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National Grid bet on its credibility - and lost

Utility company National Grid signage at a Brooklyn

Utility company National Grid signage at a Brooklyn location on Nov. 12, 2019, in New York. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

For months, National Grid claimed it absolutely could not provide new gas hookups for anything.

Monday, National Grid blinked.

The big utility's moratorium, it seems, was nothing more than a raw political ploy, a game that put some current and many future customers in an unnecessarily precarious situation. In the end, the utility lost — and in a big way.

Turns out, there apparently is enough gas, for now. So, National Grid lifted the moratorium, and it promised to pay $36 million in penalties, which will go toward renewable energy, conservation,  and customer rebates and credits. In return, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo dropped his threat to demand that the Public Service Commission revoke National Grid's license, and will work with the utility to find long-term solutions to what could become a true regional  natural gas shortage.

Cuomo won this round in part because National Grid, with 1.8 million customers on Long Island and in New York City, could not show the moratorium was necessary in the short term. For Long Island, the end of the gas-hookup halt is welcome.  A worrisome economic cloud is gone, as homeowners and business owners will be able to get gas over the next two years. That's critical to the region's economic development, from the Nassau Hub and Belmont Park, to thousands of units of proposed affordable housing. 

To provide the fuel, National Grid will have to  incentivize customers to use less gas and will have to rely more on compressed natural gas, which will be transported across the Island by tractor-trailers.

Beyond that, the can was kicked down the road. In making the deal, National Grid New York operations president John Bruckner told the editorial board that the state and other stakeholders  recognize there will be constraints on gas capacity in the future. As part of the agreement, National Grid will have to find answers over the next three months, allow public involvement, and work with the state to arrive at the best option by next June. The deal requires that a  solution be in place by the fall of 2021. 

There are few long-term options, so don't be surprised when a new pipeline is among them. Another choice could be a liquefied natural gas pipeline, but Broadwater Energy's proposal to build a floating terminal in Long Island Sound was rejected in 2008. 

We could be right back in the same ugly, uncertain situation in six months. 

The agreement includes the appointment of a state monitor to oversee National Grid operations here. The State Legislature also should take a closer look at the PSC, which deserves some blame. Throughout this mess, the commission didn't provide a truly independent voice, or appropriate oversight and regulation. It was mostly silent. That's unacceptable.

National Grid, too, didn't communicate with customers well, and Bruckner says the utility will have to rebuild trust. Those public meetings next year will be good places to start.

 In the meantime, the gas is on, and the political games are off.

For now. — The editorial board