News

Student loan debts could be wiped out through Durbin’s bankruptcy relief bill

June 3, 2019

Chicago Sun-Times

The Student Borrower Bankruptcy Relief Act of 2019 would allow the loans to be treated like nearly all other forms of consumer debt.

By Rachel Hinton

Sen. Dick Durbin hopes his new bill can build in an escape clause for student loan borrowers who he says carry their debts to their graves.

The Student Borrower Bankruptcy Relief Act of 2019 introduced last month would eliminate a section of bankruptcy code that makes private and federal loans nondischargeable unless the borrower can show the debt presents an “undue hardship.” If passed, the act would allow the loans to be treated like nearly all other forms of consumer debt.

Forty-four million Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt — a figure that trails only credit card debt as the highest in the nation. The bill has picked up support from Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and U.S. Reps. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and John Katko, R-N.Y.

“We’ve created a standard for discharge that is so high that in a recent survey across the United States, they could only find four cases despite the millions of people who have student debt . . . that were discharged in bankruptcy,” Durbin said Monday.

“People literally carry this debt to the grave. We have millions . . . of Americans under the age of 50 who are still paying off student loan debt and many who have reached retirement age who are still facing these debts that are not discharged. I think it’s time for that to come to an end,” Durbin said.

Durbin introduced similar student loan forgiveness measures last year in Congress’ banking bill. That amendment called for improving consumer protections for federal and private student loans as well as a student loan borrower Bill of Rights and restoring the possibility for the loans to be discharged through bankruptcy among other methods.

James Haller, a bankruptcy attorney, says those inundated by student loan debt are “honest Americans who took out their debt honestly with the intent of paying it back.”

“When it comes to student loans, the system has been broken down. The standard in the law is undue hardship but the way that’s been interpreted by the courts is that you have to demonstrate a certainty of hopelessness . . . and that’s crazy,” Haller said. “The last time I saw somebody receive a student loan discharge was somebody who was completely paralyzed from the head down and in that proceeding the creditor was arguing that he still should not receive a discharge so the bar is so incredibly high that it’s absolutely impossible to meet.”

Durbin said the issue is one that crosses party boundaries and the vast majority of the debt is owed to the federal government. The senator said he’s going to ask the judiciary chairman for a hearing on the bill because “it’s time to come to grips with this reality.” If he’s able to get the hearing, and then get the bill to the floor of the Senate, then Durbin believes there’s a chance to pass it.

With marijuana legalization in doubt, will New York take baby steps?

June 2, 2019

The Buffalo News

By Tom Precious

ALBANY — With the clock ticking, lawmakers at the state Capitol are having intensive, ongoing negotiations over a sweeping bill to legalize the cultivation, distribution, taxation, sales and consumption of marijuana in New York State.

But with questions about whether that will lead to the full-scale legalization, another option is possible: baby steps.

Some states, like Colorado and California, have gone all-in with marijuana legalization. Some have taken more limited approaches.

Consider Vermont, the first state to legalize marijuana via the state Legislature as opposed to statewide ballot measures.

Last year, lawmakers in Vermont legalized possession of limited amounts of marijuana — ending what critics call the stigma of arrests from the widespread use of the drug. It also permitted residents to grow small amounts of marijuana at home.

A few months later, the Green Mountain state followed with a law allowing the expungement of criminal records of misdemeanor marijuana convictions.

It was not the more comprehensive plan advocates wanted and still want: creation of a regulatory system to oversee commercial cultivation, distribution and retail sales.

But it was a step.

“It was a compromise and an important compromise … and it was a cultural paradigm shift. Now we’re beginning to build experience with legal marijuana and see that the sky has not fallen and Vermont is much the same as it was,” Laura Subin, director of the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana, said of the 2018 drug law.

To the disappointment of marijuana legalization advocates like Subin, the Vermont Senate recently approved a regulatory and tax system for retail sales, but it died in the House last month with expectations that it will be back on the table in January.

But, as Lubin said of the 2018 law: “It is way better than not having legalization at all. These were very important criminal justice laws enacted.”

The full-blown effort

With three weeks to go to still make deals before the 2019 legislative session ends, advocates of marijuana legalization in New York want the full-on approach and not what they believe would be lost opportunities by going the Vermont route.

Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat and sponsor of the marijuana legalization bill in the Senate, said New York is the largest market in the country for illegal marijuana. “I don’t think you gain anything by not understanding the value of a new set of businesses that are legal, safer, regulated and will push the criminal element out of the whole thing as soon as possible,” said Krueger, the Senate Finance Committee chair.

As for taking a slower, initial legalization step seen in some states, Krueger said: “It’s not that I’m morally or intellectually opposed. It’s just that it won’t change the storyline that 98 percent of the marijuana sold in New York will still be the illegal kind from God knows what sources or what’s mixed into it, and with no labeling, from a cartel-affiliated drug dealer who’s potentially selling it,” she said.

Advocates in New York were emboldened Friday after the Illinois legislature gave final passage to a bill legalizing marijuana in that state under a comprehensive regulatory and taxation system. Proponents of the New York measure say Illinois’ measure, expected to be signed by the governor there, will give a well-timed boost for New York lawmakers to act.

