‘The time has come to remove corporate profiteering from the picture altogether. Two new bills —the NY Build Public Renewables Act and the forthcoming NY Utility Democracy Act—would do just that, initiating a takeover of the state’s investor-owned utilities that would make them publicly owned and democratically accountable.’

gas burner

flickr.com/sunshine city

It’s easy to snicker at Texas for its recent blackout debacle, which at least partially stemmed from the state’s Lone Star libertarianism. Yet if we ever want to understand how the state’s energy issues relate to our own substantial problems here in New York, we would be wise to forget about the Alamo and remember capitalism, together with the feckless state regulators that serve as its dutiful enabler. I’m referring to New York’s Department of Public Service (DPS) and Public Service Commission (PSC), which, while slightly more competent than its Texas equivalents, still do little to keep corporate profits from ruling the regulatory day. 

Take, for instance, the DPS’s recently released white paper on long-term gas planning across the state. The paper was supposed to help align New York’s stubborn investor-owned gas utilities with “new energy and climate directions” that would minimize investments in new infrastructure while better protecting ratepayers and the planet. Instead, it is a masterpiece of empty rhetoric that might as well have been written by investor-owned utilities themselves. (Public comments on the paper are due by May 3).

For context, it’s worth noting that the paper originated in another of the agency’s regulatory failings: National Grid’s recent “gas shortage” and moratorium in Downstate New York, in which the utility held thousands of ratepayers hostage to pressure the state into approving the lucrative Williams pipeline. As even Gov. Andrew Cuomo said, it was essentially the DPS that enabled the whole mess by failing to force National Grid to explore alternatives to a billion-dollar climate bomb that would lock New Yorkers into fossil gas for decades. Thousands of customers and small businesses suffered as a result.

Nonetheless, it was out of this fiasco that we were made to believe, via this promised reassessment of gas planning, that a new, more climate- and ratepayer-conscious DPS might emerge, regardless of the consequences for National Grid’s bottom line.

But that wasn’t to be. As early as page two of the DPS paper, we learn that “staff cannot guarantee that no moratoria will be called in the future.” In other words, even knowing that National Grid’s 2019 “gas shortage” was largely fabricated (the company eventually “found” plenty of supply) and used as a tool for extortion, and knowing that demand-side and renewable electric solutions are at hand, the DPS is still willing to let this complete mess of a company be among those to decide when, in the interest of creating false demand, New Yorkers can be deprived of essential energy.

What about the need for emissions assessments at a time of climate breakdown? The jury is apparently still out. “It may be advisable to have a stringent [emissions] test for new infrastructure,” we read on page 26 of 33. Given that there is no room for any new gas infrastructure whatsoever under the state’s climate goals, this waffling amounts to climate denialism. As a recent report by Synapse Energy Economics put it, “even if the only emissions that remain in the state in 2050 are from fossil gas, sales would have to fall more than 20 percent to meet the 85 percent reduction requirement [of state climate law].”

But perhaps most frustrating of all is the way the DPS avoids the responsibility of protecting ratepayers by passing that responsibility onto them as “stakeholders” (the word is used 32 times)—a classic trick of neoliberal governance and deregulation. “Stakeholder participation,” we read, “will enhance the planning process by ensuring that differing perspectives are recognized and harnessed to collectively elevate the effort to develop the best possible solutions.” 

Patronizing corporate drivel. There are only two “differing perspectives” that really matter when it comes to shareholder-driven gas planning in a climate emergency: that of a billion-dollar corporation, desperate to preserve a fossil fuel-based business model at the expense of communities, and that of ratepayers, who, through their monthly bills, shouldn’t be forced to subsidize this social pathology. The DPS’s eyeroll of an appeal to diverse viewpoints is a distraction that obscures this power dynamic precisely in order to protect it. 

Relatedly, New York “stakeholders” know this sham game of participation all too well, as when they submitted over 9,000 public comments to the DPS opposing National Grid’s latest round of gas infrastructure and all of those comments were essentially ignored. Today, thanks to the department’s continued acquiescence to National Grid, construction on at least $120 million of that and related infrastructure has begun or is already complete, including a final phase of the detested MRI pipeline, which runs mostly through low-income Black and brown communities. Does National Grid have permission yet to recover those construction costs from ratepayers? No. But one can only assume that the company is so confident that the spineless DPS will eventually allow it to do so that it has gone ahead and built the projects anyway.  

Meanwhile, New Yorkers continue to fight back. On March 9, several parties and community groups—including NYC Comptroller and mayoral candidate Scott M. Stringer—walked out of rate negotiations with National Grid and the DPS in protest of the continued construction, among other things. They had joined the talks to represent community opposition, yet “stakeholder participation” had once again yielded nothing. 

That same week, before a public hearing on a segment of the contested infrastructure slated for Greenpoint—an expansion of liquified natural gas capabilities in an environmental justice zone—so many people registered to testify that the Department of Environmental Conservation had to schedule three additional hearings just to accommodate everyone. There were 118 speakers. All 118 opposed the expansion. 

Greenpoint residents are also suing National Grid and the state over the project. 

The disconnect between public demands and regulatory responsiveness has reached parodic proportions. Appeals to “stakeholder participation” have served only to absolve the DPS of responsibility while obscuring the power imbalances that keep capital squarely in the driver’s seat, regardless of its appeals to democratic processes. 

That’s why the time has come to remove corporate profiteering from the picture altogether. Two new bills written by the Public Power NY Coalition and associated legislators—the NY Build Public Renewables Act, which was just introduced, and the forthcoming NY Utility Democracy Act—would do just that, initiating a takeover of the state’s investor-owned utilities that would make them publicly owned and democratically accountable. Billions siphoned away from renewable energy solutions and into CEO salaries? No longer. Regressive rates, punitive late fees, and service shut-offs for struggling ratepayers? No more. Perverse financial incentives to build fracked gas infrastructure when it isn’t needed? Gone. 

With the profit motive removed, our utilities could begin treating energy as a human right, not a commodity for corporations to play with as the planet burns. They could stop shrugging their shoulders at electrification just because it screws the balance sheet. And they could focus on lowering bills for millions of energy-burdened customers rather than raising dividends for shareholders during a pandemic

Regulation can’t accomplish any of this. That much is clear by now. But public ownership of our utilities could. It’s time to take that democratic path and pass these bills. New Yorkers—sick of the pipelines, blackouts, gas moratoria, high bills, and the rest of it—deserve no less. 

Robert Jackson Wood is a Brooklyn-based writer and a member of the NYC-DSA Ecosocialist Working Group. 

James Denn, a spokesman for New York’s Department of Public Service, responded with the following statement: “The stakeholder process employed by the Public Service Commission, and its staff arm, the Department of Public Service, has long been lauded for its transparency. Contrary to the misguided criticism offered by the Op Ed author, the process we employ is a shining example of exactly how an energy regulatory agency should operate to ensure its decisions are made in public interest. On any given day, dozens of stakeholders, including consumer advocates and environmental groups, along with hundreds of citizens from all walks of life, actively engage in reviewing and commenting on proceedings before the PSC. In order to ensure a fair and transparent process, we can’t comment on the proceedings referenced in the Op Ed since they are ongoing and currently undergoing public review and comment. That said the PSC is clearly considered by public interest groups, the media and stakeholders as a national leader in terms of its regulatory transparency, most notably through its dynamic and accessible internet portal. Given these very obvious facts, the criticisms offered in this Op Ed demonstrate an obvious lack of understanding of the regulatory process, and as a result, are misplaced and flat-out wrong.”