New York owes its 'coal' communities

Daniel Engert

Cuomo bans coal. What about the IBEW workers? What about the communities? What about the sites?

Governor Cuomo announced his intention to ban coal-fired generation in New York state in 2016. He was praised by the environmental lobby groups for this “bold climate action.” In 2018, he directed the Department of Environmental Conservation to develop purposefully unattainable emission rules that would be impossible for any coal-fired power plant to comply with. To that end, environmental attorneys and regulators went to work to effectively shut them down by the stroke of their pens and keyboards. Earlier this month, on May 9, the DEC adopted these final regulations.

So, just how “bold” and “impactful” are these regulations? The environmental impacts will actually be very minimal. The reality is that there are only two coal power plants in New York state: Somerset and Cayuga. These regulations specifically target these two plants and these two communities; no other fossil fuel generators are impacted.

Combined, these two plants were completely idle, emitting absolutely nothing for approximately 340 days (93%) and only produced a mere 7% of total upstate New York power in 2018. So, while these regulations will make virtually zero impact in terms of the environment, they most definitely will make a real and personal impact on the men and women of the IBEW who work at these plants, their families and these two communities.

Since the concoction of this “bold climate action” three years ago, the state has not committed a single staffer or any single resource to work with Somerset, the local community or the plant owners to offer any solutions. Moreover, not a single meeting with the affected workers and their families, not a single phone call or meeting with the affected community and school districts, no outreach whatsoever from the Governor’s office, the DEC or any other state agency during this whole ordeal.

As a result, statements like, “the State stands ready to help workers transition to Clean Climate Careers” ring empty and provide no assurance to workers about paying their mortgages after 2020. Further, when the Governor’s press release talked about “leading the nation with bold climate action to protect our planet and our communities,” he should have thought about starting with the two upstate communities of Somerset and Cayuga.

The easy part is done. It’s certainly no heavy lift to send off the lawyers and lobbyists to write two businesses out of existence. The hard part is transitioning these sites into economic development opportunities, saving these jobs and paving opportunities to develop more while stabilizing revenues for struggling taxing jurisdictions.

The state succeeded to shut down the plants but now I ask, what about these workers? What about these communities? What about these sites?

The plant owners (Beowulf Energy) have proposed to re-purpose these sites as data centers powered by renewable energy. Unlike the overwhelmingly opposed Lighthouse Wind proposal by Apex Clean Energy, this is precisely the type of development that Somerset envisioned in our comprehensive plan and zoning.

The Empire State Data Hub proposal when fully implemented represents a $650 million private capital investment, 200 jobs, a $410 million construction budget and 600 construction jobs. However, they need assistance from the state to bring the project together. They mostly need a power allocation from New York Power Authority (Niagara Hydroelectric Power Station) and a very modest Empire State Development investment.

For the sake of these workers, their families and our community, we need the state to show up and support us. So far, all I’ve heard is crickets. We don’t need the state to “stand ready,” we need the state to get engaged and embrace this upstate economic development opportunity.

Daniel M. Engert is the Somerset town supervisor.

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