A.G. Schneiderman Announces Proposal To Ensure Critical Public Utility Services Are Protected From Climate Change Impacts

A.G. To Propose Legislation Requiring Electric And Gas Utilities To Assess Vulnerability To Climate Change, And To Document Preparations And Planning For Climate Impacts

Schneiderman: Too Many New Yorkers Were Left In The Dark After Sandy And Irene; We Must Ensure Vital Public Services Are Protected From Impacts Of Climate Change

NEW YORK—Attorney General Schneiderman today announced that his office will propose legislation that would require electric and gas utilities to ensure that the critical services they provide to millions of New Yorkers are properly protected from the impacts of climate change. The proposal, announced in a speech to the New York League of Conservation Voters’ Spring Gala, would require these utilities to assess their systems’ vulnerability to climate change and to document for public review and comment how they intend to address these climate risks.

Recent reports, including the federal government’s 2014 National Climate Assessment that was released on May 6, have documented climate impacts that are already occurring, and that are projected to worsen in the coming years. Many of these impacts, including more severe and frequent storms, rising sea levels, and more extreme and frequent heat waves, are expected to put further strain on the electric and gas systems upon which nearly all New Yorkers rely. 

“New Yorkers learned the hard way after Sandy and Irene that many of our utility providers are unprepared for a future of more extreme weather,” Attorney General Schneiderman said. “By requiring gas and electric utilities to assess their vulnerability to climate change and then explain in public their plans to protect their energy systems, we can ensure that utility providers are investing ratepayer dollars wisely. Most of all, we will be ensuring that New Yorkers continue to receive safe and reliable service in a time of increasingly extreme weather.”

The National Climate Assessment reports that “the Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the United States; between 1958 and 2010, the Northeast saw more than a 70% increase in the amount of precipitation falling in very heavy events (defined as the heaviest 1% of all daily events).”

While no single storm can be definitively attributed to climate change, Sandy exposed critical weaknesses in the resilience of New York’s utility infrastructure, the danger that this weakness poses to New Yorkers, and the collateral damage to the economy caused when essential services like electricity and gas go down. Almost two million utility customers suffered from electricity outages when Sandy hit New York. Tens of thousands of utility customers were left without power for weeks; hospitals were shut down and patients displaced; many drinking water utilities lost power, which disrupted their ability to provide safe water; and sewage treatment plants could not operate, resulting in billions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage flowing into local waterways. The extended power outages and other infrastructure failures in the New York City metropolitan area alone were estimated to cause between $30 billion and $50 billion dollars in lost economic activity. 

The legislation Attorney General Schneiderman intends to propose arises out of his office’s involvement in recent Con Ed proceedings before the Public Service Commission, in which Con Ed sought $1 billion to rebuild after Sandy and harden its system against future storms. Attorney General Schneiderman’s office intervened in the Con Ed proceedings to focus attention on the real and increasing threat that climate change poses to Con Edison’s infrastructure and, ultimately, its customers, and to ensure that any proposal by Con Ed to harden its system accommodates future climate impacts such as sea level rise. As a result of expert testimony submitted by Attorney General Schneiderman’s office and others on potential climate impacts, the PSC required Con Ed to ensure that any new infrastructure it builds can withstand a future with more extreme coastal storms and sea level rise. The PSC also required Con Ed to engage in an in-depth study of its system’s vulnerability to climate change. 

The legislation Attorney General Schneiderman intends to propose affirms and builds on the PSC’s order in the Con Ed rate case by establishing a framework and process for the state’s other investor-owned utilities, as well as the Long Island Power Authority, to carry out climate change planning. It would require the Long Island Power Authority, and investor-owned utilities providing electric and gas services, to make initial assessments of the probable impacts of climate change on their infrastructure, operations and service delivery, and to document how they intend to incorporate their findings into future operations, planning, infrastructure design, and emergency preparations. Under the Attorney General’s proposal, the utilities would be required to update those assessments every five years. He also proposes requiring utility service providers to submit this information in the form of a “Climate Change Impact Statement” to the Public Service Commission that would be subject to public review and comment before the PSC. 

“To the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who lost power after Superstorm Sandy, Attorney General Schneiderman's proposal lays out an effective strategy to ensure their safety and security during and after the next big storm. This type of smart planning is absolutely critical to New York’s future, and we applaud the Attorney General and legislative leaders for confronting the issue of climate change head-on,” said Marcia Bystryn, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

Paul Gallay, President of Riverkeeper, said, “Recent extreme storms such as Sandy and Irene herald the dire consequences of increasing climate change. These include widespread and substantial damage to our essential public infrastructure, including outages in the gas and electricity service so vital to millions of New Yorkers.  Riverkeeper applauds Attorney General Schneiderman’s proposal to require that all public gas and electric utilities in the state plan for increasing climate change, and to ensure that critical public services – and the New Yorkers who depend on them – will be protected.” 

Peter Iwanowicz, Executive Director for Environmental Advocates of New York, said, “It is great that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is going to advance legislation to require gas and electric utilities to assess vulnerabilities to our changing climate. Since the climate impacts New Yorkers are experiencing are significant and are not going away, it is time that there be a legal requirement for companies to get serious about climate change preparedness.”

Professor Michael Gerrard, Director of the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law, said, “The Public Service Commission's order requiring the utilities it regulates to anticipate and plan for climate change, resulting from the joint efforts of the Attorney General's office, the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law, and other groups, put New York in the forefront nationally in enhancing the reliability of essential electric and gas service in the face of the extreme weather events that scientists now predict. This legislation would take an additional leap forward by writing the requirement into the statute books and broadening its applicability. It would become a model for the entire country.”

“Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee, and Superstorm Sandy have made it clear just how vulnerable New York is to climate change,” said Jackson Morris, Senior Energy & Climate Analyst at NRDC. “Scientists predict that a child born today could live to see Sandy-level flooding in New York City as frequently as every other year. Enacting this legislation will result in a cleaner and more resilient grid—one that can both mitigate the drivers of climate change while also helping us keep the lights on when the next storm hits.”

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