Krueger believes there are not enough votes yet in the Senate to pass the bill. By mid-week last week, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, a Westchester Democrat, was expressing new confidence.

“I don’t think anybody doubts that marijuana will be legalized,” Stewart-Cousins said.

When and how remains the question.

“I’m not telling you if we can get A, B, C and D that I would stop it,” Krueger said of a less comprehensive marijuana alternative bill. “I think it’s just worth one more try to get a comprehensive package.”

There are already alternative bills floating around if the larger effort fails: One would expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program and another, for instance, would seek to put some laws and consumer protections into the industrial hemp industry and the rapidly expanding CBD marketplace selling non-psychoactive gummy bears, oils and drinks at shops and stores around the state to people using the products to treat themselves for everything from anxiety to chronic pain.

The Assembly sponsor of the main marijuana bill, Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, is having no part of the Plan B talk. “I think that was a good step for Vermont,” she said of the more scaled-down approach taken there.

“But this is New York and, quite frankly, there’s already an almost $3 billion underground marijuana industry here … So my thinking is to go full steam ahead,” the lawmaker said, adding she believes her bill will pass if it gets onto the Assembly floor.

From zero to 100 mph

The plans advanced by Cuomo and lawmakers would be far-reaching, covering everything from sales, cultivation, distribution, advertising, pricing and potency levels of the drug. Cuomo has also proposed creation of marijuana social lounges where, like Amsterdam, consumers could purchase and consume marijuana.

Such lounges were part of Massachusetts’ marijuana legalization efforts, which voters approved in 2016. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, last year slowed down the lounge idea, though recently he has expressed interest in a pilot program there.

Proponents of the big approach to marijuana legalization in New York say it will still take a couple of years before a fully regulated system is in place and in the interim a number of nuances and key matters — like where the retail stores are located and who gets to distribute the drug — will get worked out.

Still, if legalization happens, New York enters an environment similar to states that have legalized marijuana and are still evolving their own laws.

Marijuana laws on the books vary across the 10 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized marijuana in some form or another. Vermont and Massachusetts, for instance, say residents may grow a certain number of plants at home. Cuomo’s plan called for no home cultivation, a provision that pleased some big marijuana companies eyeing marijuana sales in New York.

Laws vary when it comes to how much of the drug can be possessed. Advertising laws also differ. Nevada’s tax department has to approve any marijuana ad. Most allow counties to ban sales, while some allow and some don’t allow delivery of marijuana products. States that have legalized marijuana also have different penalties for consuming the drug in public places.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., which favors marijuana legalization efforts, said she believes Vermont will legalize retail sales next year.

In New Jersey, where legalization efforts failed recently, lawmakers are looking to let voters decide in a referendum. The same route may be taken in Connecticut.

Taking smaller steps “helps with some issues but doesn’t help with getting to the heart of prohibition,” O’Keefe said. “I certainly advise to go ahead and legalize and regulate so you can control sales, who sells (what’s) sold so that cannabis is not painted with pesticides. All of those measures you’re not going to address with half measures.”

Are there compromises available?

Many critics of full-blown legalization say New York should decriminalize possession to get at problems seen in many communities where minorities have disproportionate marijuana arrest records. New York, however, did decriminalize marijuana possession in 1977, but it contained loopholes and huge spikes in arrests were seen over the years for minor amounts of possession.

Luke Niforatos, a senior policy adviser at Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes the legalization efforts in New York, said New York could easily enact more comprehensive decriminalization laws and allow the expungement of individual’s past misdemeanor marijuana arrests. While at it, he said, treatment for people with marijuana use problems needs more attention.

Niforatos noted the concerns of legalization supporters who say people should not be going to jail for marijuana convictions and that a regulated, legalized system is the best way to address social justice issues, especially in minority neighborhoods hit by disproportionate arrests.

“But both topics can be addressed right now without legalization,” he said.

Niforatos said Vermont’s marijuana use by residents — who consume marijuana at levels higher than the national average, according to government statistics — has become even further “normalized” by the 2018 law allowing possession and at-home plant growing.

He said his group doesn’t see the need to compromise on its stance at the Capitol. But, he added, “If it’s a do-or-die scenario, we’d pick a Vermont scenario over a Colorado scenario.’’

Marijuana legalization backers, too, see no need for compromise — especially with a full three weeks left in the session in Albany. “If we’re down to the wire and we haven’t moved, then it’s a different conversation,” said Melissa Moore, deputy state director at the Drug Policy Alliance.

But Moore sees support growing in the Legislature for full-blown legalization, especially after Krueger and Peoples-Stokes amended their bill to capture many ideas previously proposed by Cuomo.

With more states weighing whether to legalize marijuana, advocates say it’s time New York proceed with a full-blown approach.

“Look at the borders around us,” Krueger said. “Are we pretending we live in this bubble in New York and nobody’s going to be able to get marijuana?’’

More natural gas isn’t a “middle ground” — it’s a climate disaster

May 30, 2019

Vox

By David Roberts

To tackle climate change, natural gas has got to go.

