A protester against NRG’s Astoria Replacement Project holds a sign on September 12, 2020 (Image: New York Communities for Change, Twitter)
The powerful energy company seeking regulatory approval for a large fracked-gas power plant in Astoria, Queens, has spent over $600,000 since 2019 on some of the most influential lobbyists in New York State.
NRG Energy, one of the nation’s top energy companies, is seeking approval from New York State for its Astoria Replacement Project, a 437-megawatt fracked-gas “peaker” power plant. The plant will be located in Astoria, Queens, replacing a 50-year old 646-megawatt oil-burning peaker plant that NRG currently owns. NRG claims the new plant will lower emissions and “will use technology that can be fully converted to zero-carbon fuel in the future,” eventually running on hydrogen.
But NRG’s proposal has faced intense, widespread criticism from community members, elected officials, and climate advocates like the Democratic Socialists of America, Food & Water Watch, New York Communities for Change, and others, who say NRG’s claim that it will use hydrogen sometime in the future is “an attempt to obfuscate” the here-and-now construction of new fossil fuel-burning infrastructure in NYC. Hundreds have protested the proposal and called for Governor Cuomo to deny the permits for the plant.
Journalist Alexander Kauffman writes that “air quality concerns are particularly acute in western Queens” and that “the blocks that slope down toward the utility complex in Astoria have long been known as “Asthma Alley.”” Environmental justice advocates, such as the members of the PEAK Coalition, have emphasized the disproportionate harm that fossil fuel peaker plants cause in NYC’s communities of color and low-income communities, even as plant owners receive billions in ratepayer money in the form of “capacity payments.”
The permitting process for the NRG proposal is in a critical phase. The New York State Board on Electric Generation Siting and the Environment approved NRG’s request for a waiver of Article 10, which would’ve allowed for more public input and information around the project’s approval. NRG now needs approval from the Department of Environmental Conservation through the State Environmental Quality Review Act, which is much easier than Article 10 approval, and permits and certification from the Public Service Commission, all effectively putting the decision into the Cuomo administration’s hands.
As we show below, since 2019 NRG has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into hiring some of the most powerful and well-connected lobbyists in New York to advance its proposed Astoria project. All this comes as NRG’s wealthy CEO has received public praise for his own personal “sustainable” living arrangements even as NRG, whose fuel mix overwhelmingly relies on coal and gas, aims to build a new fossil fuel-burning power plant in Astoria against widespread community opposition. Moreover, some of NRG’s top owners and bankers are Wall Street entities – particularly BlackRock and JPMorgan Chase – that have been a growing focus of climate and environmental justice advocates.
Finally, the close ties of NRG and its lobbyists to the New York League of Conservation Voters, an influential corporate-aligned conservationist group that has significant connections to other fossil fuel projects in NYS and has so far failed to speak out against the NRG plant, raises concerns over whether the Astoria plant proposal and Andrew Cuomo are receiving “green cover” to move forward on permitting and construction.
Follow the Money: BlackRock, JPMorgan, and NRG
Wall Street plays a critical role in bankrolling NRG, who, according to a 2019 M.J. Bradley report, is the seventh-top carbon polluting energy company in the US, and whose fuel mix consists of over 80% fossil fuels (46% coal and 35% gas) and just 9% “renewable/other.”
NRG’s top shareholders and financiers have been recent targets of climate protest for their roles in sustaining the fossil fuel fuel industry. The role these entities play in financing NRG and its attempted natural gas infrastructure buildout positions the Astoria replacement plant into a larger ongoing fight between climate advocates and the banks and asset managers that prop up fossil capital.
The “Big Three” asset managers – Vanguard, BlackRock, and State Street – together own over 25% of NRG. Vanguard is the top owner with a 12.15% stake, BlackRock is second with a 7.82% stake, and State Street is third with a 5.11% stake, according to NRG’s most recent proxy filing.
