Last Wednesday, the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) held hearings about the proposal at CUNY Law School in Long Island City and Brooklyn Borough Hall.
National Grid requested the rate bump on April 30, and is now undergoing an 11-month review process by the PSC. In a statement, the natural gas and electric company said if approved, the new rates would take effect on April 1, 2020.
“The proposed new delivery rates will allow National grid to continue investing in the natural gas networks,” the company said, “making them safer and more reliable, advancing a cleaner energy future and improving customer service.”
If approved, a typical heating customer in Brooklyn or Queens would see an increase of approximately $16.66 in their average monthly bill, which is a 17 percent hike on the delivery portion of the bill.
For customers on Long Island and the Rockaway Peninsula, their bill would increase by $7.14, a roughly 7 percent bump in delivery.
According to National Grid, the rate hike, which would yield an increase in annual gas delivery revenue by $236.8 million, would be used to modernize gas infrastructure, monitor and replace aging pipelines and enhance storm response.
The company would replace 310 miles of aging pipelines in New York City, and 620 miles on Long Island, both over a four-year period. It would also implement a new customer information system and other digital upgrades.
In Long Island City, Sam Faduski, a staff attorney with the Public Utility Law Project (PULP), a nonprofit whose mission is to educate, advocate and litigate on behalf of low and fixed-income utility customers, opposed the rate hike.
PULP is an active party in the case, and is planning testimony and rebuttal, they said.
Faduski noted that in Queens, 315,000 people live in poverty, including 17 percent of all seniors and 17 percent of families with children. Factoring in the working poor, or people who are not below the poverty line but struggle to pay their bills every month, that number goes up to 57 percent of area residents.
“A $13 increase could be devastating for so many people who are already needing to choose between paying their bills to keep their gas on,” they said, “and being able to buy food, medicine and school supplies for their children.”
Faduski also asked the commission for a “full investigation and more transparency” on National Grid’s gas moratorium.
In May, the company announced it would not process new applications for natural gas service in New York City and Long Island because the proposed Williams pipeline did not receive the necessary permits from state agencies.
As a result, Faduski said, residents and startup businesses are struggling.
“PULP has gotten many calls from consumers who began construction, had their gas shut off, and were not told they were not able to restart their gas,” they said. “We really want to know more about how National Grid is going to mitigate the damage that’s already been done.”
Christopher Widelo, associate state director with AARP New York, said the proposed rate hike is not acceptable, especially for seniors.
“We feel that older adults are often unfairly burdened when these increases happen,” he said. “They often have to make tough choices.”
Seniors on fixed income, particularly those who live in New York City, say the cost of living is one of their main concerns, Widelo said. When adding “skyrocketing utility rates” to rent, transportation, health care and food, older adults are struggling to live in the city.
Widelo also said that there is “little transparency” as to how the money will be used. He added that ratepayers are still absorbing the cost of the last rate increase, which was approved three years ago.
This past legislative session, AARP successfully lobbied the State Legislature to pass a bill creating an independent utility public advocate, whom Widelo said would be able to intervene in these proceedings on behalf of customers.
The legislature passed the bill, but the governor has not signed it into law yet.
“It just seems like profits continually go up for utility companies, yet it’s on the backs of ratepayers,” he said. “We need the Public Service Commision to really scrutinize this plan and make sure it’s a fair deal with all ratepayers, especially older adults.”
The proposal also received pushback from environmental advocates. Willis Elkins, executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, said he is “wholly opposed” to National Grid “offloading” their Superfund-related costs onto the customers.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified National Grid as one of the potentially responsible parties of the polluted creek’s remediation. Elkins said that means the company has an obligation to “clean up the mess” their predecessor, Brooklyn Union Gas, made.
Elkins added that neighborhoods surrounding the creek, including Greenpoint, East Williamsburg and Bushwick, have already been paying for the “environmental negligence” of Brooklyn Union Gas.
“Historic contamination from former manufacturing gas plants along the creek have degraded our soils and poisoned our waterway,” he said in his testimony, “creating significant health risks for local workers and residents alike.”
He noted that in some areas of the creek, coal tar from the river bottom bubbles up to the surface, endangering marine wildlife and restricting community access to the waterbody.
“Pushing their cleanup costs onto those who’ve already suffered from the historic negligence is not only irresponsible, it’s insulting to our communities,” Elkins said.
Not everyone opposed to the rate hike. Mitchell Sternbach, director of resource development for the Greater Jamaica Development Corporation, who represented executive director Hope Knight, spoke in favor of the proposal.
Given the expanded economic growth in Jamaica, he noted, the neighborhood needs a “strong energy ecosystem.” He said increasing demands requires significant investment in infrastructure and capacity.
“We are aware of the proposed increase in the monthly delivery charge and believe it is responsible and consistent with their need to maintain the natural gas infrastructure and implement new technology,” Sternbach said.
“What the region cannot afford is uncertainty in the supply and delivery of natural gas,” he added. “This rate proposal will alleviate that concern.”