Assembly hearing on nuke plant bailout draws supporters and critics, but no Cuomo officials

Mar 7, 2017
Originally published on March 7, 2017 9:28 am

The state Assembly held a hearing Monday on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to spend $8 billion in subsidies to keep three upstate nuclear power plants operating for the next 12 years. But no one from the Cuomo administration showed up.

The plan, announced last summer as part of an overall state energy plan, spends nearly $8 billion to keep three nuclear power plants in upstate New York running for at least another dozen years. Cuomo’s energy officials have said it’s part of a bridge to generate half of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2030.

But critics, including some environmental groups, say it’s an expensive bailout for the nuclear industry that will be financed by ratepayers around the state, as well as public institutions the same ratepayers use, like the MTA and New York City’s public housing authority.

Blair Horner is with the New York Public Interest Research Group, which conducted a study detailing the potential costs of what they call a new “tax.”

“Ultimately, the $7.7 billion will be paid by the public,” Horner said. “In the various ways that it plays out: higher prices, higher taxes, direct increase in their utility rates.”

Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a Democrat from Long Island who chairs the Environmental Conservation Committee, agreed with Horner’s testimony. He said the additional costs could even be compounded by utility ratepayers who also use public transportation or shop at stores that have to raise their prices due to higher electric rates.

Englebright echoed criticisms that the bailout plan was announced with virtually no public input.

“Taxation without representation is tyranny, some of our forefathers said,” Englebright said.

Representatives from Cuomo’s Public Service Commission did not attend the hearing, even though they were invited by Assembly members. A PSC spokesman said the invite came too late, and there were “scheduling conflicts,” but spokesman James Denn said the agency is submitting “extensive” written testimony. They have argued that the nuclear plants provide clean fuel while the state transitions to more renewable energy sources.

Audrey Zibelman, the chair of the PSC, is resigning at the end of the month to take a job in Australia.

Supporters — including Exelon Corp., the company that will own the three power plants, and local officials where the power plants are located — say losing the plants would have a “devastating” economic effect.

Two of the plants are in Oswego. Its mayor, William Barlow, said in his testimony that the power plants are the “backbone” of the community. He said the FitzPatrick plant alone is the source of 615 well-paying jobs as well as $500 million a year in regional economic activity. He said the plants also pay millions of dollars in property taxes.

Joseph Pacher, the site vice president of the Ginna nuclear power plant near Rochester, said the tax money goes to local schools and toward infrastructure like road and bridge upkeep. And he said replacement power sources would be more expensive.

“Not only would they lose the tax base, power prices would indeed go up if these units shut down,” Pacher said.

Cuomo has a much different attitude when it comes to the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County. His administration is on a fast track to close that plant by 2021, and his top energy officials testified at a hearing on the proposed Indian Point closure earlier in the month.

The Legislature has limited power to stop the upstate nuclear bailout unless they introduce and pass new legislation to change the state’s energy policy, which could face a veto from the governor.