Expert opinion on climate change policy has been evolving quickly. The opinion of policymakers has not always kept up. One area where this split is particularly notable is around the role of natural gas in a clean energy future.

For Democrats, support for natural gas has always been a signifier of moderation on climate policy. President Obama encouraged natural gas production and proudly took credit for the emission reductions it produced when substituting for coal. It was en vogue during the Obama years to refer to natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” a fossil fuel that could help reduce emissions while truly clean alternatives were developed.

To this day, there are “centrist” Democratic groups pushing the line that embracing natural gas (and nuclear, and carbon sequestration) is the “moderate” road forward on climate change.

No one knows yet what Joe Biden meant when he promised a “middle ground” on climate strategy a few weeks ago (he’s expected to release some policy shortly). But the first thing I thought of when he said it was natural gas. Biden is likely to try to signal that he’s a centrist by embracing natural gas’s role as a bridge fuel.

It’s a beguiling strategy for Democrats who are fearful of being seen as too liberal. But I’m afraid it’s a dead end.

You see, all those arguments for natural gas that seemed so compelling during the Obama years have fallen apart. It’s now clear that if the world is to meet the climate targets it promised in Paris, natural gas, like coal, must be deliberately and rapidly phased out. There’s no time for a bridge. And clean alternatives are ready.

Since climate policy promises to be a hot item this primary season, let’s quickly review the reasons natural gas has got to go. Helpfully, the think tank Oil Change International (OCI) has just put out a paper making those very arguments. Let’s review the five topline ones for why natural gas is not, and can not be, a bridge to a cleaner energy system.

Methane leakage may make natural gas as bad as coal, but it’s not the reason gas has no future

The paper leads with a quick note on methane leakage in natural gas production. Methane is a fast-acting greenhouse gas with enormous short-term impacts on climate. It leaks at every stage of the natural gas production and transportation process.

While gas itself is less carbon-intensive than coal, if enough methane leaks during its production, its greenhouse gas advantages are wiped out.

Does that much methane leak? Some studies have suggested that, yes, methane leakage is bad enough to make natural gas the greenhouse equivalent of coal. Other studies have suggested that gas still has an advantage (and proponents note that leakage could be reduced).

For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter. None of the five arguments against natural gas rely on any particular estimate of leakage. All of them would apply even if natural gas achieved zero leakage (which is impossible). The same is true regarding the local environmental impacts of natural gas production (air pollution, habitat loss, earthquakes) — they are dreadful, but even if they were eliminated, the following arguments would still apply.

1) Gas breaks the carbon budget

Honestly, this one is enough to rule out gas on its own.

It’s simple: Even setting aside methane leakage, there’s too much carbon in the natural gas we’ve already discovered for us to stay within the carbon budget promised in Paris. Never mind finding more — if we burn what we’ve already found, we’ll bust the budget.

The world’s nations have agreed to hold the rise in global average temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, with efforts to hold it to 1.5. (You will recall that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report that came out last year specifically investigated the difference in impact between 1.5 and 2 degrees. Long story short: The difference is substantial and 2 degrees would be horrific.) Staying within those targets leaves humanity with a limited amount of greenhouse gases it can still release — its carbon budget.

The chart below from OCI is eye-opening. On the left is the carbon content of the “developed reserves” of fossil fuels around the world, i.e., “already-operating or under-construction fields and mines.” On the right are the carbon budgets for 1.5 and 2 degrees, respectively.

If we burn the fossil fuels we are already exploiting, we will use up the 2-degree budget. Even if global coal use were eliminated overnight, burning the oil and gas we’re already digging up would blow the 1.5-degree carbon budget.

OCI emphasizes the obvious implication: “There is no room for new fossil fuel development — gas included — within the Paris Agreement goals.” If the countries of the world are serious about their shared targets, they must cease new fossil fuel exploration and cancel plans for new wells and mines.

The IPCC says the world needs to be half decarbonized by 2030, and fully decarbonized by 2050, to hit the 1.5-degree target. To give developing countries more room, wealthy developed nations like the US should ideally decarbonize faster.

To do that, the US will have to phase out all fossil fuel use as fast as it conceivably can. There’s no room for a bridge. Policymakers must begin consciously encouraging and designing energy systems that run entirely on carbon-free resources.

2) Coal-to-gas switching doesn’t cut it

Shutting down coal power plants and opening gas plants in their place will generally reduce emissions, depending on a variety of variables (again including methane emissions). Coal-to-gas switching is responsible for a big chunk of the emission reductions in the US electricity sector over the past few years.

But one thing is certain: Coal-to-gas switching doesn’t reduce emissions to zero. And zero-as-soon-as-possible is the goal.

In its New Energy Outlook for 2018, Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) ran a scenario in which global coal use was phased out by 2035 and the market was otherwise left to work. It found that gas would fill about 70 percent of the void. That is incommensurate with Paris targets.

Even with a global coal phaseout, we’ll blow through the 2-degree target, much less the 1.5-degree target, unless gas is phased out as well.

