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A threat to NY’s environmental legacy

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s decision on three aging nuclear power plants is shortsighted.

New York State's James A. Fitzpatrick nuclear power

New York State's James A. Fitzpatrick nuclear power plant in Scriba, N.Y., is seen in this Aug. 13, 1991, file photograph. Credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS / MICHAEL OKONIEWSKI

Any reasonable citizen concerned about climate change would have to agree that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has shown strong leadership in his handling of our environment.

Cuomo decided to ban fracking, saving our watershed, farms and parks for future generations. He is closing the Indian Point nuclear power plant, which never should have been built in such a densely populated area, while creating an innovative plan to help plant workers and the nearby cities and towns with the transition.

It’s a record he is likely to lean on should he run for president in 2020, which he apparently is considering. Fighting climate change and protecting the earth will be top of mind for many Democratic primary voters, particularly after four years of President Donald Trump.

Yet, surprisingly, Cuomo is on the verge of destroying the legacy he has built. Rather than maintaining an environmental record that will serve as the model for other states, he risks being defined as the politician who bailed out three aging, unprofitable nuclear power plants with the largest tax increase in New York’s history.

That tax increase came about in a little-publicized move by Albany bureaucrats last summer, when Cuomo cut a deal that forces New Yorkers to pay close to $8 billion to keep R.E. Ginna, James A. Fitzpatrick and Nine Mile Point nuclear plants open. The 12-year deal kicked in April, and since then every dollar we’ve paid has gone to the owner of the plants, the Chicago-based Exelon Corp. It’s a multibillion and multiyear tax paid to an out of state company, hidden in our monthly electric bills as surcharges and forced on us with little analysis about its consequences.

Not only are individual utility ratepayers getting stuck with this hidden tax, our struggling school systems, hospitals, cities and towns are being hit hard, too. Here’s a small sampling — the New York City hospital system is slated to pay as much as $4.1 million a year in higher utility costs for the first year, Long Island’s school districts as much as $6.2 million extra a year, and Nassau and Suffolk counties will pay a combined $2.4 million extra a year extra on their bills. All of that is going to Exelon.

This approach is like spending year after year on repairing a Humvee rather than investing in a sparkling new Tesla. How is Cuomo going to explain an $8 billion corporate deal in a presidential primary debate in 2020?

It’s time the state does what it didn’t do last summer — conduct transparent research on the repercussions and then figure out a better way to invest in our energy future.

This should include steps to help upstate Ontario and Oswego, where the plants are located, make up for their lost tax revenue and a plan for nuclear workers whose jobs may be phased out. The good news is many of the workers will remain employed during the multiyear process of closing the plants.

A bipartisan group of state legislators has expressed concern about Cuomo’s proposal, including some who have rightly suggested a one-year moratorium. That pause would benefit New Yorkers by allowing time for public debate, a technical analysis, and a proper assessment of how this would impact the struggling municipalities and institutions that can’t afford huge increases in their utility bills.

If Cuomo doesn’t rethink this regressive “tax” hike and 1960s-era reliance on nuclear power, he will jeopardize the continued support of the environmental community. A moratorium benefits everyone — but especially Cuomo if he chooses to run for president. A smart, sober decision like that is something he can point to as proof that he is a leader who looks forward, not back — which is what this country needs.

Heidi Hutner is associate professor of sustainability at Stony Brook University.


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