ALBANY, NY (12/13/2012)(readMedia)-- New York-Superstorm Sandy left tens of thousands of New Yorkers without electricity, water or telecommunication services for weeks – and some communities are still waiting. We learned that public utilities had not created long-term plans to prepare for severe weather events.
While the Long Island Power Authority's failure to maintain services throughout and after Superstorm Sandy is a recent and conspicuous example, events significantly weaker than Sandy have exposed weaknesses in long-term planning across the state, as customers have been left without access electric, gas, steam, telecommunications and water utilities for extended periods.
Today a coalition of energy, environmental and community interest organizations, led by the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law, have filed a formal petition with the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) to require all public utilities to develop long-term hazard mitigation plans, with a particular focus on dealing with problems that will arise due to climate change, such as increased risk of flooding, sea level rise and more frequent and intense storms.
The coalition also includes Earthjustice, Environmental Advocates of New York, Municipal Art Society of New York, Natural Resources Defense Council, New York League of Conservation Voters, Pace Energy and Climate Law Center of Pace Law School and Riverkeeper.
The required plans should define how best to mitigate risks to the reliable delivery of services that are critical to people in the hours and days following a storm, and identify infrastructure investments that can be made now that will avoid the need for costly repairs and rebuilding later.
Ann Siders, Associate Director and Fellow at the Center for Climate Change Law, noted, "Public utility companies are accustomed to accounting for what went wrong and understanding where they can improve, but creating a long-term plan from that analysis rarely occurs. Long-term plans to address infrastructure vulnerability need to incorporate new scientific information, updated predictions and a periodic review of their success."
Deborah Goldberg, Managing Attorney of Earthjustice, said, "We all know that Sandy will not be an isolated event, and it is incumbent upon the public utilities in this state to prepare for the escalating impacts of climate change. Business as usual, with frantic response to crises instead of thoughtful planning to ensure the reliability of utility infrastructure, is no longer an option."
Rob Moore, Executive Director of Environmental Advocates of New York, said, "Utilities should identify how to improve the resilience and long-term reliability of their systems – which would include maximizing energy efficiency in areas being rebuilt and integrating solar, wind and other forms of clean energy generation close to where power is used. These kinds of common sense improvements would minimize disruptions from weather-related events and make these services more robust year-round."
Marcia Bystryn, President of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said, "The most important lesson New York can learn from Superstorm Sandy is that we must do a better job planning for a changing climate and extreme weather events. A long-term strategy to ensure the reliability of our electricity, gas, steam, water and telecommunications infrastructure is absolutely critical to protecting New Yorkers and our state's economic future."
Paul Gallay, President and Hudson Riverkeeper, said, "Riverkeeper is happy to join with our fellow signatories on today's letter in calling for infrastructure improvements that make our region more resilient and environmentally sound, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Extreme weather due to climate change is a reality, and we must do all we can to develop green, cost-effective approaches that both mitigate and help adapt to the climate-related challenges New York faces."
The Authority to Act
Requiring utilities to conduct adequate hazard mitigation and response planning falls in line with the mission of the PSC – and the Commission has the explicit legal authority to mandate such actions. As the primary regulator of the state's electric, gas, steam, telecommunications and water utilities, the PSC is charged with ensuring that safe and reliable service is provided by New York's utilities.
Section 5 of the N.Y. Public Service Law states that the PSC "shall encourage all persons and corporations subject to its jurisdiction to formulate and carry out long-range programs, individually or cooperatively, for the performance of their public service responsibilities ..."
As the state begins to rebuild and upgrade its infrastructure, plans that incorporate future natural hazards will inform development, operation and maintenance decisions and ensure future reliability to the fullest extent possible.
Utility hazard mitigation plans should incorporate four main elements. They should:
• Incorporate both hazard mitigation and disaster response planning efforts, which should include an ongoing evaluation of infrastructure to ensure it is built, operated and maintained to cope with future hazards.
• Be based on future predictions of climate rather than historic observations to fully understand where vulnerabilities may exist and additional investment, support or planning is required.
• Be created in coordination with other utility companies and state and city officials, with full opportunity for input by all stakeholders, so as to form a coherent overarching plan for New York State utility security.
• Incorporate a regular review to reflect new information on climate predictions and to assess the adequacy and success of ongoing mitigation planning instead of conducting reviews only after failures are known.
***The full petition is available at https://web.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/microsites/climate-change/files/Publications/PSCPetitionNaturalHazardPlanning_0.pdf