Fossil fuel industries respond by pointing to the potential for “negative emissions,” but all such technologies are speculative at scale and face potentially insurmountable challenges. Allowing gas infrastructure to continue being built on the hope that negative emissions will pan out is madness.

3) Bulk renewables can displace both coal and gas

In most markets, bulk renewables — utility-scale wind and solar power plants — are the cheapest form of power as measured by the “levelized cost of energy” (LCOE, which seeks to take all costs into account). This was confirmed last year by the financial advisory firm Lazard, which publishes annual LCOE estimates.

BNEF also does yearly LCOE analysis and has found the same thing:

The relentless decline of solar and wind costs has made these technologies the cheapest sources of new bulk electricity in all major economies, except Japan. This includes China and India, where not long ago coal dominated capacity additions, as well as the U.S., where the shale gas revolution has made gas cheap and abundant.

Renewables are already driving down prices in wholesale markets and causing existing natural gas plants to be run at much lower utilization rates than they were designed (and financed) for. And renewables are only getting cheaper, while cheap natural gas can’t last forever.

Of course, LCOE is a limited measure. What matters for variable renewables is not their average cost but their value at particular times and locations. Wind and solar do, after all, come and go with the weather. Which brings us to …

4) Gas isn’t needed for grid reliability

Renewable energy skeptics like to claim that natural gas power plants are required on the grid to balance out variable renewable energy, which comes and goes with the wind and sun.

OCI responds with three arguments.

First, most natural gas plants being built these days are combined cycle gas turbine (CCGT) plants, which produce the cheapest power. “In the United States alone, around 24 gigawatts (GW) of CCGT capacity was commissioned in 2017 and 2018, and more than 14 GW was under construction at the beginning of 2019,” writes OCI. “There is more than 425 GW of CCGT capacity in operation globally.”

But CCGT plants are not the plants that can ramp up and down quickly to balance renewables. They are big and relatively slow, meant to run at high utilization rates and provide bulk power. In other words, they compete with, rather than complement, renewables.

Second, the faster natural gas plants — gas reciprocating engines (GRE) and open cycle gas turbines (OCGT), or “peakers,” named for their function of spinning up during peaks of energy demand — are increasingly being beat out by batteries, which respond even quicker.

Wind and solar plants coupled with battery storage — which can compete directly with peakers — are getting cheaper. OCI cites a BNEF report showing that they “are already able to compete with new coal or gas plants on an LCOE basis in Germany, the United Kingdom, China, Australia, and the United States.”

For now, most utility-scale battery storage is in the four-hour range. Those battery installations are expected to get cheaper than natural gas peakers in the early 2020s. But they still have somewhat limited application.

However, OCI notes, “a study by Wood Mackenzie in 2018 found that six- and eight-hour battery storage systems, which are beginning to enter commercial operation today, can address 74 percent and 90 percent of peaking demand, respectively.” Once batteries get more sophisticated and cheaper, there won’t be much left for natural gas peakers to do. (For a longer look at how natural gas is getting displaced, see my article here.)

Third, OCI argues that the key to stable, reliable grids is not any individual technology but the design of power markets and power systems. Today, in dozens of sometimes subtle and technical ways, they are designed around large, centralized power plants and one-way power flows. To keep grids reliable during the energy transition, policymakers need to redesign markets to encourage diverse portfolios of energy technologies, from distributed generation to storage and demand response. (The report contains some policy suggestions.)

OCI doesn’t address the thorny question of whether getting to 100 percent clean electricity requires some form of dispatchable power (power that can be turned on and off), including nuclear and possibly natural gas or biomass with carbon capture and storage. (See here and here for more on that debate.) Regardless, it’s been fairly well demonstrated that we know how to get to 80 percent renewables — if there’s a modest role for gas in getting to 100, it certainly won’t look anything like the modern gas industry.

5) New natural gas infrastructure locks in carbon

When big, capital-intensive assets get built, they tend to stick around. There are more than 400 natural gas plants in the US that were built in or before 1970. (Even older than me!)

Utilities are currently incentivized to build precisely those big, capital-intensive assets. And once they are built, it doesn’t take much to keep them running. “Once capital has been sunk,” OCI writes, “operators can keep running a plant as long as it can sell power for more than the marginal cost of producing it — even if it incurs a loss on the invested capital.” That means even cheaper renewables won’t necessarily drive fossil fuel plants to retirement.

Yet dozens of new natural gas pipelines, power plants, and export terminals are in some stage of planning. The US is on a natural gas building binge.

Every bit of that gas infrastructure being built today must be retired before it is paid off, “stranded,” if the US is to have any hope of hitting its Paris targets. The more we build in coming years, the more we will have to abandon later. It probably won’t be big utility investors who get stuck with that bill.

Endorsing the IPCC targets means phasing out natural gas

So far in the Democratic primary, Beto O’Rourke, Jay Inslee, and Michael Bennet have released comprehensive climate plans. All of them acknowledge the imperative for the US to completely decarbonize by 2050 (Inslee targets 2045 and sooner if possible), per the IPCC.

Once that goal is in place, there is no space for expansion of natural gas infrastructure — wells, pipelines, export terminals, or power plants. That circle cannot be squared.

