News

A Wise Pause on Marijuana Legalization

May 19, 2019

Bloomberg

New Jersey and New York are right to be wary of unintended consequences.

By Editorial Board

The state-by-state march toward marijuana legalization has run into a wall in two left-leaning states. Faced with objections from parents, teachers, police and others concerned about public safety, New Jersey and New York are poised to shelve legislation that would allow recreational pot smoking.

This pause is a good thing — and should continue for as long as it takes to fully address the real and potential dangers of marijuana use. Ten other states have already leapt ahead.

And the downsides are becoming apparent. Since Colorado legalized pot in 2014, emergency-room visits related to its use have spiked. Patients complain of repeated vomiting, racing hearts, episodes of psychosis and other symptoms — linked especially to high-potency cannabis.

On Colorado roads, the number of drivers involved in fatal crashes while under the influence of marijuana has more than doubled. That’s hardly surprising, given the evidence that marijuana impairs driving ability. Compounding the problem, tests to measure a driver’s marijuana use are imperfect and police apply them inconsistently.

Scientists, hampered by restrictions on cannabis research, have yet to fully investigate its effects on health. But it’s known that marijuana, once smoked or eaten, acts on receptors essential to normal brain function. It impairs coordination, thinking and memory, and when used by adolescents, the cognitive effects can last for many years. Marijuana smoke irritates the lungs and speeds the heart rate. Persistent use can lead to anxiety, panic attacks, social withdrawal, depression and addiction.

Regular marijuana smokers tend to drop out of school and quit their jobs, studies show. There’s evidence as well that they become susceptible to other kinds of drug abuse and addiction.

Lawmakers in New Jersey and New York are wise to put on the brakes. They shouldn’t move forward with legalization unless and until the consequences for public health are better understood.

Getting serious about infrastructure

May 19, 2019

The Hill

By Philip K. Howard

Fixing America’s decrepit infrastructure enjoys rare bipartisan support. But the recent announcement of a $2 trillion plan by President Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was quickly doused by reality. White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said the proposal would go nowhere without permitting reform. Leaders in Congress, including some Democrats, said they would not support any significant increase in gas taxes to fund it.

No one seriously doubts the need to modernize America’s infrastructure. The main stumbling block is broad distrust of Washington’s ability to deliver any large public works initiative. Getting past this impasse offers a unique opportunity to reboot the rules, cutting effective costs by over 50 percent. Here are three reforms that should be enacted as the foundation of any infrastructure bill:

Permitting reform: In 2009, Congress authorized $800 billion to stimulate the economy, promising to rebuild infrastructure. In the final tally, a grand total of 3.6 percent was spent on transportation infrastructure. Projects never got out of the gate, because, as President Obama put it, “There’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.

The red tape is also cripplingly expensive. The 2015 Common Good report, “Two Years, Not Ten Years,” found that a six-year delay in permitting more than doubles the effective cost of projects, and lengthy environmental reviews are generally harmful to the environment because they prolong polluting bottlenecks.   

The reform needed is not to weaken environmental rules but to create clear lines of authority to make the decisions needed to adhere to deadlines. For example, a project with minimal environmental impact — such as raising the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge using existing foundations — does not need a 10,000-page analysis (plus another 10,000 pages of appendices). Common Good has a three-page legislative proposal that gives designated officials the job of deciding the proper scope of environmental review and resolving disagreements among different agencies.  

Discipline in prioritizing and procuring projects: Cynics don’t have to look far to see the likelihood of wasting public funds on pork such as “the bridge to nowhere.” Just as most of the 2009 stimulus was distributed to states in block grants, so too it is likely that much of any large infrastructure initiative will end up being distributed for political purposes.   

Nor should the price tag of infrastructure be inflated to meet unrelated social goals. The goal is modern roads, locks and electrical grids — not, as Pelosi and Schumer stated, an “imperative to involve women, veteran and minority-owned businesses.”

Congress should create an independent National Infrastructure Board, using the model of base-closing commissions, to set priorities for use of public infrastructure funds. That’s how Australia does it — it receives applications from states and then announces who gets federal funds.  

A National Infrastructure Board could avoid pork barrel projects and avoid use of critical infrastructure as pawns in unrelated political disputes. The Trump administration early on highlighted the new Gateway rail tunnel into Manhattan as a critical need of the Northeast. This $30 billion project is vital not only for commuters and rail travelers, but also for vehicular traffic. Gridlock would extend for 25 miles if one of the two existing rail tunnels shuts down long term.  Now that project is being held up because President Trump is using it as a political chip in a running dispute with Sens. Schumer and Cory Booker (D-N.J.).   

The National Infrastructure Board also could oversee contracting policies, to avoid waste of inflexible procurement practices and local featherbedding.   

