“Critics of New York’s impending $462-million-year subsidy for Upstate nuclear plants today urged state legislators to block the subsidies and to take a more active role in setting energy policy.
New York’s energy strategy has traditionally been set by regulators at the Public Service Commission. But the high cost of the nuclear subsidies – as much as $7.6 billion over 12 years – has sparked calls for a wider political decision-making process.
At an Assembly committee hearing today in Albany, critics of the nuclear subsidies complained that the payments were approved quickly by the PSC without public hearings or legislative debate.
Blair Horner, executive director of New York Public Interest Research Group, said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration pushed the subsidies through the PSC during a month-long period last summer. The PSC approved them without adequately informing the public about the costs, he said.
“It was a strategy by the administration to keep the public out of this decision,” Horner said. “We think that is the point where the legislature should weigh in.”
Horner urged lawmakers to pass a two-house bill sponsored by Long Island legislators that would freeze implementation of the nuclear subsidies until December 2017 to provide more time to examine alternatives. It was not immediately clear how much support the bill has.
But for the legislature to take up significant energy policy would mark a sharp shift from past practice.
The Public Service Commission has routinely fashioned major policies — typically taking its cue from the governor — without action by the legislature. The PSC deregulated the energy industry in the 1990s without legislative approval, for example. And the PSC adopted a renewable portfolio standard costing hundreds of millions to promote clean energy sources.
The governor appoints members of the PSC to six-year terms, subject to confirmation by the state Senate.
The nuclear subsidies will be funded by a surcharge on utility ratepayer bills, the same mechanism the PSC uses to collect money for renewable power subsidies and other programs. Horner and other critics have branded the nuclear surcharge “the Cuomo tax.”
Assemblyman Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, a strong supporter of the nuclear subsidies, pointed out that for years the PSC has mandated millions of dollars a year in surcharges that pay for energy efficiency programs, renewable power subsidies, and other initiatives.
Barclay said the current furor over the PSC’s actions appears to stem more from anti-nuclear sentiment than from a desire to bring energy matters before the legislature.
“I just find it a little bit disingenuous to be saying constantly this is a tax,” Barclay said. “We’ve been doing this for renewables, and . . . from NYPIRG and others there isn’t any complaint about it. It seems to me your position is more of an anti-nuclear position.”
Members of the PSC were invited to testify but did not, to the consternation of Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, D-Bronx, who chaired the hearing. Dinowitz, who heads the committee on corporations, authorities and commissions, complained several times during the daylong hearing about the PSC’s failure to show up.
The hearing featured plenty of back and forth over what role nuclear power should play, if any, in the state’s effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Critics like Horner and former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky said emerging renewable energy technologies should be favored instead of nuclear.
But there was plenty of testimony in support of nuclear power. Among the witnesses were several Exelon Corp. employees representing Upstate nuclear plants, union officials and Central New York community leaders.
Oswego Mayor Billy Barlow told legislators that the Oswego County nuclear plants were equally important to the economy of his city and to the state’s environmental goals.
Cuomo has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030. Barlow citied a consultant’s study that said the three Upstate nuclear plants make 61 percent of the carbon-free power in the Upstate region.
“Let’s be clear,” Barlow said. “Without the operation of Upstate’s nuclear plants, it would be nearly impossible for New York to meet its goal.””
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