Rather, natural gas, like coal, must be phased out of the electricity system as rapidly as practically possible, and as many energy uses as possible must be electrified as fast as possible.

It’s not clear whether mainstream Democrats fully understand that yet. The battle against coal was helped along by the market. Natural gas will not go as quietly; its economic footprint is much larger. Oil and gas companies have considerably more political clout than coal companies. There’s a whole new set of battles and tricky political dilemmas ahead.

Nevertheless, supporting continued buildout of natural gas assets in the US is not “moderate” climate policy, nor a “middle ground.” It is an admission of failure, an acknowledgment that the US will not do its part to avert 2 degrees of warming and the horrors that will follow in its wake. No candidate should get away with claiming otherwise.

Approve this natural gas pipeline: The New York metropolitan area’s economy will suffer greatly, and we’ll only wind up relying more on dirtier-burning oil

May 29, 2019

New York Daily News

By Kathryn Wylde and Jim Cahill

New York is a state where business and organized labor regularly work together to forge practical solutions to challenges that threaten our state’s economic vitality. That is the spirit in which we are jointly endorsing expansion of a natural gas pipeline known as the Northeast Supply Enhancement Project, or NESE.

We cannot afford for NESE to go the way of Amazon, which was driven out of New York by many of the same groups that are opposing the pipeline. We also cannot afford to lose access to relatively clean natural gas during the uncertain period of our state’s transition from dependence on oil, gas and nuclear power to a future where we will hopefully be able to meet most of our energy needs from renewable sources like wind, sun and hydropower.

Earlier this month, the application to build the pipeline was turned down by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation on a technicality. We urge the developers of the pipeline expansion to pursue an amended application and hope that both New York and New Jersey regulators will move quickly to authorize a prompt construction start.

The entire state is at risk if NESE is not built. We all depend on the payrolls and tax revenues generated by the metropolitan region. Already there is a looming moratorium on new, gas-powered buildings here. As much as $300 billion in new development is at risk if the pipeline is not constructed. Even worse from an environmental point of view, a gas moratorium will force many new buildings to revert to oil-powered systems — an option that no one should welcome.

As more companies and consumers have moved away from oil as their primary energy source in order to reduce carbon emissions, the demand for natural gas has dramatically increased. The scheduled closing of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which has been a major source of clean energy, has made dependence on natural gas even greater.

Downstate’s fastest-growing industry is technology, which requires a huge amount of power to support its equipment, operations and data centers. Other big industries like finance and health care are also increasingly dependent on technology, so their needs for power are larger than ever.

Until the last year or so, it seemed that good sense would prevail over the objections of advocacy groups and political interests that insist on cutting off construction of any new infrastructure that sustains the natural gas supply in order to try forcing a faster conversion to renewables. The anti-fracking movement generated a lot of misinformation about the natural gas supply that has contributed to opposition to essential infrastructure like the NESE.

We should all share a commitment to moving as quickly as possible to energy sources that do not contribute to climate change, but we also need to be realistic about how long this may take.

Above all, let’s be practical. As it stands, renewables cannot meet New York’s enormous energy demands. It will take many years before that changes. National Grid has said that nearly 8,000 planned oil-to-gas residential conversions annually will be put on hold if NESE is not approved. In addition, planned conversion of major commercial buildings, including public housing, will be halted and will continue to depend on dirty oil for heat — a net loss for New York’s environmental, public health and clean air goals.

On behalf of the Partnership for New York City, which represents more than 350 major employers and 1.5 million workers in New York, as well as the NYS Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents 200,000 construction industry workers and a network of more than 2.5 million workers in the state’s AFL-CIO, we support the governor’s commitment to a carbon-free New York. However, we are also pragmatists. It is a fact that there is simply not enough renewable energy available right now to meet the growing demands of the Downstate region. We need the NESE pipeline.

Why a Rail Tunnel Under the Hudson River Is Stuck in Washington

May 28, 2019

Bloomberg

By Stacie Sherman

It’s widely regarded as among the most vital infrastructure projects in the U.S., but it’s been canceled once and now is stuck in limbo. President Donald Trump’s administration ranks the tunnel near the bottom of 37 rated projects vying for federal mass-transit grants and loans. Proponents of the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River blame Trump, who they say has backed away from his predecessor’s promises of federal funding and put regulatory hurdles in the project’s way.

1. What would Gateway do?

Double rail capacity between Newark, New Jersey, and New York’s Penn Station — the biggest bottleneck for train traffic on the East Coast — by digging a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River and rebuilding the single existing tunnel. It would also replace a century-old swing-span bridge over the Hackensack River, the Portal Bridge, whose malfunctioning can strand tens of thousands of travelers. Gateway also would add new tracks and concourses at Penn Station, the nation’s busiest train depot.

2. Why is it seen as so urgent?

Time, salt and traffic. The existing North River tunnel opened in 1910. It is used by Amtrak for its Northeast Corridor service and by NJ Transit for its New York-bound service, and handles about 450 trains, or 200,000 passenger trips, a day. The 2.5-mile (4-kilometer) tunnel consists of two single-track tubes. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the tunnel was inundated with corrosive saltwater, bringing mass transit to a halt for days. The tunnel was restored to service, but corrosive substances from the saltwater remain in its concrete liner and bench walls, causing cracks and weakening the power system.

