Fossil Fuel Industry Mobilizes Front Group To Weaken NY Climate Law

Image: Some of the fossil fuel corporate backers of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy

In 2019, New York State passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), a historic piece of legislation that set legally-binding carbon emissions targets and established social equity goals to ensure that state spending related to climate mitigation will reach frontline communities that have borne the biggest costs of the fossil-fueled global economy. The passage of the CLCPA came after years of organizing by ecological, economic, and racial justice advocates across New York State, all against the strident opposition of fossil fuel companies and corporate lobbying groups.

Now, as the state formulates a plan to meet the goals of the CLCPA, the same interests that organized and lobbied against the legislation are seeking to water down climate action in order to protect the profits of companies that extract, transport, and burn fossil fuels.

A corporate front group called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy has emerged to lobby aggressively against climate action, seeking to influence government bodies acting on climate change, including the Climate Action Council, which was created by the CLCPA to lead New York towards its pollution reduction targets.

Although New Yorkers for Affordable Energy sounds like the name of a broad grassroots coalition, and the group phrases its communications in terms of benefiting consumers, the truth is that – in typical astroturf fashion – it’s driven by the very same handful of fossil fuel and utility corporations and corporate lobbying interests that tried to stop the CLCPA from passing in the first place.

In particular, three main categories of actors are driving New Yorkers for Affordable Energy:

  • Fossil fuel companies whose main business consists of the extraction, production, transporting and/or burning of oil, gas and/or coal, and utility corporations whose operations rely on fossil fuel-generated power sources.
  • Corporate lobbying groups that represent the interests of the oil and gas industry (or certain sectors of that industry) through lobbying elected officials and engaging in public relations work on the industry’s behalf.
  • Corporate front groups that are funded and operated in a top-down fashion by fossil fuel companies, but which present themselves as “grassroots” organizations supporting the fossil fuel industry’s agenda. 

New Yorkers for Affordable Energy has been around in some form since 2017, though the group has been ramping up its activities considerably. On April 8, 2022, New Yorkers for Affordable Energy retained SKDKnickerbocker, a public relations and lobbying firm with close ties to the Democratic Party and a history of operating similar front groups working to undermine workers’ and tenants’ rights on behalf of gig work companies and wealthy New York City landlords.

The corporate interests behind New Yorkers for Affordable Energy have already succeeded in eliminating a proposal from the state budget to ban fossil gas hookups in newly constructed buildings – which was recommended by the Climate Action Council in its draft scoping plan –  and are now promoting misinformation to further weaken New York’s agenda as the Climate Action Council holds hearings across the state on its proposed plan.

Let’s take a closer look at some examples of these corporate actors who are providing the money and influence behind New Yorkers for Affordable Energy.

Fossil fuel and utility companies

Some of the dirtiest and most controversial oil and gas companies and utilities are leaders and members of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy:

  • Enbridge, a member of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy’s steering committee, is one of the biggest oil and gas companies in North America. Enbridge claims to “move about 30% of the crude oil produced in North America” and “transport nearly 20% of the natural gas consumed in the U.S.” while operating “North America’s third-largest natural gas utility by consumer count.” Most recently, Enbirdge has faced massive scrutiny and intense resistance from Indigenous and climate groups for its proposed 1,097-mile Line 3 pipeline, which will deliver Tar Sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. As we’ve documented, Enbridge has funded “frackademia” studies and astroturf efforts to advance its dirty oil pipelines.
  • Danskammer Energy is proposing a fracked-gas power plant in New York State owned by the Trump-tied Tiger Infrastructure Partners, a private equity firm. The Danskammer plant was halted by New York State in late 2021 (Danskammer is appealing this decision).
  • Dominion Energy is a massive, monopolistic, scandaltied utility corporation headquartered in Virginia. Dominion was the top stakeholder in the now-halted Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which if finished would have plowed huge amounts of fracked-gas hundreds of miles across West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.
  • Millennium Pipeline, a member of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy’s steering committee, owns a controversial New York State fracked-gas pipeline servicing the even more controversial CPV Valley Energy Center. Both Millenium and CPV plowed big money into Andrew Cuomo-tied lobbying firms as they sought to get their projects approved. Millennium is also a major greenwasher, having served as a “corporate partner” of the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund even as it built out and operates new fossil fuel infrastructure. Several Millennium Pipeline lobbyists and lawyers have also served on NYLCV boards. (To give a sense of the interconnected fossil fuel power bloc behind New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, the group’s Executive Director, Michelle Hook, is also Millenium’s Director of Communications as well as Danskammer’s Vice President of Public Affairs. Hook formerly worked in Andrew Cuomo’s executive chamber and is also a Capital Region Board Member of the New York League of Conservation Voters).
  • National Grid, a member of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy’s steering committee, is a British gas and electric utility company serving parts of New York City as well as large areas in upstate New York, including Buffalo, the state’s second-largest city. National Grid is currently engaged in a fight to build a pipeline through north Brooklyn against community opposition to expand the company’s fracked gas infrastructure in Greenpoint. The company is also planned to be the customer of Williams Companies’ controversial planned Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline.
  • National Fuel Gas, a member of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy’s steering committee, is a vertically integrated gas utility, pipeline operator, and fracking company based in the Buffalo area. National Fuel has been engaged in years-long legal battles with the New York State government and property owners to overturn the state’s rejection of its planned Northern Access Pipeline and to seize land to build the pipeline. National Fuel is proposing the pipeline to ship fracked gas from Pennsylvania under the Niagara River to Canada. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, National Fuel’s fracking subsidiary Seneca Resources operates 2,473 gas wells in the state and had the 14th-highest (out of 4,034) number of environmental violations from 2010 through 2022, with 805 violations that racked up $24.4 million in penalties.
  • Williams Companies is one of the biggest fossil fuel pipeline companies in the US, claiming that it “handles 30% of the natural gas in the United States.” Williams is behind controversial fossil fuel projects that have been significantly delayed or even canceled by community opposition, like the proposed Northeast Supply Enhancement (NESE) pipeline as well as the now-halted Constitution Pipeline.