Funding infrastructure: User fees will only repay a small portion of the cost of most public infrastructure. Republicans are correct that Washington is filled with wasteful programs that can be cut. Democrats (supported by the Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable) are correct that gas taxes, last set in 1993, have not kept up with inflation. The obvious political compromise is for Congress to use both sources and create a funding plan that is half cuts and half new taxes. A 25-cent hike in gas taxes would raise about $40 billion each year. The 2010 Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan offers a road map for cutting obsolete subsidies, such as New Deal farm subsidies.    

Modernizing America’s infrastructure would be a boon to the economy — enhancing competitiveness and creating over a million jobs that cannot go offshore. It would result in a greener footprint. The case for funding is compelling if accompanied by streamlined permitting and a National Infrastructure Board to avoid waste. Abandoning the legacy bureaucracies that stifle infrastructure projects might be the most important change of all — rebooting the rules could demonstrate what’s needed to fix broken government.   

New York Rejects Keystone-Like Pipeline in Fierce Battle Over the State’s Energy Future

May 15, 2019

The New York Times

Regulators denied an application for a $1 billion natural gas pipeline that environmentalists said would set back the fight against climate change.

By Vivian Wang and Michael Adno

In a major victory for environmental activists, New York regulators on Wednesday rejected the construction of a heavily disputed, nearly $1 billion natural gas pipeline, even as business leaders and energy companies warned that the decision could devastate the state’s economy and bring a gas moratorium to New York City and Long Island.

The pipeline was planned to run 37 miles, connecting natural gas fields in Pennsylvania to New Jersey and New York. Its operator, the Oklahoma-based Williams Companies, pitched it as a crucial addition to the region’s energy infrastructure, one that would deliver enough fuel to satisfy New York’s booming energy needs and stave off a looming shortage.

But environmental groups said Williams was manufacturing a crisis to justify a project that would rip apart fragile ecosystems, handcuff New York to fossil fuels and hobble the state’s march toward renewable resources.

The result was an arcane but fevered battle over what was potentially New York’s most fraught environmental decision since it banned fracking in 2014. The fight also took on political overtones, as progressive activists pressed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to urge his Department of Environmental Conservation to reject the application, casting it as a threat to his environmental legacy.

In a statement announcing the denial, the conservation department did not refer to the firestorm that had preceded its decision, aside from noting that it had received comments from more than 45,000 people about the project — 90 percent of whom opposed it. The department laid out its decision in technical terms, noting that construction would contaminate New York’s waters with mercury and copper.

“Construction of the NESE pipeline project is projected to result in water quality violations and fails to meet New York State’s rigorous water quality standards,” the department said, referring to what is formally called the Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline.

While the pipeline had not attracted anywhere near the attention of the Keystone XL or Dakota Access pipelines that carry oil in the Great Plains region, within the insular world of New York politics it became a flash point in a larger debate about fighting climate change, spurring economic development and whether it was possible to marry the two.

Ahead of the decision, a chorus of Democratic elected officials denounced the pipeline, including the New York City comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, and Mayor Bill de Blasio. Hours before the decision was due on Wednesday, 11 United States representatives, including Jerrold Nadler, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hakeem Jeffries, wrote a letter to Mr. Cuomo in opposition.

Last month, President Trump signed two executive orders designed to speed up the construction of pipelines and make it more difficult for states to reject them.

Wednesday’s decision thrilled activists and environmental groups who had spent months railing against the project. The Natural Resources Defense Council, a powerful national environmentalist group, used Twitter to call the decision a “huge win.”

Mr. Cuomo, for his part, had distanced himself from the dispute. At an unrelated news conference on Wednesday before the decision, he told reporters that he was not involved in the environmental agency’s deliberation process.

But in a nod to the heated nature of the debate, he said, “I told them, ‘Make the decision on the facts, not on the politics,’ and that’s what they’re going to be doing.”

He did not immediately comment after the pipeline decision.

New York regulators noted that they had denied the application “without prejudice,” meaning that the Williams Companies, the pipeline’s operator, could reapply. Company officials said they planned to do just that.

“The Department of Environmental Conservation raised a minor technical issue with our application,” Chris Stockton, a Williams spokesman, said in a statement. “Our team will be evaluating the issue and resubmitting the application quickly.”

Regulators in New Jersey must also decide on the project in June, though the state would not receive any of the gas; officials there said they had not made a decision.

The heart of the debate revolved around whether the pipeline was even necessary.

Williams had said the new pipeline could help accelerate the replacement of fuel sources that emit more carbon dioxide — the equivalent, company officials said, of taking 500,000 cars off the road for a year.

More critically, it said, without the extension, billions of dollars in infrastructure and development projects could stall. Williams and National Grid projected that natural gas demand would rise 10 percent in the next decade in New York City and Long Island. National Grid has threatened to impose a moratorium on new gas hookups in New York City and Long Island if the pipeline is not approved, just as Consolidated Edison has in Westchester County.

After New York in 2016 rejected a permit for the Constitution Pipeline Company, another Williams project, the company sued the state; that case is pending.

“The demand for natural gas is at an all-time high, and the existing infrastructure is at capacity,” Scott Hallam, a senior vice president at Williams, said in an interview before the decision.