3. How long can the tunnel last?

No one knows. In 2014, Amtrak engineers gave it a life expectancy of about 20 years, but officials warn that it could become unusable far sooner than that. To rehabilitate it, planners would need to close each tube for about two years, one at a time. Relying on one tube to provide two-way service would mean reducing peak service by 75%. The governors of New York and New Jersey say the loss could be catastrophic not just to the local and regional economy but would have a national impact, given the tunnel’s potential to be a chokepoint in a rail network serving an area that produces 20% of the nation’s GDP.

4. What would fixing this take?

About seven years for construction of the new tunnel, once all approvals are in place. Once that’s in service, the two existing tunnels would be renovated in turn. The estimated cost for all that is $12.7 billion. Replacement of the Portal Bridge would cost about $1.6 billion.

5. What’s the holdup?

Transportation officials in Trump’s administration say the project is ineligible for federal funding because New York and New Jersey haven’t committed enough local money. They’ve put it near the bottom of the list of projects vying for federal mass-transit help. But a review of federal project ratings shows that similar funding issues haven’t been counted against transit projects elsewhere. The two states say they had a deal with former President Barack Obama’s administration to split the cost of the project. Trump officials say no such deal exists.

6. Why has this process taken so long?

Officials began planning a replacement program in 1995. The project, called Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, had been allocated state and federal funding equal to its estimated cost of $8.7 billion and was given an estimated completion date of 2018. Then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican who ran for president in 2016, canceled it in 2010, citing concerns about potential cost overruns and a design that ended blocks from Pennsylvania Station. Critics said he killed ARC to use state funds to fund road projects that would have otherwise required an increase in the gas tax. Amtrak, the national passenger railroad, proposed Gateway in 2011.

Gas utilities managing to grow, even with regulatory and social obstacles

May 23, 2019

S&P Global Market Intelligence

By Sarah Smith

As opposition to natural gas projects gains more attention, utilities who move the fuel to customers across the U.S. are still finding ways to expand, often by reaching common ground with the communities where the companies operate, a number of industry executives said.

Spire Inc., for instance, is on the cusp of putting into service its STL Pipeline LLC this year. The 65-mile pipe is largely “demand pull, not producer push,” which helped with local support for the project, Steven Rasche, Spire’s executive vice president and CFO, said May 22 on the sidelines of the American Gas Association’s Financial Forum.

The company did hit delays in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approval process. Democrats on the commission disagreed with the need for the project, a point raised by another regional pipeline system. Republicans at FERC ultimately sided with Spire because the line provided supply diversity and avoided a seismic zone.

“We were able to show a pretty compelling reason why we needed a diverse supply … into the St. Louis market,” Rasche said of the process.

Not having to go through areas of high population density areas and not dealing with “New York or one of those more volatile jurisdictions” also smoothed the process for the STL Pipeline, he added at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., event.

Gas companies in New York in recent months have said they will have to stop extending gas service to new customers if more supply does not materialize for them. The shortage is tied to New York state’s permit rejections for new gas transmission lines. Other utilities in the sector are keeping close watch over whether state regulatory blockades will prevent large-scale infrastructure from being built elsewhere.

“It is a concern. There’s no question about that,” Jeffry Householder, Chesapeake Utilities Corp.’s president and CEO, said during a presentation at the Financial Forum. “The entire industry is focused.”

Chesapeake Utilities has managed to advance expansion projects in recent years, Householder and James Moriarty, the company’s general counsel, said at the forum. The company’s Del-Mar Energy Pathway pipeline proposal has faced some resistance, but Moriarty said that the fact that the line would displace wood-chip burning as a heat source helped win over opponents. The 11.8-MMcf/d expansion of the Eastern Shore Natural Gas Co. pipeline system in Delaware and Maryland cleared a FERC staff review in April.

More broadly, Moriarty said the company’s approach to stakeholder engagement has kept expansion projects out of hot water.

“We haven’t had environmental protests to any of our projects. We take seriously our approach to the environment and the communities we serve,” Moriarty said at the forum. “We engage broadly with the political leaders as well as with the environmental community.”

Chesapeake recently decided to pursue another expansion project: the Callahan pipeline, which would be a 26-mile, 16-inch pipe carrying about 148,000 Dth/d in Florida. Aiming to put the pipe into service in the third quarter of 2020, Chesapeake may also build out other infrastructure, such as combined heat and power, in the area to use the gas that the line would bring, Householder said May 21.

Southwest Gas Holdings Inc.’s utility business has been adding customers and building out its system in recent years. John Hester, Southwest Gas Holdings’ president and CEO, attributes the successful expansion initiatives in part to collaboration with developers in the company’s service territory who are adding gas demand, such as builders constructing a new stadium in Las Vegas.

