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The Citizens Budget Commission advocated embracing natural gas and expanding nuclear subsidies among other pro-corporate recommendations

(photo by Grant Hutchinson, via Flickr)

The Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a New York State fiscal watchdog group, issued a report last week blasting the clean energy goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), a major piece of environmental legislation, as “infeasible” due to the law’s ambitious timescale. The CBC called on New York to embrace natural gas as a “bridge fuel” and advocated for extending nuclear power subsidies.

While holding itself out as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit civic organization,” the CBC board of trustees is dominated by real estate executives, lobbyists, and other members of New York’s corporate elite. CBC’s Energy Policy Committee, which wrote the group’s report on CLCPA, includes several executives and lobbyists for fossil fuel companies and energy utilities – most notably, Consolidated Edison and National Grid – that have opposed CLCPA and are pushing to expand fossil fuel infrastructure in New York.

The CBC does not oppose climate action altogether or even the CLCPA specifically. However, the organization’s recommendations reflect the corporate interests of the CBC’s board of trustees and Energy Policy Committee members. As a whole, the CBC’s review of CLCPA and recommendations for its implementation are in keeping with the goals of the emergent anti-Green New Deal coalition, which pushes for more limited and corporate-friendly energy reforms like carbon taxes and increased public subsidies for private energy research and development in opposition to the ambitious public-driven programs of the Green New Deal.

CBC report blasts climate goals, endorses natural gas as a “bridge fuel”

CBC begins its report by diminishing expectations that the state can reach the decarbonization goals set out in the CLCPA. The goal of reaching 70% renewable electricity by 2030 is “infeasible” according to the group, because it would require a rapid deployment of renewable energy projects and because specifying that New York must use renewable resources for electricity is “undermining the opportunity for competition to offer innovative solutions.”

CBC characterizes New York’s recent rejection of several natural gas pipeline projects as “counterproductive.” The group calls out Williams Companies’ Northeast Supply Enhancement Project and Constitution Pipeline as well as National Fuel’s Northern Access Pipeline as three pipeline projects it believes New York should approve. The report cites recent moratoria on new gas hookups by National Grid and Consolidated Edison as evidence of the need for more gas infrastructure.

CBC also re-deploys an argument dating back to the beginning of the US fracking boom that expanding consumption of natural gas is an intermediate step before phasing out fossil fuels entirely. A pull-out box titled “Natural Gas: Bridge to a Clean Energy Future” quotes 2011 Senate testimony from Ernest Moniz arguing that cheap gas made available by fracking is important to “economically advancing a clean energy system.” In that testimony, Moniz was summarizing a report he led at the MIT Energy Initiative that played a critical role in both making fracking politically palatable and opening the United States to exporting fracked gas around the world as liquefied natural gas (LNG). Moniz’s report was funded by oil companies and a faux environmental front group created by the fracking firm Chesapeake Energy. Moniz went on to join the Obama administration as Secretary of Energy and is reported to be advising Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden’s 2020 Presidential campaign.

Natural gas’s value as a “bridge fuel” has been disputed for as long as it has been used by fracking advocates. Research by Cornell University ecologist Robert Howarth has shown that methane – the primary component of natural gas – is a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Analyses of natural gas operations have shown that natural gas operations leak enormous amounts of methane into the atmosphere. For example, a blowout at an ExxonMobil natural gas fracking site in Ohio was recently revealed to have leaked more methane than the entire oil and gas industries of Norway and France. Further, the glut of cheap natural gas created by the US fracking boom and LNG export regime has driven a rise – rather than a decline – in greenhouse gas emissions around the world.

The CBC report argues for an “economy-wide carbon pricing system,” lifting up cap-and-trade and a carbon fee as two examples of the kind of system the group would prefer. As the climate crisis has worsened and a broad consensus has formed that burning fossil fuels is to blame, carbon taxes have emerged as one of the reforms most preferred by the oil and gas industry. A lobbying and public relations campaign called Americans for Carbon Dividends is being run by the lobbying firm Squire Patton Boggs with the backing of BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips. CBC explicitly argues that New York should extend carbon pricing to the transportation sector, which the state has already embarked upon by joining the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative, a cap-and-trade scheme similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative that will cap emissions from transportation fuels (as opposed to power plant emissions) and use the proceeds from selling pollution allowances to fund less-polluting transportation.

CBC also argues that New York should continue subsidizing nuclear energy through Zero Emissions Credits (ZECs, mandatory fees that are added to the bills of all electric customers in New York State. The ZEC program was approved in 2016 amid heavy lobbying by the nuclear industry and is set to expire in 2029. CBC claims that “the entire fleet of nuclear plants may shut down [in 2029] unless the ZEC program is extended,” which the group says would necessitate the use of natural gas for electrical generation. We wrote last year about how a lobbyist for the nuclear power company Exelon bragged that lobbying for the ZEC program generated a 750% return on Exelon’s investment in the FitzPatrick nuclear plant.

Corporate interests on the CBC Energy Policy Committee and board of trustees

Several members of the Energy Policy Committee, which oversaw CBC’s report, are executives or lobbyists for companies that would benefit if the commission’s recommendations were adopted. Other members of the CBC board of trustees – such as Joni Yoswein and Suri Kasirer – are also prominent New York lobbyists whose clients include fossil fuel interests. While CBC discloses its trustees’ main business positions on its website, the presence of executives and lobbyists with an explicit financial interest in New York State climate policy on the committee overseeing this report was not disclosed in the body of the report on in CBC’s press release.

Three Energy Policy Committee members are high-level employees for downstate gas and electric utilities, including National Grid and Consolidated Edison, the two companies whose new gas customer moratoria CBC presented as evidence that New York needs more fracked gas pipelines.