Mr. Stockton, in his statement after the denial, said he was confident Williams could win approval soon enough to “avoid amoratorium that would have a devastating impact on the regional economy and environment.”

But opponents mounted a two-pronged campaign aimed at discrediting the companies’ statistics and warning Mr. Cuomo of damage to his environmental legacy.

Suzanne Mattei, the former head of the New York City branch of the state’s environmental conservation agency, was commissioned to write a report on the proposed pipeline by 350.org, an activist group that seeks to end the use of all fossil fuels. Her research showed that the claim of unmet gas demand was “a lot of smoke and mirrors,” said Ms. Mattei, who now works as an attorney at a public policy firm.

She pointed to a company presentation by Williams last year that predicted that several states in the Northeast could “experience flat to negative gas-demand growth” in the next 20 years as renewable energy proliferated. And while National Grid said it would need to supply 8,000 new natural gas hookups each year, Ms. Mattei said the number appeared speculative and inflated.

Mr. Stockton, the Williams spokesman, said that national trends did not capture demand for particular states or regions, and that New York’s economic development plans set it apart from the energy needs of other states.

John Bruckner, the president of National Grid New York, called the 350.org report “misleading” and said it “misrepresents many essential facts related to the need for natural gas in our region.”

But the activists’ critiques extended beyond demand, to the broader threat of climate change. Federal officials had also expressed concern on that front. Though the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on May 3 authorized the project to proceed, one of the four commissioners, Richard Glick, said the body had failed to “give climate change the serious consideration it deserves.” Mr. Glick, a Democrat, was appointed by Mr. Trump.

Activists used that argument to pressure Mr. Cuomo politically with protests and phone-banking campaigns, warning that his progressive credentials would be imperiled if he allowed state regulators to approve the pipeline.

“Banning fracking is a great step in the right direction,” said Robert Howarth, an ecology and environmental biology professor at Cornell University. “Allowing a build-out of gas infrastructure — I think that would just be a very sad addition to that, undercutting the governor’s legacy for sure.”

But Williams and National Grid have considerable political influence, too. Williams hired a lobbying firm, Kivvit, that is led by Mr. Cuomo’s former campaign manager. It also donated $100,000 last year to the Democratic Governors Association, which later gave $20,000 in in-kind contributions to Mr. Cuomo’s campaign.

Mr. Cuomo, who has also made infrastructure a cornerstone of his tenure, has demurred when asked to stop taking money from fossil fuel companies.

The denial was a blow not only to Williams and National Grid but also to New York’s business and labor communities. Vincent Albanese, the director of policy and public affairs for the New York State Laborers, which represents over 40,000 members in the construction industry, said a moratorium on new gas hookups would jeopardize jobs. The union has spent more than $600,000 on Facebook ads in the past year promoting the pipeline, according to Facebook’s database.

Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, an influential business group, said investors needed to feel confident in the city’s energy supply.

“The continuity of investment in job creation really depends on certainty about the energy supply,” she said, adding,“It’s clear that it’s not going to be sufficient without the pipeline.”

But opponents of the pipeline said they would redouble their activism against any renewed efforts by Williams.

“The state has made it clear that dangerous gas pipelines have no place in New York,” Kimberly Ong, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said.We will continue to ensure this reckless project is shelved forever.”

GOP touts infrastructure plan without raising taxes — but will it work?

May 13, 2019

McClatchy Washington Bureau

By David Lightman and Lindsay Wise

House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy has been talking up a proposal to sell off troubled government loans as a quick fix to pay for infrastructure improvements without raising taxes. But a closer look finds that the plan lacks Democratic support and would not raise nearly enough funds required for repairing highways, bridges and tunnels.

“I can find you money right now. I could probably find you quite a bit and I could find it in a bipartisan way,” McCarthy of California said about paying for the $2 trillion infrastructure package that President Donald Trump and Democratic congressional leaders are seeking.

McCarthy is touting a plan that would start with a pilot program to sell distressed loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If successful, it could be expanded to other types of distressed government loans.

“There’s a bill out there that the Black Caucus and the Freedom Caucus both agree upon. It’s called the GAIIN Act. I think it has an opportunity,” McCarthy said. “So there’s money to start with. Bank that money and build from there. If you want to find bipartisanship, and I do, that’s where I would start.”

While a few Congressional Black Caucus members embraced the idea last year, they’re skeptical now. And experts say it’s unclear precisely how the program would work or how much money it could generate.

“This is a mirage. This is not where a large chunk of money is going to come from,” said David Kamin, a professor of law at New York University and former Obama administration economic adviser.

The bill to create a pilot program to sell distressed agriculture loans was proposed last year by Reps. Mike Kelly, a Pennsylvania Republican, Ted Budd, a North Carolina Republican, and William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat and Black Caucus member.

It would have split the proceeds from selling distressed agriculture loans between reducing the federal debt — a favorite of conservatives — and helping struggling communities.