“Our economies are really growth oriented. … The developers of those projects know that they can’t get those going without the proper infrastructure related to energy, and so they welcome the ability to have increased natural gas facilities,” Hester said May 22 on the sidelines of the event.

The company also benefits from something that some of the utilities of New York do not: an abundance of transmission pipeline capacity available in the regions where the company operates, he said. “We’ve got a lot of access to supply that really doesn’t require any new additional pipelines for, I think, decades to come.”

The Growing Trend Of Retiree Student Loan Debt

May 22, 2019

Forbes

By Robert Farrington

By now, you’re probably well aware that student loan debt has become a national crisis. Over 44 million borrowers owe more than $1.5 billion collectively at last count, and the student loan delinquency rate (loans 90+ days rate) remains relatively high at 11.4%. Worse, more than 609,000 souls owe more than $200,000 on their student loans according to the latest reports, and 1.3 million owe between $100,000 and $150,000!

But the bad news doesn’t end there. A large swath of student loan debt is not only ruining the lives of our youth, but our senior citizens in retirement.

You think of college debt as a Millennial’s problem – and it is – but the fastest growing group of borrowers is seniors, according to CBS News correspondent Mark Strassman. For seniors who fall behind, the government will garnish their social security. Many of them face a mountain of student debt they can never pay off. It’ll follow them to their grave, as he highlighted in his recent report.

How Retiree Student Loans Come Into Play

According to a Forbes analysis of Federal Reserve data, student loan debt among consumers in this age group has increased 71.5% over the last five years. This means that, as of the last number-crunching session, seniors ages 60 to 69 owe $85.4 billion in student debt altogether.

You’re probably wondering how this happened, especially considering the standard student loan repayment plan lasts only ten years — and even extended repayment plans typically only last 20 to 30 years. The answer is simple. Like other generations, seniors and baby boomers often choose to go back to school to increase their job prospects or learn new skills. And when they do, they take the path nearly everyone does when they go to college — they take out loans.

Of course, sometimes seniors are left holding the bag when their child or grandchild decides to go to school. This may mean they co-signed on a private student loan for a loved one they wanted to help with college, but it can also mean they took out parent PLUS loans, which come with a fixed interest rate of 7.6%.

The Problem With Growing Student Loan Debt

It’s easy to believe senior student loan debt must not be a problem, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. As a recent report from the AARP noted, seniors can see their Social Security benefits garnished at a rate of 15% to pay off student loans in default. They also note that, in 2015 alone, almost 114,000 student debtors ages 50 and older had some of their Social Security benefits seized to repay overdue federal student loans, which are subject to garnishment. And many of the funds seized were from disability benefits, not Social Security benefits paid out beyond the age of 62.

And, what about retirement? According to a study from Synchrony Bank, Americans in their 60’s report a median retirement account balance of $172,000. That’s not enough to retire for most people, let alone also service student loan debt.

This means more and more seniors are falling into poverty or relying on family members to provide them with housing or basic living expenses. And it may get a lot worse before it gets better.

What Can Seniors Do About Student Loan Debt?

Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet that helps seniors make their debts disappear. This is especially true with student loans, since they can almost never be discharged in bankruptcy outside of rare, specific situations.

This means senior citizens have many of the same options as their younger counterparts when it comes to dealing with student loan debt — they just have a lot less time to figure out a plan.

Some options anyone can consider for their student loans (including seniors) include:

  • Income-driven repayment plans like Pay As You Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), Income Contingent Repayment (ICR), and Income Based Repayment (IBR) let you pay a percentage of your “discretionary” income for up to 25 years before having your loan balances forgiven. This means you can get a more affordable monthly payment, although you’ll pay on your loans longer. You also have to pay income taxes on forgiven amounts when these plans, but senior citizens who may not be around to pay their loans off may not worry that far ahead.
  • Graduated payment plans for federal student loans let you pay smaller payments now that slowly balloon over time, although they still only last 10 years unless you take out a consolidation loan.
  • Extended repayment plans let you lengthen your repayment timeline for up to 25 years, securing a lower monthly payment in the process. You’ll pay on your loans longer this way, but your monthly savings can be significant.

Another option that can work well for seniors specifically is refinancing your student loans with a private company. Seniors are mostly likely to have great or excellent credit, which is a requirement if you want to refinance your student loans with the best rates and terms.

With a company like Earnest, for example, you may be able to qualify for fixed rates as low as 3.50% if you set your loans up on auto-pay. Considering Direct Unsubsidized Loans charge a fixed rate of 6.6%, that’s a significant difference and one that could help you save significant sums of money. You also get the benefit of choosing your loan term, and you can choose a monthly payment amount that makes sense with your monthly budget.

Keep in mind, however, that you’ll lose some consumer benefits if you refinance federal student loans with a private lender. This includes access to all the income-driven repayment plans we listed above, along with deferment and forbearance.

The Bottom Line

If you’re a senior citizen with student loan debt — or really anyone with student debt, you should know that you’re not alone. The costs of college have made it so borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to earn a degree has become the norm, and this problem affects everyone who plans to earn a degree regardless of age.

