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PSC Needs To Be Independent Of Cuomo, Not A Pawn

If he hasn’t done so already, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is stepping dangerously close to the line that separates elected officials from independent agencies.

At issue, this time, is the controversy over National Grid’s desire to build a new natural gas pipeline downstate and an ensuing refusal by the utility to add new customers because company officials said they feared the lack of a consistent supply of natural gas could mean the utility couldn’t fill requested demand. Cuomo criticized National Grid for not doing enough to find ways to fill demand outside of a new pipeline because the pipeline wouldn’t be completed for several years while new customers want to sign up now.

Here’s where things get dicey.

Cuomo threatened to strip National Grid of its downstate natural gas franchises, something the governor can’t do. Only the state Public Service Commission, an independent agency made up of five appointed members. There is probably a reason the Public Service Commission was separated from elected politics when it was created, but Cuomo is dragging the commission into the political arena. Four times this year, the governor has threatened to strip companies’ franchises — National Grid, Charter, American Water and Con Ed. It took Charter almost a year to come to an agreement with the Public Service Commission to preserve its license. American Water recently announced it was selling its New York assets.

In the end, National Grid identified short-term supply mechanisms to meet the need for the new gas hookups for two years, will present a long-term options analysis within three months, subject to a public review process. The long-term options will be in place and functioning in the fall of 2021. To compensate customers who were adversely impacted by the moratorium, National Grid will pay a $36 million penalty. The penalty will also support new energy conservation measures and clean energy projects as directed by the state budget director in consultation with the Public Service Commission.

Why should people be concerned with the politicization of the Public Service Commission?

Here’s why.

The governor and the state’s elected Democrats favor wind, solar and other renewable energy sources over natural gas, and state regulators are being pushed not to approve natural gas pipelines. Those decisions mean natural gas providers have to find other ways to get natural gas to customers — either by truck or by boat. That can be tricky in the middle of a New York state winter. Not only is reliability a problem with some of the other alternatives to deliver natural gas, but those other mechanisms are more expensive than a pipeline once the infrastructure is built.

Interestingly, Con Ed finds itself in the governor’s cross-hairs again, according to the Journal News in Westchester County, over the utility’s own ban on new gas hookups in Westchester County and parts of New York City. Because the company prefers a solution that isn’t favored by the governor, the company probably finds itself looking at threats to remove Con Ed’s natural gas franchise.

And, lest we forget, the governor uses the Public Service Commission as a personal piggy bank to levy hidden taxes through the Fuel Adjustment Charge to pay for pet projects the governor can’t squeeze into New York’s bloated budget.

Politics and personal beefs need to be removed from discussions over utilities, and that means the Public Service Commission needs to be independent and not a pawn of the governor.

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