BlackRock, the world’s top asset manager and among the world’s top owners of fossil fuel portfolio assets, has been a key target of climate and environmental justice activists. Critics have called on BlackRock and its powerful CEO, Larry Fink, to do far more to address the climate crisis, such as “divesting from fossil fuel companies that won’t change their practices” and working towards “a climate-safe world.” Protesters have consistently confronted BlackRock about its central role in financially propping up the fossil fuel industry and companies, like NRG, that are building new carbon-emitting infrastructure.
Other financial backers of NRG include some of the biggest banks in the world. For example, JPMorganChase, the world’s top financier of fossil fuels, is part of a consortium of banks that lends to NRG through a $3.64 billion credit agreement. The credit agreement includes “Astoria Gas Turbine Power LLC” – the NRG subsidiary that has submitted the applications for the replacement project – as a guarantor.
JPMorgan has also been the target of intense criticism and protest for its leading role in lending to the oil, gas, and coal industries that are driving the global climate crisis (LittleSis, with Action Center on Race & the Economy and the Partnership for Working Families, also recently highlighted JPMorgan and BlackRock’s roles in financing environmental racism in our “Fueling the Fire” report).
Moreover, the administrative agent for the NRG credit agreement is Citicorp – the world’s fourth biggest financier of fossil fuels. Other top bankers of the fossil fuel industry, such as Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and others, are also part of the lending consortium to NRG. These are among the 35 large banks that have faced growing criticism from climate activists and organizations for pouring $2.7 trillion into the fossil fuel industry since the Paris Climate Agreement was reached in 2016.
All this comes as lawmakers in NYC – the site of the NRG Astoria project – introduced an April 2020 resolution that specifically called out BlackRock and JPMorgan (as well as Liberty Mutual, a major insurer of fossil fuels) and demanded they “stop lending to, investing in and insuring the fossil fuel industry.”
NRG CEO building Astoria fossil fuel plant celebrated for “sustainable” lifestyle
Mauricio Gutierrez has been President and CEO of NRG since December 2015. Gutierrez took in over $27 million in total compensation between 2017 and 2019 – roughly around $9 million a year. In comparison, the median household income in Queens is $68,666. (The median household income in Princeton, New Jersey, where Gutierrez lives, is $137,672, roughly double that of Queens).
Gutierrez holds a number of powerful board seats and memberships. He is a member of the Business Roundtable, a business and lobbying association made up of CEOs from top US corporations. He also sits on the Board of Trustees of Drexel University, and is a board member of Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose, whose purpose is to “empower companies to drive long-term business success through positive social impact.”
NRG’s desire to build a fracked-gas power plant in Astoria contrasts with the “green” lifestyle standards that Gutierrez applies to himself. According to a 2014 Princeton Magazine profile, Gutierrez’s Princeton home has achieved “a whole new level of sustainability with a host of energy-saving systems and devices.” The home has “exemplary sustainable features, including a sedum-covered green roof” – with solar panels “on the way” – as well as a “spectacular museum quality modern art collection.” “Mauricio regards the house as a kind of unofficial laboratory for the company [NRG],” the profile noted. Gutierrez paid just under $2 million for the 4,741 square-foot home in 2012.
NRG spent $623,000 since 2019 on powerful De Blasio- & Cuomo-connected lobbyists
NRG is a corporate powerhouse – “the nation’s largest competitive power generator,” according to Mauricio Gutierrez’s Business Roundtable page. It took in $9.82 billion in revenue in 2019, and has spared little expense making big campaign contributions – NRG’s PAC donated $47,500 to Andrew Cuomo between 2009 and 2018 – and in hiring high-powered, well-connected lobbyists to advance its interests in New York State.