The best step you can take now is figuring out how to reduce your monthly payment so it’s not so detrimental to your budget. That may mean extending your repayment timeline, which is a real bummer when you’re already in your golden years. Then again, you may want to consider refinancing your student loans with a private company to secure a lower interest rate.

Finally, you can always work together with your children to address these financial challenges as a family.

We need action on infrastructure, not more talk

May 21, 2019

The Washington Post

By Thomas J. Donohoe and Richard Trumka

Thomas J. Donohoe is president and chief executive of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Richard Trumka is president of the AFL-CIO.

More than half a century ago, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and a Democratic-majority Congress empowered millions of Americans to build an interstate highway system that became the envy of the world. Back then, our nation understood that investment in infrastructure was crucial to creating a better future.

The interstate highway system was such a success that, 60 years later, both parties still fight over who gets credit for it.

Today, our leaders often talk about big ideas but rarely summon the political courage to accomplish them. As a result, our roads, bridges, airports, railways and utilities are outdated and in need of urgent repairs. In 2014, our clogged roads cost $160 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel. Our packed airports cost nearly $36 billion a year from air travel complications, and our crumbling infrastructure has cost American lives. It should not take another tragedy to change that.

As the heads of the nation’s leading business and labor organizations, we don’t always see eye to eye on things, but on this, we are in lockstep: Rebuilding and modernizing our nation’s crumbling infrastructure will benefit every business, every worker and every family in the United States. It will make every community safer, more resilient, healthy and secure. It will create good jobs, boost productivity, sharpen our nation’s competitive edge and ensure our current and future economic success.

It is frustrating that, despite widespread calls to act, the only response from Washington has been lip service. Talking alone does not create a single job or repair a single road. We need action.

Infrastructure is not a partisan issue. It is an American priority. Our nation’s leaders must find common cause — as we have — and once again make America a global leader on infrastructure.

For every dollar invested in public infrastructure, our country gets $3 in economic return. A $2 trillion investment, as President Trump and congressional leaders have agreed upon in principle, would produce reliable transit systems, sound roads and bridges, and safe drinking water.

We are aware that paying for this will be a challenge. It is important to consider all funding sources, including the gas tax, which hasn’t been raised at the federal level since 1993. An increase of 25 cents per gallon over five years would generate $394 billion and save Americans an average of $1,600 a year due to decreased car-repair costs and lower fuel costs, thanks to less time spent in traffic. In addition, raising the gas tax would put millions of men and women to work rebuilding our nation’s deteriorating roads and bridges.

But a gas tax alone cannot cover the $2 trillion bill. It is going to take a creative mix of federal, state, local and private resources to make the investment we need. Every long-term funding option, from payment structures to federally backed loans, should be explored. However, we agree that a 21st-century infrastructure is impossible without a major public investment.

We are also aware that neither party is perhaps as keen to take this step as it sounds on the stump. But according to a poll released in April, the public is tired of waiting. Seventy-nine percent of the voters polled believe Washington must act and invest in federal infrastructure, and in 2018, 79 percent of 346 state and local ballot measures aimed at infrastructure investment were approved.

The infrastructure investments we make today will determine the kind of country we will be decades from now. Our leaders in Washington have a historic opportunity to rebuild and modernize a nation desperately in need of repair. Labor and business are ready to unleash an unmatched network of leaders and members to support the passage of long-overdue legislation. But we can’t do it alone. The time for delay is over. Let’s build our future, and let’s start today.

NJ Transportation Bank: Low interest for infrastructure projects

May 21, 2019

New Jersey 101.5

By Joe Cutter

Camden County will fund a road improvement project in Pennsauken, utilizing funds from a new state bank set up to provide money for infrastructure improvement.

The county is the first entity in New Jersey to receive funding from the newly formed New Jersey Transportation Bank.

County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said the New Jersey Transportation Bank will help taxpayers first and foremost because it offers a below-market interest rate to governing bodies.

“(We) don’t start paying interest until the money is actually utilized for a construction project,” he said. And Cappelli said the county will get its loans “at a much lower rate with less work than there would be on a bond issue.”

The funds were set aside by the state of New Jersey for the specific purpose of seeing  transportation infrastructure projects completed in a timely fashion.

Cappelli said the funds are available quickly to local government through the State Transportation Department.

“I think every public entity in New Jersey should take a hard look at this bank and see if it can benefit them in some fashion because what is doing is it’s putting out money out in the street to get jobs completed,” he said.

Texas advances bill to stiffen penalties for pipeline damage

May 20, 2019

Bozeman Daily Chronicle

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A bill that would stiffen penalties for those who damage or trespass around oil and gas operations is advancing through the Texas Legislature.

Republicans say the measure that passed the Texas Senate on Monday would not limit legal protests but would deter people from damaging any property deemed critical infrastructure.

Republican Rep. Chris Paddie’s bill would classify pipelines as critical infrastructure , putting them in the same category as power plants and water treatment facilities. It would protect any property deemed critical infrastructure.

The amended bill would still subject those who trespass and damage the facility to a third degree felony with up to 10 years in prison. But people impairing or interrupting operations would now face a misdemeanor with a fine up to $10,000 and potentially up to one year in jail.