Now, however, Clay is reluctant to offer his support unless more Democrats come on board.

“It gave me pause last year that I got some pushback from my side of the aisle, so I’m trying to work through the issues that they had concerns over,” Clay said. “I’m still working on it with Kelly but we’re looking for more buy-in from our side.”

Rep. Hank Johnson, a Georgia Democrat and Black Caucus member, said that while “all sources of new revenue have to be considered … I’m not sold on it myself as something I should support.”

Among Johnson’s qualms: “I don’t think it’s gonna result in a lot of money first of all, and secondly, infrastructure off the backs of folks who have lost their property is not palatable to me.”

The pilot program would likely apply to an estimated $612 billion worth of outstanding agriculture loans. An estimated $50 billion of agriculture loans are distressed, according to United By Interest, a lobbying and public relations firm that has been pushing the GAIIN Act.

Overall, the federal government has about $1.5 trillion in loan payments outstanding. The biggest chunk is student debt, but that figure also includes loans that involve small businesses, housing and other areas.

Any agriculture payment 90 days or more in arrears is considered distressed. The agriculture loans that could be affected by the pilot program include those for farms, farm equipment, and building rural schools, hospitals, fire stations and affordable multifamily housing.

The Agriculture Department has a long-standing mission to help rural and agriculture borrowers make good on their loans — a priority that might not be shared by private sector investors wanting to turn a profit.

The department provides credit counseling to educate borrowers about their financial responsibilities before they get their loans, and can place borrowers on temporary loan moratoriums for up to a year if they’ve been hit by natural disasters or job loss.

It isn’t clear how the proposal would protect borrowers should their loans be purchased by private investors, although Kelly has said the sales would not alter the terms of the loans. Kelly also says that borrowers would be notified 30 days before any sale and given the opportunity to refinance at the same price of a potential sale.

Kelly’s spokesman, Andrew Eisenberger, emphasized that the plan would not require selling physical assets such as farms.

“It takes non-performing loans, which the government considers assets on its books, and allows the private sector to buy them in an attempt to make a profit,” he said.

But foreclosure is a possibility if a borrower fails to make payments.

Eisenberger explained that the private sector’s willingness to assume the risk “would generate funding to pay down the debt and invest in infrastructure in low-income communities. Therefore, the concern that ‘assets’ would be sold off that hurts anyone’s constituents doesn’t hold water.”

Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive budget research group, was particularly critical of the notion that private investors would want the rural debt at anything other than a deep discount. “The private sector is loss averse,” said Kogan, a former House Budget Committee staff member.

Michael Williams, a United By Interest partner and former Clinton administration legislative special assistant, countered that government collection efforts are far less efficient than those of the private sector.

Williams said the private sector would be enthusiastic about buying the loans. Not only can they buy them for less than they’re worth, but borrowers could begin repaying them – and they could ultimately be bundled and sold to investors in other ways, he said.

Eisenberger, Kelly’s spokesman, said the way to look at the proposal is it would bring money into the government. “If any private company buys even one distressed loan, that’s more money that we had for infrastructure and debt reduction than we had before.”

ELEC campaign aims to provide reality check on energy issues: We need balanced mix of sources

May 8, 2019

ROINJ

By Tom Bergeron

Mark Longo says he has energy hopes and dreams like everyone else.

But the director of the Engineers Labor-Employer Cooperative, better known as ELEC 825, said he always tempers them with reality.

“As someone who has lived in New Jersey his whole life and is now raising two kids here, I would love it if we could institute something like the New Green Deal,” he said. “It sounds great that we can have solar power and have offshore wind farms, but, even with that, you still need natural gas and nuclear power in order to realize energy consumption for this region.”

That’s why ELEC has launched “Energy Reality Check,” an education campaign throughout the state that Longo said not only will promote smart energy policy, but will dispel false claims from special interest groups.

The campaign kicked off this week with television, radio, and digital ads. Longo feels the campaign documents the risks New Jersey faces if it does not incorporate natural gas into its energy mix.

The goal, Longo told ROI-NJ, is to foster a sustainable economic future for New Jersey.

“No issue is more essential to the future of our state’s economy than ensuring we have a balanced, robust and affordable mix of clean and safe energy sources,” he said.

“We want to push through the misinformation and focus on the facts: New Jersey needs natural gas to achieve a future of renewable energy without disrupting our lives or causing economic distress.”

Longo is eager to tackle the issue head-on.

And he willingly starts by addressing any concern about ELEC’s true interest.

Think this is just about getting jobs for his union? Longo can understand why you might. And he can explain why that’s not an issue.

“While our members work on pipeline projects, they also work on wind energy projects and solar projects,” he said.

“The old saying around here is that the operating engineers are constructing and operating the technology that builds the future — everything from the steam engine to the coal engines to the pipeline to the solar and offshore wind farms. Our folks are the men and women that are working on that.”

“So, we kind of have a unique perspective to bring to it. We want to see all of it.”

Longo said there was no one key moment that spurred the campaign — which will cost approximately $500,000 to launch and could increase in spend as needed.

