For the first time, Governor Andrew Cuomo has invoked his broad powers under a 2019 environmental law as part of his efforts to block a natural gas pipeline.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on Friday moved to block the Williams Companies’ proposed 17-mile Northeast Supply Enhancement pipeline that would bring gas from New Jersey to Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. 

But unlike its first denial in May 2019, which focused on the extent to which the seafloor would be disrupted during construction, DEC went out of its way to say “it is clear that the Project is inconsistent” with requirements outlined in last year’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

The Climate Act gave the governor’s agencies expansive powers over the economy in pursuit of reducing the state’s emissions, with the goal of cutting them 34 percent by 2030 and 84 percent by 2050.

As warned in this space last June, the law among other things lets state agencies weigh emissions “in considering and issuing permits, licenses, and other administrative approvals and decisions.”

State agencies, to be sure, have been administratively blocking gas pipelines since 2016. But under the new law, Cuomo or a future New York governor could—and has now proven, might—among other things:

  • refuse to register certain cars or trucks based on their gas mileage or emissions levels;
  • deny environmental permits to businesses or farms that generate more emissions than the state deems warranted for its amount of employment or other economic metric (as it was already apt to do when it shut down certain “peaker” power plants); and
  • block construction projects subject to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR) unless projects meet specific standards, such as heating systems that don’t burn natural gas or oil.

DEC had no issue, in issuing either NESE decision, with finding established reasons (such as heavy metals in the sediment and the impact on shellfish) for blocking the project. But their readiness to invoke the new climate law even in the face of a severe economic recession is a bad omen. The Climate Act’s open-ended regulatory powers will expose New Yorkers to even costlier moves in coming years.

The Climate Act, in many ways, is analogous to the Legislature’s March vote to let the governor issue executive “directives” as part of the state’s novel coronavirus response. The lesson in both cases is the same: don’t give New York’s governor an executive power you don’t want him or her to use.

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