After New Yorkers faced a deluge of climate disasters this year, Governor Hochul needs to appoint climate champions to the Public Service Commission
Governor Hochul can, by carefully selecting her nominees, fully realize the PSC’s potential to serve New Yorkers by protecting consumers and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
New Yorkers just faced a year of record-breaking back-to-back climate disasters, and they’re ready for meaningful climate action. During the upcoming legislative session, passing critical pieces of legislation won’t be the only thing that needs to happen to ensure New York can meet its climate law mandates – open seats on the Public Service Commission (PSC) offer the opportunity for Governor Hochul to fill those positions with climate champions. Though this body is not widely known by New Yorkers, the PSC regularly makes decisions that impact people’s everyday lives, from their utility bills, to regulating pipelines delivering gas to their homes. It’s not often that governors get to make these kinds of nominations, and this moment comes when the state is at a critical juncture to meet its climate law mandates. Governor Hochul can, by carefully selecting her nominees, fully realize the PSC’s potential to serve New Yorkers by protecting consumers and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
What is the Public Service Commission (PSC)?
The PSC is responsible for regulating New York’s electric, gas, steam, telecommunications, and water utilities, and overseeing the cable industry. In practical terms, the Commission is in charge of setting rates and ensuring New York’s utilities provide just and adequate service. The Commission is made up of five to seven members, each appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate for a term of six years.
The New York State Department of Public Service describes its mission as to “ensure affordable, safe, secure, and reliable access to electric, gas, steam, telecommunications, and water services for New York State’s residential and business consumers, at just and reasonable rates, while protecting the natural environment.” Protecting the environment is key here.
What can the PSC do about climate change?
Last summer, the PSC allowed gas giant Con Edison— which serves New York City and Westchester — to raise customer’s gas rates by 8.4%. $3.9 billion of these dollars would go towards the expansion and maintenance of toxic fracked-gas infrastructure. Similarly, National Grid has proposed a 30.69% bill increase to replace old leaky pipes with new ones, which would cost Long Island, Queens and Brooklyn households $34.79 more per month on their energy bills. Upstate, the PSC approved a 6.1% rate increase over three years for New York State Electric and Gas (NYSEG) gas customers. The list goes on.
Though some of these funds are allocated for the Energy Affordability Program, improvements in technology, clear energy initiatives, or electrification incentives that will help achieve New York’s climate goals — a large and unnecessary amount of ratepayer dollars are still being used to maintain and expand the fossil fuel system. Further, there are concerns that gas giants such as National Fuel have used ratepayer dollars to lobby against electrification legislation like the All Electric Building Act and the NY HEAT Act.
Decisions like these do not just financially strain New York households, but are also at odds with New York’s landmark climate law, The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) — which requires us to move off of the climate change-fueling and health-harming gas system as quickly as possible. Ultimately, when the PSC is making decisions that could result in increased greenhouse gas emissions or other pollutants, it must comply with the CLCPA. This means that before approving gas and/or electric capital investments, the PSC must confirm the projects are CLCPA compliant in addition to being just, reasonable, and prudent. Further, the CLCPA also requires the PSC to ensure that members of disadvantaged communities are included in the clean energy transition while also protecting them from being disproportionately burdened. This is a crucial mission.
The PSC also plays an important role in moving our transportation sector off of fossil fuels. New York State is already in the midst of a transition towards zero-emissions transportation with nation-leading policies to electrify school buses and trucks. However, fleets that are ready to electrify today are often challenged by a grid that’s not yet ready to meet demand and a lack of widespread charging infrastructure. A climate-committed PSC could step in to support these fleets by working with utilities and grid planners to improve grid capacity and ending the expansion of gas and diesel fueling infrastructure.
One of the advantages for individuals and commercial fleets in transitioning to electric vehicles is the cost savings from fueling with electricity compared to diesel, gasoline or other fossil fuels – which are more costly and highly volatile. However, there are some areas in New York where commercial rates fail to properly account for these cost savings and actually make it cheaper to fuel with fossil fuels. The PSC also has the power to reform these cost structures in the near-term and ensure that transit agencies, school districts, and other big fleets actually save money by going electric.
Beyond playing such a large role in rate regulation, the PSC also approves gas utilities’ long-term plans in the Gas Planning Proceeding, administers the CLCPA Implementation Proceeding as well as permits for large-scale renewables such as offshore wind, pipelines, new electric generating stations, and interconnection and transmission projects.
What is the Governor’s role?
In New York, the Governor is responsible for nominating individuals to the PSC. They can nominate individuals who have a history of following the science, safeguarding the climate and protecting consumers, or individuals who will fold under gas company pressure and allow for the continued expansion of the fossil fuel system.
Now is the time to make careful and deliberate choices about who controls the fate of New York’s environment. New Yorkers need all state agencies aligned in the mission of combating the climate crisis and protecting vulnerable New Yorkers. Fortunately, Governor Kathy Hochul has the opportunity to appoint three new commissioners to the PSC by February 1st, 2024. By nominating climate champions to the Commission, she can ensure that New York maintains its position as a leader on climate and meets the emissions reductions mandates set out in the CLCPA. Though PSC nominations might not be as publicly visible as a new law, they are equally if not more crucial in our collective mission to protect the climate and keep New Yorkers safe, healthy, and thriving.
Meagan joined the Northeast regional office of Earthjustice in September 2017. Her work primarily focuses on climate and energy matters in the northeast region, including representing community and environmental groups in utility rate cases before the NY Public Service Commission. Meagan is an expert in gas and electric utility proceedings and has focused her efforts on cutting the use of gas in buildings in NY and other issues relating to slashing greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector.
Alok works at the Northeast regional office in New York, where he supports the region’s energy, agriculture and toxics docket. He is a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Established in 2008, Earthjustice’s Northeast Office, located in New York City, is at the forefront of issues at the intersection of energy, environmental health, and social justice.