“We’ve looked at this for a while,” he said. “This wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction to one specific issue or one news article or one social media post. We believe that there is a lot of misperception, miscommunication on the topic of energy.

“I think people take for granted that, when they walk their house and turn their lights on and their heat or AC on, that it’s going to be there.

“So, we like to see ourselves as an honest broker here, and the honest fact of the situation is that the technology doesn’t exist to meet our existing demand.”

Longo, whose group works in New Jersey and in parts of New York, said the energy grid ultimately is what will keep everyone in New Jersey employed.

“This is about, ‘How do we keep businesses here in New Jersey and our five counties in New York? How do we attract new businesses here if there’s not the proper vehicles of energy consumption for new businesses to come here or stay here?”

Longo said the campaign will feature social media activations to educate residents, policymakers, media and other stakeholders about the dangers of shortsighted energy policy, which could cripple the state’s economic future, saddle residents and businesses with higher prices, and lead to energy shortages.

“As elected officials develop policy in 2019 to bring the state toward a sustainable future in 2050, politicians and consumers alike need to focus on the facts: The path to 2050 begins with clean natural gas and our capacity to move it,” he said. “We need to look no further than Westchester and New York City as cautionary tales of what could happen in New Jersey without intelligent energy policy that accounts for New Jersey’s needs.

“Any reckless and ill-informed calls to remove natural gas or nuclear entirely from New Jersey’s energy mix will deprive New Jerseyans of 90 percent of the power we use without an alternative, leading to development moratoriums, shortages and economic disaster. This is the fate facing New Jersey without an educated plan about this crucial issue for all residents, businesses and policymakers.”

ELEC, Longo said, aims to reset the conversation and emphasize the facts that clean natural gas and carbon-free nuclear are smart, science-based investments that will improve the state’s economy and reduce emissions.

The campaign will also debut a new, dedicated energy section on the RoadtoRepair.com website, which includes pages on transportation and water infrastructure.

Comptroller Stringer Demands Answers from Con Ed in Response to the Company’s Threats Over Proposed Williams Pipeline

May 7, 2019

Office of the New York City Comptroller

(New York, NY) — Today, New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer sent a letter to Con Edison demanding the company produce evidence to support their threat of a natural gas moratorium should the Williams Pipeline be rejected and called on Con Edison to proactively invest in green energy and energy efficiency instead of doubling down on fossil fuel infrastructure.

“The Williams Pipeline is a direct threat to our communities, our kids, and our future. It would be a monumental step backwards that would derail our progress in the fight against climate change. The stakes could not be higher. We do not have time to invest in the fossil fuel infrastructure of yesterday,” said Comptroller Scott M. Stringer. “We’ve heard enough veiled threats from Con Edison — it’s finally time they start providing answers. There is no good reason to invest in natural gas today only to turn it off tomorrow to meet our emissions goals. Our utilities can do better. Instead of spending $900 million on a pipeline, it’s time for Con Edison and National Grid to go all in on renewable options, energy efficiency, and electrifying buildings. Con Edison is threatening a false choice of the pipeline or a moratorium. If Con Edison really commits to a green energy future, we can avoid both.”

Comptroller Stringer has repeatedly spoken out in opposition to the Williams Pipeline. In September 2018, he called on​ the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reject the proposal and deliver an Environmental Impact Statement that accounts for the harm that climate change and rising sea levels pose to the city, noting the irreversible damage the Williams Pipeline would cause to the city’s shoreline habitats by ripping up 23 miles of seacoast and disturbing communities from Staten Island to Coney Island and the Rockaways.

The text of Comptroller’s letter is available here and below.

Dear Mr. McAvoy,

I am writing in response to Con Edison’s recent letter regarding Williams’ Northeast Supply Enhancement natural gas pipeline. While my opposition to the pipeline is grounded in my concern for the health and well-being of New York’s most precious natural habitats, our climate and our communities, I recognize that Con Edison and National Grid may have business models that are in part dependent upon promoting fossil fuel consumption within New York City. That said, given the absolute urgency of confronting climate change, I am optimistic that we can work together to prioritize our assuredly shared interest in achieving a more sustainable energy future for New York City.

Your letter cautioned – although threatened might be the better word –  that if the Williams Pipeline is not approved, Con Edison may have “to move quickly to declare a moratorium on new gas connections in our New York City service area.” Certainly a moratorium on gas consumption is a very serious, last resort outcome that all parties will want to avoid. However, your letter provides slim evidence at best to support why a moratorium on natural gas connections would be necessary if the Williams Pipeline were to be rejected on environmental grounds. It is incumbent on Con Edison to transparently explain why the city’s gas demand could not be met by embracing non-pipeline alternatives like promoting energy efficiency and transitioning to renewable energy and electrification. Simply stating that a moratorium is necessary does not suffice.

