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Broadwater Energy project: Scandal Ends Project’s Life (or Not)

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Scandal Ends Project’s Life (or Not)
Published: April 3, 2008

The law of unintended consequences invariably plays out in its own capricious ways, but here’s another that would have been impossible to predict. Could the fate of one of the most bitterly opposed development proposals in the history of Long Island Sound depend on former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s unexpected exit from the ranks of the employed?

That’s increasingly part of the speculation as New York State inches toward an April 11 deadline that could decide the future of the Broadwater Energy project, the proposal to build a 1,215-foot-long, 100-foot-tall energy barge in the Long Island Sound to process liquefied natural gas and pipe a billion cubic feet of gas a day through a 22-mile pipeline along the floor of the Sound.

Broadwater lends itself naturally to hyperbole. The terminal, known as a Floating Storage Regasification Unit, would be the first such free-floating terminal in the world. It is to be in 90 feet of water that would put it about 12 miles south of Connecticut, 9 miles north of Long Island and directly in the cross hairs of every environmental issue affecting the Long Island Sound.

The first comparison, in terms of its potential environmental risks, that critics made was to Shoreham, the 1980s-era nuclear plant that was built on Long Island’s North Shore but never allowed to generate power and finally fully decommissioned in 1994.

But Shoreham was a Long Island issue. The argument that Broadwater is an unacceptable environmental risk that would industrialize Long Island Sound may have done more to unite Long Island and Connecticut than anything in history.

“Shoreham is the only comparison, but that was one state, this is two, and it’s an incredibly big and intense emotional issue in both of them,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment on Long Island. “I don’t know that there really is any comparison.”

Indeed, political opposition to Broadwater has become something of a steamroller, with almost no visible support in Connecticut and only modest pockets on Long Island, including among some labor and business groups.

That said, it’s still very much alive for at least four reasons. One is the bottomless pockets of its big-energy sponsors, TransCanada Corporation and Shell Oil. The second is support, overt and covert, in New York, where the City Council has backed the project as part of a long-term strategy to provide natural gas to the city. The third is a federal regulatory process that is extremely friendly to the energy industry; the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month voted 5 to 0 in favor of the project.

And fourth is the fact that one person matters in the regulatory process more than anyone else. That would be the governor of New York, who has enormous power to kill the project or keep it alive.

None of the three men who have held the office since the project was first proposed in 2004 have tipped their hand about how they viewed it. But environmentalists who have lobbied the state felt a lot more comfortable about Gov. George E. Pataki’s support for their position than about Mr. Spitzer’s, speculating that Mr. Spitzer was more likely to be in the same orbit as New York City backers of the plan than in that of the Long Island or Connecticut critics.

When the Spitzer administration went along with an extension of the state’s deadline in January, giving Broadwater more time to mount an advertising campaign saying (falsely, critics contend) that the proposal would lower energy bills, more than a few critics wondered if the fix was in.

So much for worries about Mr. Spitzer’s agenda.

In truth, no one knows what Mr. Spitzer planned to do, any more than they know what Gov. David A. Paterson has in mind, or even how much he has thought about Broadwater, with all the other items on his docket. But they do know that it would probably take a steamroller to stop a steamroller.

Most of us have heard Mr. Spitzer’s boast on that issue often enough to know that he might have been more willing to expend political capital on a politically unpopular project than the typical politician. And absent strong intervention by the governor, the most relevant sign of the state’s thinking would seem to be a harsh review in December 2007 by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that raised numerous serious concerns about the project, including its negative effects on the Sound’s fisheries.

With the change of governors, people have been expecting another extension of the deadline for the New York Department of State to decide whether Broadwater is consistent with state regulations on the use of coastal resources. An extension could still happen, but it gets less likely as the April 11 deadline looms, and the guess is that without one, the environmental agency’s reservations could settle the issue.

But then, the law of unintended consequences has enough corollaries that you might be wise not to assume too much.

“This been very unpredictable politically,” Ms. Esposito said. “We’ve had three governors and three secretaries of state, so we keep discussing the same thing with different people. It’s hard to read the tea leaves, because the tea leaves keep changing.”

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