A bill gaining traction in Albany aims to break New Yorkers’ reliance on natural gas in hopes that they will seek out greener alternatives.

Efforts to shoehorn the NY HEAT Act into a packed state budget are underway, with supporters contending that swift action is necessary because of the pressures of climate change and opponents say the proposed law should be set aside and more carefully considered. The deadline to finalize the budget is April 1.

But what does the bill propose, exactly? Here’s what to know.

The NY HEAT (New York Home Energy Affordable Transition) Act seeks to limit a requirement known as the “obligation to serve,” where utilities automatically provide gas to new customers who request it, and to curb the expansion of gas infrastructure.

Gas companies must provide free hookups to new customers within 100 feet of the pipe system. Existing ratepayers subsidize the work.

Getting rid of the so-called 100-foot rule would save ratepayers about $200 million annually and encourage utilities and new customers to explore other energy options.

The bill’s broader aim is to accelerate a shift away from natural gas and help limit emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that cause global warming.

“Current law is slanted toward natural gas,” Michael Gerrard, an environmental law professor at Columbia Law School, said. “This new law will level the playing field and take away some of that preference.”

The Climate Act, signed into law in 2019, requires New York to decrease greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050 from 1990 levels. NY HEAT seeks to contribute to those goals.

“We are in a race against time,” said Liz Krueger, a Democratic senator sponsoring the bill, “not because of the mandates of our legislation, but because of the reality that the world is in crisis and at risk of self-destruction.”

Those who oppose NY HEAT have raised concerns that the rush to include the bill in the budget could result in future problems with the reliability of energy infrastructure.

“If you remove service to a neighborhood, you’re inevitably going to impact service in surrounding areas, because it’s an interconnected energy system,” said Randy Rucinski, chief regulatory counsel for National Fuel Gas Distribution Corporation, which provides energy in western New York.

Opponents also fear the proposal will cost jobs in the gas industry without offsetting the losses in the still-emerging green energy sector.

Alternative energy should be “readily available and affordable across the state before proposals like the NY HEAT Act are considered,” said Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO.

One of the bill’s goals is to cap energy bills for customers; although it does not say specifically how this would be accomplished, some opponents argue it could hurt efforts to conserve energy.

“What is your incentive to turn off the lights when you walk out of the room? Or to use energy-efficient lightbulbs and refrigerators?” said Daniel Ortega, executive director of New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, a coalition of business and labor interests.

Because of these concerns, some critics want the bill studied further. “We should have this conversation in an open way in which every single aspect of the energy industry is taken into consideration,” Mr. Ortega said.

“The autopilot of gas hookups must stop,” said Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy, a Democratic sponsor of NY HEAT who represents Albany and parts of Albany County.

Gas will still be an option, Ms. Fahy added. But the bill does intend to accelerate green development.

One way it will do this is by encouraging entire neighborhoods to shift to renewable energy sources in unison, said Jessica Azulay, executive director of the nonprofit Alliance for a Green Economy.

As people transition away from gas, “the same unions and the same workers that build gas pipes can build water pipes for thermal energy networks to supply people with clean heating and cooling,” Ms. Azulay said.

And the possibility of a cap on energy bills is an enticement for many New Yorkers, said Sonal Jessel, policy director at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a nonprofit group based in Harlem.

NY HEAT will not drive gas companies out of business, Professor Gerrard of Columbia University said. “These are still regulated utilities that are entitled to a rate of return,” he continued.

Last year, the Senate passed NY HEAT but the Assembly did not. This week, the Senate passed it again.

It is up to the Assembly — most members of which now support the bill — and the governor, who has shown interest in parts of it, to reach a consensus on its inclusion in the budget.

If the bill does not become part of the budget, it could still become law, should the Assembly decide to vote on it later this year.


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Credit: NYTimes.com

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