NRG’s lobbying efforts in NYS are significant. LittleSis found that, from the beginning of 2019 until October 2020, NRG has spent $623,000 on lobbying efforts in NYS, including substantial lobbying around the Astoria project, as well as lobbying around vaguely-worded focuses such as “energy” and “natural resources.” Moreover, the money spent by NRG on lobbying efforts in NYS has risen significantly across every semi-annual report during this time: NRG spent $74,000 from January to June 2019, $145,250 from July to December 2019, and $260,250 from January to June 2020. NRG has spent $151,750 so far from July to October 2020.
Here are the powerful lobbying firms that NRG has hired in New York State:
Capalino: NYC’s #2 lobbying firm with close ties to de Blasio
James F. Capalino & Associates is one of the most powerful lobbying firms in New York City. Crain’s New York Business and City & State ranked Capalino as the second top NYC lobbying firm in 2018 and 2019, respectively (it was previously ranked first by Crain’s, but was surpassed by Kasirer). City & State also ranked Capalino as Albany’s sixth-top lobbying firm in 2019.
NRG has paid Capalino $215,000 since 2019, making it NRG’s second-highest paid lobbying firm during this period. The overwhelming focus of Capalino’s lobbying on behalf of NRG, according to official filings, has been “in connection with supporting the client’s efforts to repower its Astoria generating facility.”
The people and entities that Capalino & Associates has lobbied on NRG’s Astoria plant, according to its filings, include the Office of the Mayor of the City of New York, including the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery And Resiliency; the Executive Chamber of Governor Andrew Cuomo; and the Office of Council Member Costa Constantinides.
James F. Capalino, the influential head of the firm, is a friend of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio’s and extremely well-connected to the mayor and his administration. The firm has lobbied the de Blasio administration on NRG’s behalf around the power plant. While de Blasio doesn’t have power over the approval process for the replacement project, he has not used his prominent position and platform to oppose it – as he did, for example, with National Grid’s North Brooklyn Pipeline.
In early 2020, de Blasio issued an executive order directing his Administration to oppose all new fossil fuel infrastructure (with some caveats). Notwithstanding this order, the de Blasio Administration has not opposed the Astoria proposal. Insofar as his silence around the controversy can be seen as tacitly lending his approval, de Blasio’s reticence is a benefit to NRG.
Capalino’s relationship to de Blasio has faced scrutiny in the media and from the state ethics watchdog. In 2018, Capalino agreed to a $40,000 settlement with the Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) after being investigated for violating the state’s Lobbying Act. Capalino donated $10,000 to the Mayor’s now-defunct political non-profit, Campaign for One New York (CONY), and raised $90,000 in donations from his client, at the request of Ross Offinger, de Blasio’s campaign treasurer.
According to JCOPE’s April 2018 statement, Capalino “admitted that in or about April 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio directly solicited his support of the work of CONY, and advised Capalino that then-CONY treasurer Ross Offinger would contact him.” Soon after the donations to CONY from Capalino and his clients, said JCOPE, “Capalino worked with Offinger to arrange a meeting among those clients, Capalino, and the Mayor that took place in September 2015.”
In 2017, Capalino was also accused in a lawsuit of using his connections to de Blasio to help developer Murat Agirnasli gain approval for a condo tower that violated zoning regulations. The lawsuit, filed by a rival developer, claimed that Capalino “was paid more than $100,000 to conduct “a lobbying campaign out of the public eye” for” Agirnasli.
Capalino has profited significantly from his access to de Blasio. The Post reported in 2017 that the firm has “been the city’s top earner every year since de Blasio took office.” The Post also reported in 2016 that Capalino “saw his earnings soar more than 50 percent last year” with de Blasio in office, “pull[ing] in $12.9 million in 2015, up from $8.2 million in 2014, one of the largest increases on record.”
Additionally, Capalino supported de Blasio’s first mayoral run and was on the host committee of an October 2013 million-dollar fundraiser for de Blasio and Hillary Clinton. He also bundled $45,000 for de Blasio’s reelection campaign. According to NYS filings, Capalino and his immediate family donated $6,900 to de Blasio from 2006 through 2016. Capalino & Associates President Travis Terry also gave $2,000 to Cuomo in 2016.