If the pipeline is deemed to pose a significant threat to New York’s environment by the State’s Department of Environmental Conservation and is rightly not approved, both Con Edison and National Grid must be prepared to offer alternative plans to meet the energy needs of their customers and the city. New Yorkers rightly expect that their publically regulated utilities work diligently to offer affordable, reliable, and clean energy. Rather than so quickly assuming a moratorium is unavoidable without the construction of a pipeline, I expect Con Edison will already be working to proactively accelerate the truly inevitable transition to clean energy.

Indeed, Con Edison must adequately plan for the very real possibility that the Williams pipeline may not be approved, and also for significant changes in energy use necessitated by the City and State’s climate goals. Fortunately, your threat of a moratorium coincides with Con Edison’s open Natural Gas rate case at the State’s Public Service Commission. The case should be an opportunity for honest discussion about how Con Edison can best deploy resources to stave off any possible moratorium and encourage cleaner energy solutions. Your letter proudly touts your efforts to “transition to a clean energy future,” including Con Edison’s “Smart Solutions” program to better manage peak demand and reduce constraints on gas supply. I fully support such efforts and hope Con Edison puts more resources behind such programs.

Redirecting incentives from gas installations to instead promoting electric heat pumps and other electric systems is critical. By channeling more resources into improving energy efficiency and promoting electrification of buildings, we can lower energy bills, reduce noxious pollution, and help New York City achieve its climate goals. On-site renewable energy for building energy needs – including solar energy and renewable heating – must also be greatly accelerated. Such efforts can help avoid a moratorium or interruptions in service, as well as preserving flexibility in energy choice.  I believe that by working collaboratively with advocates, the public, and elected officials, we can work toward a future of reduced gas consumption and avert the need for onerously expensive and environmentally detrimental pipeline infrastructure.

As you must agree, achieving our emissions goals and protecting our climate requires a comprehensive reevaluation of New York’s entire energy system. Nevertheless, the construction of a $900 million natural gas pipeline is utterly incompatible with the goal of a “clean energy future” that you state we share in your letter. This is not a time to double down on yesterday’s fossil fuel infrastructure, it is a time to build a cleaner, healthier tomorrow.

Sincerely,

Scott M. Stringer

The Singular Appeal of a Government Focus on Infrastructure

May 2, 2019

Gallup

By Frank Newport

President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and other congressional leaders met at the White House on Tuesday and announced an agreement in principle to spend $2 trillion to fix the nation’s infrastructure. This verbal agreement is a great distance away from the enactment of actual infrastructure legislation. But from a public opinion perspective, the idea is one of the most viable and positively received policy proposals currently on the legislative table.

Every bit of polling evidence I have reviewed shows that Americans are extremely supportive of new government infrastructure legislation. If anything, I think, Americans are asking why it is taking so long to get this idea going.

Back in 2016, Gallup found 75% agreement with the idea of spending more “federal money to improve infrastructure, including roads, buildings and waterways.”

Then in January 2017, just before Trump’s inauguration, Gallup asked Americans how important it was that Trump keep each of 12 policy promises he made during his presidential campaign. Infrastructure was at the top of the list. Some 69% of Americans said it was very important that Trump “enact a major spending program to strengthen infrastructure” — 15 percentage points higher than the next highest campaign promise (cutting taxes for all Americans).

In March 2017, Gallup again asked Americans about their agreement with a list of 15 Trump proposals. In this survey, we included a price tag — $1 trillion — on the infrastructure proposal. This made essentially no difference; 76% agreed with the idea. That was second only to 81% agreement with Trump’s campaign proposal to require companies to provide family leave for parents after the birth of a child. By way of comparison, just 36% in the same survey said it was very important to “begin the construction of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.”

A YouGov poll in January 2018 found 71% support for “increasing federal spending for roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure.” A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in February 2018 showed 87% support for “increasing federal spending for roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure.” And a Monmouth University survey, conducted in April 2018, found that 62% of Americans believe the federal government is not spending enough on “transportation infrastructure, including roads and bridges.”

Unlike most policy initiatives these days, support for a federal infrastructure program is high among both Republicans and Democrats. In Gallup’s March 2017 survey, 87% of Republicans agreed with the idea of spending $1 trillion to improve the nation’s infrastructure, along with 73% of independents and 71% of Democrats. Rarely do we see this type of political consensus, which comports with the apparently unanimous agreement between Republican and Democratic leaders that an infrastructure plan is a good idea.

It’s hard to quantify what psychological impact agreement on a major program to fix the nation’s infrastructure might have. But a massive, united government effort to fix infrastructure — maybe with an appealing title like “Americans Unite to Build World-Class Infrastructure” — might well help move the nation away from the bitter partisanship in whose grip we are now locked. Americans’ stress, worry and anger are higher than ever, according to Gallup data, and some big and bold initiative may be what is needed to provide the nation with a morale-boosting uplift.

