New York state regulators voted unanimously this morning to increase 1.9-million residents’ utility bills to fund a controversial fracked gas pipeline running through Brooklyn.
The New York State Public Service Commission’s (PSC) 7-0 approval of the rate hike comes after years of debate over the funding of National Grid’s Metropolitan Reliability Infrastructure (MRI) project, dubbed the North Brooklyn Pipeline by local activists. The seven-mile long route, construction of which has already been permitted and is nearly completed, runs primarily through Brownsville, Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Williamsburg and Greenpoint.
Thursday’s vote was over a joint proposal written in May by National Grid, the Long Island Power Authority, and the Department of Public Service, among others, that included rate increases for New Yorkers ($129-million of which will fund pipeline construction); energy efficiency enhancements; limitations on oil and gas marketing; and educational efforts around emissions reductions.
“This reflects a solid, creative and responsible work on the part of staff,” said PSC commissioner John Maggiore of the joint proposal before voting yes for its passage in Thursday’s public hearing. “I also think this reflects a point in time and the evolution of this state towards greater reliance on renewable energy sources.”
“This case is a gift that will keep on giving,” added PSC Chair John B. Howard following the vote.
Though construction on the pipeline began in 2017, New York environmentalists say they were not aware of its existence until 2019, at which point opposition to the project mounted quickly. Over the last year-and-a-half, activists have staged rallies, marches, lock-ups and sit-ins along the pipeline route as the first four phases of its construction were underway. Most recently, the No North Brooklyn Pipeline campaign, a partnership between environmental groups Sane Energy Project, the Brownsville Residents’ Green Committee, Newtown Creek Alliance, and more, launched a gas bill strike across the city, urging New Yorkers to withhold $66 (an estimate of what consumers would be paying over time if the rate hike is approved) from their monthly National Grid payments in opposition to the pipeline.
All the while, regulators upstate were weighing who would pay for the project: National Grid proposed raising consumer rates over the course of three years to fund construction for the pipe, which it claimed would boost energy efficiency and strengthen utility access across the city.
But activists say the project disproportionately contributes to pollution levels in New York communities that have long been overburdened by environmental injustice and related health effects. Brownsville, for example, where 78 percent of residents are Black, has the highest adult asthma rates in New York City. And in 2012, a city report found that Bushwick had more than twice as many avoidable asthma hospitalizations than Brooklyn did as a whole. Placing the cost of the pipeline on New Yorkers—many of whom do not want it—is unfair, opponents say.
“As a woman of color living in so-called North Brooklyn for over a decade, I’ve experienced the negative impacts of environmental racism first hand,” said Jen Chantrtanapichate, an organizer with Frack Outta Brooklyn, a member organization of the No North Brooklyn Pipeline campaign in a statement Thursday.
“We live in close proximity to superfund sites and clusters of waste transfer facilities,” Chantrtanapichate continued. “We have spent the last two years fighting this pipeline because we know it will exacerbate our toxic living conditions and will contribute to our climate crisis. We know (environmental justice) communities like ours are targeted for capital projects that will disproportionately harm us compared to our white counterparts.”
Activists also argue that the North Brooklyn Pipeline unduly contributes to fossil fuel-related greenhouse gas emissions, even as the state aims to prove itself a national leader in the jump to renewables. New York committed to transitioning 70 percent of the state grid to renewables by 2030 and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050 when it approved the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), once lauded as the the most ambitious piece of state climate legislation in the country. Two years after the Act’s passage, progressive environmentalists in the city say no meaningful legislation has been passed to meet these goals.
The applicability of the rate hike to the CLCPA’s mandates has been of recent controversy as the rate case neared its end. In June, the Department of Public Service argued during a hearing with rate case parties that utility rate hikes do not fall within purview of the Act, confirming that it had not conducted any greenhouse gas emissions assessments on the pipeline in service of the state’s emissions reduction goals.
Shortly thereafter, Sane Energy project, Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE) and a number of progressive assembly members co-signed a brief underscoring the wrong-headedness of this approach, bringing the question of the CLCPA’s relevance in this and future rate cases front and center in Thursday’s vote.
“It's always been a pretty important case because it's determining whether or not we're paying for this pipeline that everybody said ‘fuck no,’ to, but now it's deciding also whether the CLCPA applies to rate cases, which will be a pretty big precedent,” Lee Ziesche, community engagement coordinator at Sane Energy project, told Motherboard a few days before the vote.
The commissioners who voted in support of the project Thursday concluded that the Act will be considered in future utility rate cases. But they also argue that National Grid’s proposal does meet the criteria the CLCPA lays out: It includes provisions for energy efficiency and methane detection, limits National Grid’s ability to engage in marketing techniques, and requires the company to engage in efforts to educate New Yorkers about their emissions contributions.
Activists say they see these as small wins, but are dismayed by the larger outcome of support for the pipeline.
“We’re pleased that the Commission agreed with us that the climate law does apply to rate cases, however we disagree that the Joint Proposal is compliant with that law,” said Jessica Azulay, executive director of AGREE, in a press release shared with Motherboard. “National Grid plans to keep increasing the amount of gas sold to its customers and is building dangerous and emitting infrastructure in disadvantaged communities to support that growth in sales. These two facts alone demonstrate violation of our climate law.”
Emily Gallagher, assembly member for New York’s 50th District (Greenpoint, Williamsburg Clinton Hill, Ft. Greene, Brooklyn) told Motherboard she believes the idea that the rate hike aligns with the CLCPA’s goals is “bullshit.”
“I'm so grateful to the activists who have been doggedly pursuing fighting this, but I'm really disgusted and disappointed,” said Gallagher, who submitted a letter of opposition to the rate hike to the PSC alongside 53 other state elected officials on August 2. “It really kind of shows that the PSC is colluding with oil companies to continue to push their profits over human life.”
Under the approved rate hikes, the average National Grid customer will be paying $125 more per year by mid-2022, the No North Brooklyn Pipeline coalition said in a press release. Ziesche and her colleagues say they refuse to take this sitting down. Regardless of bill increases, she’s not resuming her payments to National Grid anytime soon.
“The strike will definitely continue,” Ziesche said. “We'll never pay for this pipeline. We're not going to participate in a system like this anymore.”