State Senator George Maziarz (R-Wheatfield)
By Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
ALBANY -- The chair of the state Senate's energy committee said Tuesday he will introduce a set of bills that would provide a tax break and a loan program for coal-fired plants that switch to cleaner-burning fuels like natural gas.
Sen. George Maziarz, R-Newfane, Niagara County, outlined a series of bills he plans to pursue during next year's legislative session, including one that would allow plant operators to take a 12.5 percent tax credit if they upgrade their facility to comply with environmental standards laid out in the state's new power-plant siting bill.
The planned bills would also make changes to the state's Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative program, allowing plants to take the money they pay for carbon credits and use it to transition to renewable energy or a cleaner fuel. As it stands, that money is earmarked to promote green energy investments in New York.
Maziarz outlined his plan prior to a hearing in western New York on power transmission issues in the state. In particular, the legislation is aimed at a number of struggling coal plants that represent a large share of their community's tax base, such as the former AES facilities in Niagara County and Lansing, Tompkins County.
"That's really what the hearing is about today, is not giving up on these plants," Maziarz said in a telephone interview. "Most of them are coal plants. They can be converted to natural gas plants, and the price of natural gas is the cheapest than its probably been since the mid-1980s."
The cost of the plan to the state, however, wasn't immediately clear. But Maziarz contended that allowing the coal plants to close -- the Niagara County plant is by far the largest county taxpayer, for example -- would be a much greater cost.
The bills will be introduced for the next scheduled legislative session, according to Maziarz' office. The next session is currently set for January, though lawmakers could return after Election Day.
Rich Azzopardi, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said the governor's office would review Maziarz' plan.
What to do with the limping coal plants was a late-session topic of conversation in Albany earlier this year, when Cuomo's office quietly pushed a proposal in June that would have lowered the state's emissions cap. That would likely increase the cost of carbon credits, and the state would have then taken those additional funds and distributed them to communities dealing with a power-plant closure.
Cuomo's leaked proposal was praised by environmentalists but knocked by the coal-plant operators, who said the additional costs could force them to shut their doors. The Cayuga Operating Company, which now owns the former AES Cayuga plant in Lansing, filed paperwork earlier this year that gives them the option of mothballing their facility in January.
Ross Gould, air and energy program director for Environmental Advocates of New York, said it is difficult to respond to Maziarz' plan without seeing the specifics of the legislation.
"The state simply cannot afford any more handouts to big polluters when limited funds are better utilized funding energy efficiency programs that create new jobs," Gould said in a statement.
Maziarz also said he would push a bill that would require any out-of-state power being imported into New York to purchase carbon credits through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state pollution-reduction program in which New York participates.
The senator has been an outspoken critic of the Champlain Hudson Power Express project, which would transfer power from Canada to New York City through an underground power line under Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.
"We can maintain and create thousands of jobs in New York's power sector, rather than turning to imported power that creates jobs in Canada," Maziarz said. "This is a critical choice and one that we simply must get right."