Capalino’s son, Reid Capalino, recently became the Senior Vice President of LS Power, a private equity firm that owns the Ravenswood peaker plant, also located in Queens, which has also been a target for opponents of NYC’s fossil fuel peaker plants.
Several other registered lobbyists for NRG from Capalino have ties to de Blasio or the Mayor’s Office, Cuomo or the Governor’s Office, and NYC elected officials:
- Emil Lissauer, who worked in the Mayor’s Office of Citywide Event Coordination and Management from 2008 to 2015.
- Fred Kreizman, Deputy Commissioner at the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit from 2002 to 2014.
- Challey Comer, a Principal for Capalino’s Clean Energy & Sustainability team, was the Chief of Staff at the New York State Department of Agriculture & Markets from 2014 to 2016.
- Rich Kassel, director of Capalino’s Clean Energy and Sustainability practice, co-chairs the US EPA’s Mobile Source Technical Review Subcommittee, which, according to his LinkedIn page, “provides independent advice and counsel on the agency’s transportation and air quality programs.” (Kassel’s role in advising the EPA on its air quality programs while he is a registered lobbyist for a fossil fuel power generation company raises conflict of interest concerns).
- Keith Tubbs, a former senior advisor to Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. from July 2018 to June 2019, and a former chief-of-staff to Brooklyn assemblywoman Latrice Walker.
While not a registered NRG lobbyist, Capalino’s Head of Marketing, Lindsay Harwood, worked “in various capacities” for Governor Andrew Cuomo, including as part of his 2010 gubernatorial campaign’s fundraising team and as part of his Executive Chamber.
Constantinople & Vallone: Queens powerhouse, Cuomo-connected
Another major lobbying firm hired by NRG is Constantinople & Vallone, which City & State ranked at the fourth-top NYC lobbying firm for 2019. NRG has paid the firm $120,000 since 2019 to lobby around issues of “energy” and “natural resources.” City & State labelled NRG one of the firm’s “notable clients.”
Constantinople & Vallone is extremely well-connected to Queens politics and the borough’s Democratic Party machine, and some its most influential lobbyists are registered to lobby for NRG. During 2019-2020, the firm has lobbied City Council members from Queens, Queens community board members, State Senators, the NYC Mayor’s Office, and the Executive Chamber/Staff of Office of the NYS Governor and Lt. Governor.
Among the firm’s influential lobbyists is Peter Vallone Sr. and his son Perry, both firm partners. The Vallone family is a powerhouse in Queens and beyond (the NY Daily News went so far as to say in 2013 that “the name “Vallone” is as synonymous with Queens as the Lemon Ice King of Corona.”) Peter Vallone Sr. was Speaker of the New York City Council from 1986 to 2001, representing Queens District 22, home to the NRG Astoria plant. Vallone Sr. was the Democratic nominee for NYS Governor in 1998 and made an unsuccessful run for NYC mayor in 2001. In 1995, Newsday referred to him as “the most important city Democrat.”
Vallone Sr. has two other sons – Paul and Peter Jr., Perry’s brothers – who are influential in NYS politics. Paul Vallone represents Queens District 19 in the NYC City Council, while Peter Vallone Jr. represented Queens District 22 from 2001 to 2013 (he’s now a Civil Court Judge in Queens). Peter Vallone Jr. has ties to Cuomo, having worked in the Cuomo administration during 2014 and 2015 “as a $135,000-a-year special assistant at the Department of Correctional Services.”
Moreover, in September 2008, Cuomo, then NYS Attorney General, hosted a fundraiser for Peter Vallone Jr. at the Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden in Astoria. The fundraiser was attended by around 400 people and raised around $50,000. At the event, Cuomo “voiced his support for Vallone and spoke at length about their families’ shared history together in public service,” and “heaped praise on Vallone for his work in the city council and encouraged the crowd to continue supporting his political aspirations.”