Robert Hoglund, a senior vice president and Chief Financial Officer of Consolidated Edison; Eileen Cifone, National Grid’s director of New York City lobbying; and Daniel Eichhorn, the President & COO of PSEG Long Island are all named in the report as members of CBC’s Energy Policy Committee. Hoglund, Cifone, and Eichhorn are all members of CBC’s board of trustees, and Hoglund sits on the group’s executive committee.

Hoglund was paid more than $2.5 million in 2018, and his 39,539 shares of Consolidated Edison stock were worth more than $3.4 million at the market’s close on December 16, 2019. Con Ed imposed a moratorium on new gas hookups in Westchester County in March 2019, claiming that it lacked enough gas supply and transmission capacity to keep adding customers in the region. Con Ed’s moratorium prompted the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) to approve a $250 million program aimed at reducing energy consumption. In April 2019, Con Ed announced it would lift the moratorium in 2023 after making a deal with Tennessee Gas Pipeline to expand capacity on existing gas pipelines. The PSC approved Con Ed’s request to hike rates on its customers in October 2019.

Eileen Cifone has lobbied directly for Williams’ Northeast Supply Enhancement Project, according to New York City lobbying filings, and her employer National Grid has been mired in controversy over its tactics in trying to force the pipeline past strident community opposition and state environmental regulators. Like Con Ed, National Grid also instituted a moratorium on new hookups in its downstate service area in 2019. Opponents say that National Fuel was effectively attempting to hold New York hostage – thanks to the firm’s monopoly on gas and electric service in the areas where it operates – in order to force the state to accept an infrastructure buildout that threatens to pollute New York harbor and would lock in dependence on fossil fuels in a time when the climate crisis demands a transition away from them. The conflict over National Grid’s moratorium ended with a $36 million settlement after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo threatened to revoke the utility’s charter to operate in the state. 

Joni Yoswein, who sits on the CBC board of directors but not on the Energy Policy Committee, is also a lobbyist for National Grid. Yoswein reported lobbying on proposed pipelines for National Grid in 2019.

National Grid lobbied on earlier versions of the CLCPA before it passed in 2019. Both National Grid and Con Ed are also members of the Business Council of New York State, which has led corporate efforts to kill and water down the legislation.

Daniel Eichhorn is the President and Chief Operating Office of PSEG Long Island, a Public Enterprise Service Group that operates the transmission and distribution system for the publicly owned Long Island Power Authority. Elsewhere, other PSEG subsidiaries generate power primarily from nuclear and natural gas. Eichhorn was named to his position in October 2017 and his compensation information is not listed in current filings from the SEC.

Another member of CBC’s Energy Policy Committee is former New York State Republiucan Party chairman Edward F. Cox, who is a board member at Noble Energy, an oil and gas driller headquartered in Houston. Cox earned $315,317 for sitting on Noble’s board in 2018 and he and his wife together own more than 81,000 shares of Noble stock, worth $1.8 million at the market’s close on December 16, 2019. As we have noted in the past, Cox is also the chairman of the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, which has corporate partnerships with a number of major oil and gas companies. The New York Times reported in 2019 that after being replaced as chairman of the New York State Republicans, Cox was joining the Trump 2020 re-election effort.

In its argument for expanding the Zero Emission Credits subsidy for the state nuclear industry, CBC mentions Entergy’s Indian Point Energy Center by name four separate times. The power plant was not included in the ZEC program and is scheduled to shut down entirely by 2021.

David Weinraub, a prominent New York lobbyist and former aide to Mario Cuomo, is a member of CBC’s board of trustees and Energy Policy Committee. One of Weinraub’s lobbying clients is Entergy. In 2019, he was the sole Brown & Weinraub lobbyist registered with New York State to advocate for Entergy on a contract worth $13,250 per month.

Weinraub has other clients with an interest in how New York will implement the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Weinraub was registered as a lobbyist for 90 different clients in 2019, including:

From January 2017 through February 2018, Weinraub also lobbied for Millennium Pipeline Company LLC, which built a fracked gas pipeline to service the controversial CPV Valley Energy Center in Wayawanda, New York. The CPV facility was at the center of a public corruption case focused on Joe Percoco, a top aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, which we wrote about in our April 2018 report “The Percoco Connection.”

Top financiers of fossil fuel industry have seats on the CBC board

Major banks with representatives on the CBC board of trustees include some of the top financiers of the fossil fuel industry in the world. These banks have provided over $868 billion in credit to fossil fuel companies from 2016 through 2018, according to a 2019 report from BankTrack, Rainforest Action Network, Indigenous Environmental Network, Oil Change International, Sierra Club and Honor the Earth.

Some of the top fossil fuel financiers on the CBC board are:

  • JPMorgan Chase, the top fossil fuel financier in the world, which provided more than $195 billion in financing for fossil fuel companies from 2016 through 2018;
  • Wells Fargo, which provided more than $151 billion in financing;
  • Citi, which provided more than $129 billion;
  • Bank of America Merrill Lynch, which provided more than $106 billion;
  • Barclays Capital, which provided more than $85 billion; and
  • TD Bank, which provided more than $74 billion

New York corporate interests have been campaigning for years against meaningful action on climate change. The Citizens’ Budget Committee’s recent report on the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act fits into this strategy by claiming that ambitious renewable energy goals are infeasible while pushing a set of priorities that advance the interests of the corporations with seats at the CBC held by corporate executives or by lobbyists paid by the companies. If they succeed in constraining public expectations and setting the terms of debate around climate policy, corporate-aligned groups like CBC that are part of the anti-Green New Deal coalition can ensure that big publicly-owned projects that benefit society as a whole take a back seat to the status quo of subsidies for privately owned “green” businesses and the green-washing of extractive and polluting industries like natural gas and nuclear.