Corporate lobbying groups

  • American Petroleum Institute, a member of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy’s steering committee,  is the largest oil and gas lobbying group in the United States representing the interests of some of the largest oil and gas firms in the world, such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, and ConocoPhillips. The organization brings in hundreds of millions of dollars per year, which it has used for decades to orchestrate disinformation efforts designed to stop government action on climate change. API reported spending more than $200,000 on lobbying in New York State in 2021 alone.
  • The Buffalo Niagara Partnership is a lobbying organization representing large corporate interests in Western New York, including the utility companies National Fuel, National Grid, and Avangrid subsidiary NYSEG, which are also named individually as members of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy. BNP was a major backer of permitting fracking in New York State before the drilling practice was banned in 2014, co-founded a front group for the liquefied gas industry called LNG for NY, and has made expanding gas infrastructure in New York consistently part of its agenda.
  • The Business Council of New York State is a statewide corporate lobbying group chaired by Donna Decarolis of National Fuel Gas. The Business Council stopped publicizing its corporate members, but past membership lists have included the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO, pipeline firm Kinder Morgan, as well as New York utilities Con Ed, National Grid, CH Energy, and Avangrid subsidiaries RG&E and NYSEG. The Business Council lobbied heavily against the Climate and Community Protection Act, the legislation that created New York’s Climate Action Council.
  • Independent Power Producers of NY is a lobbying group representing corporations that own electric power generation facilities in New York State. The group’s executive committee is composed of representatives from companies producing power from burning fossil fuels, including NRG, Competitive Power Ventures, Eastern Generation, and Exelon subsidiary Constellation Energy. A renewable energy subsidiary of Brookfield Asset Management, which invests billions in fossil fuels, is also on the IPPNY board.

Corporate front groups

  • Upstate United, formerly known as Unshackle Upstate, is a front group established by a group of chambers of commerce in upstate New York. The group plays up perceived differences in interest between New Yorkers in the New York City region and New Yorkers in the rest of the state in order to advance the agenda of major corporations. On its various lobbying filings, Upstate United has listed its address as being the same as two of its constituent groups, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. The other groups behind Upstate United – as can be seen from the group’s board of directors – are the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce, the North Country Chamber of Commerce, and Associated Builders and Contractors, Empire Chapter. Both the Buffalo Niagara Chamber of Commerce and the North Country Chamber of Commerce are listed independently as members of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy and several corporate members of all four chambers of commerce are also named as members.
  • Energy Coalition New York is a front group for gas and electric utilities in New York State. According to its website, Energy Coalition members are CH Energy, Consolidated Edison, National Fuel Gas, National Grid, New York State Electric & Gas (NYSEG), Orange and Rockland Utilities, and Rochester Gas and Electric (RG&E). National Fuel, National Grid, and Avangrid, the parent company of Rochester Gas and Electric and NYSEG are all named as individual members of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy. Consolidated Edison, Con Ed subsidiary Orange and Rockland, and CH Energy are all members of other lobbying groups backing the coalition such as the Business Council of NYS.

While New Yorkers for Affordable Energy presents itself as a broad coalition of several dozen “supporters,” the truth is that many companies that back and fund the “coalition” are actually listed on the group’s website multiple times, giving the impression that the astroturf group has more supporters than it actually does.

For example, all of the members of the group’s steering committee are listed on the website three times, as “supporters” of the group, as “contributing members”, and as members of the steering committee.

New Yorkers for Affordable Energy also pads its apparent membership by listing corporations and their subsidiaries each as members of the group and by including lobbying groups and front groups whose members are already named as backing the astroturf effort on the individual corporate level.

For example, both Williams Companies and Constitution Pipeline are listed as separate members of the group, even though Williams Companies owns Constitution Pipeline (which has been canceled), and Energy Coalition New York is listed as a member in its own right despite being composed of utility companies all backing the effort individually or through other lobbying groups.

All told, New Yorkers for Affordable Energy smacks as a classic industry-funded astroturf effort.

While some building trades unions have signed onto the coalition list, powerful unions have supported efforts like the Green New Deal, which has proposed massive amounts of renewable infrastructure that would be driven by the creation of new union jobs, helping to drive a just transition away from fossil fuels.

It’s going to be a monumental effort to achieve the just energy transition we so desperately need, but one thing’s for sure: industry-funded astroturf efforts like New Yorkers for Affordable Energy want to keep us locked into fossil fuels so that, for now, their corporate backers can extract as much profit as possible from oil and gas.

Note: We updated the post to also include Michelle Hook’s position as Executive Director of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy and her position as a Capital Region Board Member of the New York League of Conservation Voters.