Cuomo also endorsed Paul Vallone in 2017. QNS.com noted that “Cuomo and Vallone have a family history together, with Vallone’s father, former City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, having often worked closely with then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, who served between 1983 and 1994.” Tena Vallone, Peter Vallone Sr.’s wife and Peter Jr., Perry, and Paul Vallone’s mother, donated $5,000 to Cuomo in 2018.
In addition to the Vallone family’s cozy relationship with Andrew Cuomo, Constantinople & Vallone – as we reported in 2018 – held a $5,000 per person fundraiser for the Governor on April 18, 2018 at Citi Field during a New York Mets game.
Constantinople & Vallone’s Yanni Trittas is also a registered lobbyist for NRG. Trittas sits on the board of the Queens Democratic Club alongside elected state officials and NYC council members, including Costa Constantinides, who represents Queens District 22 (Constantinides has publicly opposed NRG’s Astoria plant project). Trittas also previously served as Executive Director in the New York State Assembly.
Constantinople & Vallone donated $15,107 to Andrew Cuomo from 2008 to 2017, $2,250 to de Blasio between 2007 and 2009, and $11,800 to the Queens Democratic Club from 2007 to 2013. The Vallones – Tena, Perry, Peter (it’s unclear which one) donated $3,000 to de Blasio from 2010 to 2017.
Other Constantinople & Vallone lobbyists with government ties who are registered to lobby for NRG include:
- Jordan Press, who worked in the de Blasio Administration’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development from 2013 to 2018.
- Steven Williams, who worked as the Deputy Director of State Legislative Affairs for NYC from 2006 to 2014.
- Lauren George, who was director of Intergovernmental Affairs for the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission for the de Blasio administration.
Constantinople & Vallone also lobbies in New York State for the private prison company GEO Group.
Manatt, Phelps & Phillips: $250K since 2019, lobbied Cuomo’s office
NRG has paid Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, another powerhouse lobbying firm, $250,000 since 2019 to lobby around a range of state bills and issues, including the “Astoria Project.” Manatt has been ranked among the top ten Albany lobbying firms during the past several years. It is NRG’s top-billing lobbying firm during the 2019-2020 period.
During the March-April and July-August 2020 lobbying periods, one of the firm’s partners, James S. Walsh, lobbied the offices of Andrew Cuomo and Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul (“Governor’s Office” and the “Executive Chamber/Staff Office of Governor and Lt. Governor,” according to the filings) on the focus of “Astoria Project.” Walsh worked in NYS government from 1996 to 2006, including with the State Senate, Department of Environmental Conservation, and as Senior Assistant Counsel to former Governor George Pataki.
Bruce Gyory, who is registered to lobby for NRG, “has served three Governors of New York, two as a senior advisor,” including Mario Cuomo, Andrew Cuomo’s father, and Eliot Spitzer, to whom Gyory was a Senior Advisor. “Few people know state politics like Bruce Gyory,” noted City & State in 2017. (Gyory has also advised some Republicans).
Julia Donnaruma, who is registered to lobby for NRG, is a senior advisor in the government and regulatory practice of Mannat’s New York office. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the Legislative Representative for the Office of the NYC Mayor. Gregory Pratt, also registered to lobby for NRG, served various roles in the NYS Senate from 2014 to 2018.
Other registered NRG lobbyists with Manatt have held positions with or advised past NYC governors and past NYC mayors, and have held staff positions in the NYS government.
Manatt, Phelps & Phillips donated $19,500 to Andrew Cuomo from 2009 to 2017.
Dickenson & Avella
NRG paid Dickenson & Avella $18,750 to lobby in January/February 2019 around several state bills. Lobbyist Michael Avella served as counsel for the New York State Senate from 1995 to 2008 and donated $2,500 to Andrew Cuomo between 2009 and 2016 as well as tens of thousands of dollars to various NYS and NYC candidates.
