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Senators urge 'conditional' state approval of proposed natural gas pipeline

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), seen here

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), seen here in Mineola on April 30, 2018 Credit: Howard Schnapp

Six Long Island Democratic state senators on Wednesday urged the state’s top environmental official to approve a contested natural gas pipeline “on an emergency basis” if certain conditions are met, just days after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo publicly expressed his opposition to it.

The lawmakers, led by Sen. Todd Kaminisky (D-Long Beach), who chairs the Senate’s environmental conservation committee, argued in a letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation  that a moratorium enacted by the pipeline’s chief backer, National Grid, has “already impacted thousands of our constituents.”

Kaminsky declined to comment beyond the senators’ letter, which was also signed by Long Island State Sens. John Brooks, James Gaughran, Anna Kaplan, Monica Martinez and Kevin Thomas.  

The request to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos asks for “conditional” approval of the pipeline, which the DEC has twice rejected on environmental grounds.

The senators said the pipeline should be approved only after an independent body — “not National Grid” — finds that the additional gas supply is truly needed to meet the state’s energy safety and reliability needs. They also asked that the amount of gas allowed from the pipeline be “scaled back” to align with “the increased availability of cleaner, renewable alternatives over time,” and that proceeds from the pipeline’s use be used for renewable investments to more quickly meet the state’s green-energy goals.

National Grid spokeswoman Karen Young, in a statement, said the company believes the pipeline “is vital and necessary to provide consumers with access to natural gas supplies,” which it called the “most cost-effective and environmentally sound heating option available to heat homes and run businesses.”

Young also said the company continues to work with the Public Service Commission in its investigation on “customer connection issues and the need for the additional gas supply to serve the needs of new and existing customers.”

National Grid has argued it needs the $1 billion pipeline to head off a looming natural gas shortage but opponents, chiefly in the environmental community, say the crisis has been largely made up so the company can guarantee a long-term fossil fuel future.

Cuomo, speaking on the Brian Lehrer radio program last month, took a stand against the pipeline, and has ordered a stepped-up investigation into National Grid’s claims of a shortage and its denial of service to certain customers.

“We have taken a position: We’re against the pipeline,” Cuomo told the radio host. “That’s our position. DEC has considered it, and they are resubmitting additional information. But there’s no negotiation. If they’re extorting people, and wrongfully turning off gas service to homes to create political pressure, I’m not negotiating over that. That’s extortion. That’s a crime.” 

A spokesperson for Cuomo, in a statement released after the senators’ letter was circulated, noted that a decision on the pipeline’s state permit is “pending with DEC, which has made clear through its previous denial that it will not compromise on our water quality standards."

Further, Cuomo's spokesperson said, "National Grid is going to be held accountable by the PSC if it finds they inappropriately denied service to their existing customers.”

State Senate Republican leader John Flanagan was quick to pounce on his Democratic rivals’ plan. “Today, months after their leadership was sorely needed on the Williams pipeline project, these Long Island Democrats finally say it should be approved on an ‘emergency basis,’ whatever that means,” Flanagan said in a statement.

He accused the Democrats of remaining “silent during the entire application process, threatening billions of dollars of investment,” and concluded their policies “are only going to make things worse.”

A spokesperson for the DEC didn’t immediately comment.

Kim Fraczek, director of the Sane Energy Project, an activist group that opposes the pipeline, criticized the senators’ stance, and expressed shock that Kaminsky signed the letter.

“This is not aligned with how Kaminsky presents himself as a climate champion,” Fraczek said. “I don’t think rolling over for a corporation so they can get their way is the way to show that we are ready to move to a renewable economy that’s rooted in justice and getting his constituents better jobs.” 

The senators aren’t the only local Democrats calling for the pipeline. Their letter follows by several days a joint opinion piece by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran expressing support for the pipeline. “The two of us believe strongly that without access to natural gas, there will be significant disruption for both the economy and the environment,” they wrote in support of the pipeline in a opinion piece in the Daily News. “The Williams pipeline will help us ensure that the historic progress we are making is not halted.”

Even while asking for approval of the pipeline on an emergency basis, the senators' letter pointed to the legislature’s recent approval of legislation that requires all electric generation in the state to be carbon-free by 2040. The law “sets hard caps on greenhouse gas emissions, effectively eliminating the long-term reliance on fossil fuels, including natural gas.”

But, they noted, their constituents in the near term “continue to need natural gas as a cleaner transition energy source.” Many have “had their lives disrupted.”

One of them is Sean Pryor, who recently bought a home in Amityville, only to discover the natural gas was turned off. National Grid, after initially indicating it would restore service, ultimately declined, citing the moratorium, Pryor said. He faces a winter without gas heat and finding an expensive alternative such as propane or electric. 

“I have a bunch of bad options,” for heat this winter and “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get gas,” Pryor said, adding that he’s filed a complaint against National Grid with the state Department of Public Service. “We’re just a bunch of pawns.”

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