An infrastructure plan would produce benefits that Americans can see and experience directly in their everyday lives — tangible results. That’s important given that many Americans believe infrastructure improvements are needed. A Monmouth poll conducted last year found that 64% of Americans rate the quality of transportation infrastructure of roads and bridges in their area as only fair or poor, and that 65% believe most or some roads in their area are in need of urgent repair. Plus, an authoritative report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gives the nation’s infrastructure a grade of D+.

An infrastructure plan will also create jobs. To be sure, the public is fairly happy with the jobs situation right now, but we know that jobs are the key to the economy in Americans’ minds. Bolstering employment for years and decades to come through a government infrastructure program can’t help but be perceived positively.

As I noted earlier, bipartisan agreement that a massive infrastructure program would be good for the country is only the first step in a long process before such a program could become law. Politicians have a habit of getting in the way of what would appear to be logical policy enactments, sometimes because they view a major new spending program like a clothesline onto which they can hang special interest projects.

But, based on public opinion, this is one program that appears to be worth the political effort to enact. Two big hurdles are cost (who is going to pay for a $2 trillion program, and how does that affect the need to raise taxes and/or increase the federal debt?) and politics (coming into a presidential election year, who is going to get credit for such a program?). Few would doubt the great value of the interstate highway system that began in earnest in the Eisenhower administration, and this program could eventually become just as significant.

U.S. Steel to spend $1 billion on Mon Valley Works

May 2, 2019

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Daniel Moore

U.S. Steel plans to announce on Thursday that it will spend $1 billion to upgrade its Mon Valley Works, a move the company says will keep the region’s last integrated steel mill operating for decades to come. 

The company will build a combined casting and rolling facility — the first of its kind at any American steel mill — and a cogeneration power plant. Put together, the combination aims to reduce emissions and increase the efficiency and sustainability of steelmaking in the Mon Valley.

The facilities, expected to be running by 2022, will also make the Mon Valley Works the Pittsburgh company’s central source of base material for high-strength, lightweight, flexible steel that feeds the automobile sector. 

U.S. Steel had sought to implement such technology for years; the announcement scheduled Thursday at the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock is the culmination company-wide planning combined with improved financials in 2018, CEO Dave Burritt said in an interview this this week.

The Mon Valley Works includes Edgar Thomson, the Clairton Coke Work and the Irvin Plant in West Mifflin. Together they employ about 3,000. 

“This is clearly [a] breakthrough,” Mr. Burritt said. “There is nobody in the United States that has this type of technology. This is great for our customers and also positions the community here for a very bright future for generations to come.

“This is where steel started, and this is where steel continues,” he said, sitting at a glass conference table at the company’s engineering offices in Braddock. The table is supported by a section of rail, the Edgar Thomson plant’s first product when it was built in 1875.

“This will be the most innovative steel mill in the United States of America,” he said.

The investment — possibly the largest ever at the Mon Valley Works — comes at a time of rapid development in the American steel industry, which is racing to put its profits into building new mills and rolling out new technology.

Tariffs on foreign imports of steel, imposed by President Donald Trump in March 2018, gave U.S. mills a competitive boost and lifted steel prices. It led to a dramatic turnaround: U.S. Steel’s profits in 2018 reached $1.1 billion, after the company lost $1.5 billion in 2015.

Yet U.S. Steel — which led the charge to impose tariffs and has pushed hard against manufacturers’ attempts to skirt them — is now facing a new generation of American steel plants that use electric arc furnaces. Such furnaces, which melt scrap metal to produce new steel products, are touted by proponents as more cost-effective and sustainable.

About two-thirds of the steel produced in the U.S. involves electric arc furnaces, or mini-mills.

In January, Nucor Corp., the country’s largest steelmaker and an mini-mill producer, announced a new $1.4 billion mill in the Midwest to produce 1.2 million tons each year.

Steel Dynamics, a producer based in Fort Wayne, Ind., plans to build a $1.8 billion mill with an electric arc furnace in the Southwest, with an annual capacity of 3 million tons.

JSW USA is spending $1 billion to revive a mill in Texas and restart a former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel mill in Mingo Junction, Ohio.

U.S. Steel, a 118-year-old Pittsburgh steelmaker, has remained committed to blast furnaces, which combine iron ore, limestone and coking coal under intense heat and pressure to produce iron that is then further processed into steel. The company had previously pledged to spend $2 billion to repair and upgrade its existing fleet of plants instead of building new ones. 

Mr. Burritt is well aware that mini-mill producers grab headlines for new investments at times when blast furnace producers are losing money.

He formed an “X” with his arms to illustrate a graph of market share: mini-mill producers trending up, blast furnace producers trending down.

The $1 billion Mon Valley Works investment is intended to “lock out the mini-mills from being able to compete at the very high-end,” he said.

U.S. Steel’s customers — including manufacturers of automobiles, appliances, and construction products — want high-strength steel that can also be flexible, said Sara Greenstein, senior vice president of consumer solutions. That new type of steel will be integrated into U.S. Steel’s manufacturing process, an advantage the company has over others, she said. The company has about 20 facilities in the U.S.