NRG lobbyist Kandi Terry
NRG has reported compensating its in-house lobbying efforts with $19,250 during the 2019-2020 period. These lobbying efforts are led by Kandi Terry, who “leads government affairs for NRG’s retail and generation businesses in New York and New England.” NRG’s in-house lobbying efforts have included lobbying the Governor’s Office around the “Astoria Project” and city and state elected officials, as well as top Cuomo aide Melissa DeRosa, on the issue of the “Astoria Plan” (the filing for which curiously refers to DeRosa as “Dept Secretary for Energy & Env”).
Green cover? NRG’s ties to NY League of Conservation Voters
A host of current and former NRG lobbyists have board positions with the New York League of Conservation Voters, an influential conservationist group in the state. The NYLCV has remained silent on NRG’s Astoria plant proposal while accepting sponsorships from NRG.
As we’ve noted in the past, the NYLCV has significant ties to multiple controversial fossil fuel projects in NYS, such as the Danskammer plant, the Millennium Pipeline, and the Williams Pipeline.
NRG sponsors the NYLCV’s Education Fund as a Silver Partner alongside other oil, gas, and utility companies. The Fund’s longtime board chair, Ed Cox – now just a board member – earned millions as a longtime director of the oil company Noble Energy and worked with the Trump 2020 campaign team. Raymond J. Long, who worked at NRG for 15 years, including as Vice President of State and Federal Government Affairs, is an NYLCV board member (Long left NRG in August 2018).
Moreover, NRG lobbyists have extensive ties to the NYLCV:
- Anthony Constantinople, Constantinople & Vallone partner and registered NRG lobbyist, is a NYLCV board member.
- Rich Kassel, director of Capalino’s Energy, Environment and Sustainability practice group and registered NRG lobbyist, is an NYLCV NYC regional board member.
- Challey Comer, Capalino’s Principal on Sustainability and registered NRG lobbyist, chairs the NYLCV’s Emerging Leaders Steering Committee.
- Jacob Potent, a Senior Vice-President at Constantinople & Vallone and registered NRG lobbyist, is a NYLCV NYC regional board member
- Michael Avella, Partner at Dickinson & Avella and a former registered NRG lobbyist, is an NYLCV Capital Region board member.
NRG’s lobbying firms have also sponsored various NYLCV events. For example, Capalino was a “Champions” sponsor (alongside Danskammer) of the NYLCV’s 2020 gala. NRG lobbyists Manatt, Phelps & Phillips were “Friends” sponsors of a November 2019 cocktail party that featured Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul as a keynote speaker. Both Capalino and Constantinople & Vallone sponsored a February 2020 Queens Borough President Candidate Forum held by co-hosted by the NYLCV Education Fund.
Also, the NYLCV has been supportive of Governor Cuomo, who headlined one of their recent galas.
Taken together with NRG’s financial and lobbyist ties to the NYLCV, the organization’s reluctance to speak out against the Astoria project could be seen as offering green cover for policymakers to approve it.
In sum, NRG – financed by Wall Street powerhouses like BlackRock and JPMorgan, and led by a wealthy CEO who practices “sustainability” at his own home while promoting a new fracked-gas plant in Queens – has used its substantial resources to amass an army of influential lobbyists to try to advance its Astoria Replacement Project against the intense opposition of community members, local elected officials, and climate advocates.
These NRG lobbyists and their firms are well-connected – through personal and professional relationships and campaign donations – to Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio. NRG’s lobbying apparatus has close ties to the NYLCV, whose silence on the Astoria Replacement Project, along with De Blasio’s, can be seen as benefiting NRG. As crucial decisions over NRG’s Astoria Replacement Project loom over the following weeks and months, it remains to be seen whether NRG and its well-funded lobbying and influence machine will succeed in obtaining the regulatory greenlights they’re after.