For 15 days from late 2017 into January of 2018, New England experienced a cold snap that drove temperatures to historic lows, leaving millions of people facing life or death conditions if they couldn’t keep their homes warm. In those two weeks, New England burned 2 million barrels of oil and increased the use of coal because cleaner fuel sources were not available. This fuel shortage became so dire, the entity responsible for overseeing New England’s power grid, the ISO-NE, estimated the region was only 48 hours from running out altogether.
I was the chief energy regulator in Massachusetts at the time, and there is a simple answer for how it got that bad: Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Cuomo has been rightly hailed as one of the policymakers in the United States who is taking climate change seriously, pushing for aggressive renewable energy development and strict emissions standards even as federal leaders turn their backs on acknowledging climate goals. With Al Gore by his side, last month Cuomo signed the most aggressive climate change legislation in the nation.
But those goals are decades away, and many have yet to be clearly defined. To date, his policies lack a workable transition to a carbon-free future. And when it comes to reducing carbon emissions today, many of Cuomo’s decisions — like blocking the development of natural gas infrastructure — ensure that millions of Americans have no choice but to use some of the dirtiest fossil fuel sources on the market.
New York’s energy policies don’t stop at the border. When Cuomo makes it a campaign pledge to block every natural gas project in New York, he’s making it impossible to get more supply to Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island. The result is that we burn dirtier fuel to stay warm in the winter. During that 2018 “Polar Vortex,” carbon dioxide emissions more than doubled — from below 100,000 short tons per day leading up to the cold snap to an average of over 220,000 short tons per day during its height.
UN climate scientists say we must have carbon reduction policies in place by the end of 2020 to protect the planet from the most devastating effects of climate change, so waiting until 2040 to reach Cuomo’s 100% renewable target is not an option. We need to take the dirtiest fuels off the market immediately by, for example, building efficient and resilient microgrids that run on natural gas.
Embracing those policies would be politically difficult for Cuomo, but he would only need to point to results. While renewable energy production has stayed flat in new York over the last 15 years, the state has reduced carbon emissions by more than 20% since 2005 levels largely due to natural gas replacing coal and oil. There are similar successes across New England.
Instead, Cuomo is pushing us in the opposite direction. As is now happening in New York, there are moratoriums on new natural gas hookups throughout Massachusetts due to supply constraints from Cuomo’s blockade. The net result protects older, dirtier and less efficient uses of gas and oil. In these communities, it’s easier to get diesel fuel than natural gas. Not only is there not enough renewable power to make up the difference today, but even with the largest clean energy procurements in the U.S. of hydro and off-shore wind, there won’t be for decades.
New York and New England are facing more than a decade of continued reliance on fossil fuels to meet our energy demands. Doesn’t it make sense to use the cleanest option, rather than blocking a pipeline because it satisfies anti-natural gas ideology?
Responsible climate policy must be about immediately reducing carbon emissions in every way we can — through the development of renewable energy production and battery storage of course, but also by removing the worst of our current power production fleet, and replacing it with something cleaner.
Those decisions may not be popular. Politically, it’s easier to say, “I stopped the pipeline” than to say, “actually, we need some gas.” But that’s the reality. And by ignoring reality, we’re only making the problem worse.
O’Connor is the former chair of the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, has worked in the energy industry for more than 20 years and is considered an expert on energy industry regulatory and legislative issues.