“We have iron ore that comes out of the mines in Minnesota. We have the coal that comes out of Appalachia. We have the coke that comes out of the [Mon] Valley,” Ms. Greenstein said. “That gives us a cost position that can compete with any steel producer anywhere in the world, and it gives us a product capability that can serve end markets not just now but far into the future.”

The new processing plant, called an “endless” casting and rolling facility, will replace the existing traditional slab caster and hot strip mill facilities at the Mon Valley Works’ Irvin Plant.

With the new technology, liquid steel can be funneled into molds and immediately hot rolled before being coiled — significantly improving efficiency, the company said. 

At the Clairton Coke Works, the new cogeneration plant will convert a portion of the coke oven gases into electricity that powers the Mon Valley Works’ other facilities. The company expects the projects to reduce emissions of particulate matter by about 60%, sulfur dioxide by about 50% and nitrogen oxides by about 80%.

U.S. Steel has faced months of public scrutiny following a fire Dec. 24 fire at the coke works. 

The fire disabled pollution control equipment, and sulfur dioxide emissions from the plant exceeded federal standards on 10 occasions. The company took a $40 million charge in January to account for the cleanup.

Meanwhile, the Allegheny County Health Department has imposed fines totaling more than $2.3 million in the last year alone for violations at the Clairton plant.  

“We’ve been through a lot — a whole heck of a lot — with the fire, which we deeply regret. And it was incredibly painful for a lot of people,” Mr. Burritt said.

He praised workers for getting the plant up and running last month, sooner than expected. “Sometimes bad things happen to good companies, but you have to look at how they respond.”

Mr. Burritt said the $1 billion investment has been in the works for years.

But when he arrived at U.S. Steel in 2013, he said, the company was losing $2 million a day. Serving as chief financial officer until 2018, Mr. Burritt navigated the sharp downturn in the steel industry and returned the company’s balance sheet to “the best it’s been in years.”

Mr. Burritt shook off some analysts’ projection of a coming fall in steel prices — and fears of a recession. 

“We’re now at a right time in our journey to make this billion-dollar investment,” he said. “The business is healthy, and we actually can sustain, for the foreseeable future, the investments to get this thing up and running.”

Bipartisan Letter Urges Funding for Workforce Development in Infrastructure Bill

May 2, 2019

GoLocalProv

Congressman Jim Langevin is among a group of bipartisan Congress members who sent a letter to House leadership and leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee urging them to include workforce development investments in future infrastructure legislation.

The letter comes a day after President Donald Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer met at the White House to discuss a way forward on infrastructure.

“Our nation’s deteriorating infrastructure is creating an array of challenges for communities in every state. As we consider the investments needed to revitalize our infrastructure, we must acknowledge that we will need a workforce capable of designing, building and maintaining it. It is essential that any comprehensive infrastructure package includes investments in career and technical education to ensure we have a skilled workforce that is ready to meet the challenge of rebuilding America,” said Langevin.

Others included in the letter are Glenn ‘GT’ Thompson (R-PA), Congressmen Donald Norcross (D-NJ) and David McKinley (R-WV), co-chairs of the Building Trades Caucus.

The Letter

The letter, signed by a bipartisan coalition of 51 Members of Congress, highlights this looming workforce shortage and strategies to mitigate it.

The signers request that any infrastructure package considered in the House contain a requirement that states dedicate a portion of the funding they receive to workforce development programs.

They also highlight the need for incentives for infrastructure-related businesses that invest in work-based learning and encourage funding be provided for facility and equipment upgrades for CTE programs in infrastructure-related fields.

These recommendations reflect Congress’s ongoing commitment to CTE as seen in last year’s enactment of the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act, which reauthorized the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act.

Pelosi, Schumer Joint Statement on White House Infrastructure Meeting

April 30, 2019

Speaker Nancy Pelosi

Washington, D.C. – Today, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer issued this joint statement following their meeting with President Trump at the White House:

“Today, we had a constructive meeting with President Trump agreeing on a big and bold initiative to build the infrastructure of America.

“The purpose of the meeting was to find out the amount of investment the President was willing to agree to.  We were pleased he suggested $2 trillion.  We agreed to meet again in three weeks, at which time we will hear the President’s ideas for how he would pay for such a package.

“Building America’s infrastructure is about creating jobs immediately, and also bolstering the commerce it facilitates, advancing public health with clean air and clean water, and improving the safety of our transportation system, and addressing climate change with clean energy, clean transportation and resilient infrastructure.  We are pleased the President agreed to include a major investment in expanding broadband to rural, urban and other underserved areas to deliver broadband’s benefits for education, health care and commerce.

“In the meeting, our Members emphasized the importance of the infrastructure being for the future, with respect to the prevailing wage and to the imperative to involve women, veteran and minority-owned businesses in construction.

”We have an historic opportunity to build infrastructure for the future, and an urgency to address the safety needs that our crumbling infrastructure represents.  Every congressional district in America has urgent needs, which any big and bold initiative must address.”