses related to upgrades National Grid is making on that site to support those liquefied gas operations.
The PSC ruled that an independent consultant must conduct a review before National Grid can recover the full costs from customers. Those projects include two new vaporizers that would heat the LNG to turn it back into gas and inject it into the pipeline for household use.
On Thursday, lawyers from Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic and University Network for Human Rights, representing Sane Energy Project and Cooper Park Resident Council, filed a motion in state Appellate Court in Brooklyn to halt National Grid’s work meant to support trucking liquefied gas into Greenpoint.
“We’re just trying to stop what we can because once the infrastructure is built it’s really hard to get the gas turned off,” said Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator for the Sane Energy Project.
“Climate change is immediately harming us right now — we saw that a couple weeks ago. In 2021, you cannot be building new fossil fuel infrastructure.”
The lawyers in July sued the city, the New York City Fire Department and National Grid in Brooklyn Supreme Court, alleging that a state-required environmental review of the work hadn’t been completed. They asked a judge to order a work stoppage while the case was being decided.
Later that month, Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Karen Rothenberg found that construction related to National Grid’s variance petition had to stop until the case was decided.
It was a short victory: Earlier this month Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Ellen Spodek paved the way for the construction to continue.
In denying the plaintiffs’ request, Spodek determined that the construction wouldn’t need a full environmental review for it to begin, and she accepted National Grid’s argument that halting it would interfere with the company’s ability to provide gas as winter approaches.
“We are pleased that the court again found in favor of National Grid and denied Sane Energy’s baseless request to stop fully permitted and approved construction activities at the Greenpoint Energy Center,” said Young, of National Grid. “We will continue to provide safe, reliable energy to the 1.3 million New York City customers we have the obligation and privilege to serve for the upcoming heating season.”
A spokesperson for the city Law Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Now, the plaintiffs’ appeal hinges on an argument that the judge ruled erroneously and that construction should again be stopped while the lower court decides on the need for an environmental review.
“We’re not saying there needs to be a permanent stop on LNG trucking-related construction forever,” said Ruhan Nagra, an attorney with the University Network for Human Rights. “We’re saying stop the construction until you complete the required environmental review.”
National Grid must file its response in Appellate Court by Sept. 29. The court will rule after that on whether construction should be stopped.
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