Fourth Branch of America -
Interview by Ray Feliciano
NY Assemblyman Paul Tonko: Energy Committee Chairman
(printed in October 2005 issue of TIC
Before becoming a NY Congressman, Assemblyman Tonko represented NY's 105th district,
which includes Montgomery and parts of Schenectady counties. Besides chairing the Committee on Energy, he was a member of
four other committees: Agriculture, Education, Racing and Wagering, and Transportation. This interview was from September 2005, and
was featured in the October 2005 issue of TIC.
Assemblyman Tonko represents the 105th district,
which includes Montgomery and parts of Schenectady
counties. Besides chairing the Committee on Energy,
he is a member of four other committees: Agriculture,
Education, Racing and Wagering, and Transportation.
Paul Tonko when he was a N.Y. Assemblyman
(photo: Kimberly Feliciano)
Q: What does the Energy Committee do?
“The committee deals with energy-related legislation.
The energy law of NY State is addressed by the
Energy Committee—as a clearing house—and then
may go to another standing committee, and finally to a
big standing committee, like the Ways and Means for
the affordability discussion, and then to the full floor
(NY Assembly). No bill can go from a member’s desk
to the floor. The Energy Committee is the ‘think tank’
of expertise that serves the House.”
Q: What does it mean to ‘Chair’ the committee?
“A Chair takes on an advanced capacity in terms of
coordinating all the thinking from the members, feeding
that to leadership in our House. My initial goals
with the committee that ironically still remain, are to
reduce the cost of an energy bill and make the public
more aware of energy issues. There’s a lot that happens
between flipping the switch and expecting the
lights to go on, and getting the bill and saying ‘I’m
angry and I’m not going to pay all this.’ A lot happens
between those two parameters, and I think that we
need to be engaged as a public.”
Q: What qualified you to be Chair of Energy?
“My background is technical. My life prior to this
was at the Department of Public Service arguing for
the public in utility matters before the Public Service
Commission. My degree and my professional involvement
was in engineering—industrial and mechanical.
It’s a technical based committee with a certain bit of
jargon and background on regulatory policy that I put
into play from my life that enabled me to lobby effectively
to be public chair back in 1992.”
Q: Who is part of this ‘think tank’?
“Our committee is composed of a professor of economics
with an expertise in petroleum policy,
NYSERDA leadership which somewhat inherited the
responsibilities of the dismantled State Office of Energy—
so they monitor fuel costs, supplies, and all—
and we brought in Niagara Mohawk spokespersons
who deal with home heating fuels, and a representative
from Emergency Management in the North Country
who wanted to concentrate most of his remarks on
shipping of supplies through the St. Lawrence Seaway
System. In the very near future we will have the
Comptroller of the State of NY or a representative
from the appropriate division of the State Department
of Audit and Control to talk about the arithmetic as it
relates to the purported windfall of the sales tax, and
relate that to the added cost of business for the State to
plow roads, maintain a fleet, and for local governments
and school systems with that $37 million increase.
And the other would be the Attorney General with
Q: Do you determine which bills come up?
“No, we keep that open to discussion. We also try to
assemble the course and the message we are following,
the approach to the various issues and sub-issues, and
then work with members to coordinate the course, and
get their input. You tend to cluster by majority status,
or minority status, behind the principles of your party.”
“I think there is a big effort to deal with the demand
side of the equation, and reduce demand for gasoline.
For instance, to look at efficiency alternative technologies,
a fuel mix. So, you’re really helping coordinate,
to be a facilitator, in developing the majority’s message,
which is a fusing of many ideas and thoughts.”
Q: Do you interact a lot with the industries?
“Yes, but there’s many perspectives, and in fairness,
as a Chair I try to conduct myself with an ‘open door’
policy and hear from those who may be far off the path
as we see it, but to hear from them because everyone
has something to offer. The fine tuning that comes
might not embrace their idea totally, but allows for
maximum flexibility within a policy framework. I
think it’s part of my training as an engineer to be very
analytical, so my approach is different.”
Q: How much does party politics affect policy?
“I wouldn’t deny there is politics involved, but it
has to be a huge dependence on policy that fits, that
guides the politics. Politics will enter in, and you work
with both elements, but especially in a technical area
like Energy, you have to govern by physics, not politics.
I try to use politics in a wise way.”
Q: What collaboration is with the federal level?
“Like with the Energy Bill that was before Congress
and advanced by the White House—the one Senator
McCain called ‘Leave No Lobbyist Behind’—we attempted
and were successful in reaching our entire NY delegation.
We’re doing tremendous outreach to Senators Schumer and
Clinton, and then all of the Congressional representatives,
all the congressional districts in the state, and in a bipartisan
Q: What message was given to the NY federal level?
“We advanced the notion of much more stringent reliability
standards based on the experience of August 14th,
2003—that it was the delivery system, not the generation
system that was a failure, exposed a gaping vulnerability as
it related to anti-terrorism and homeland security. We found
out we are only as strong as the weakest link of the chain.
We’re hooked to Ohio and other states, to Canada… At the
time of that huge blackout, we were selling 1,000 megawatts
to Canada, so NY didn’t have the generation concern. But to
find out that tree branches were cutting short the delivery
system in Ohio; that reliability standards were neither as
strong nor as enforced as they should be... For them to have
proposed that nationally there be just one standard and that
we be weaker and can’t be stronger than what was agreed
to… it would be devastating.”
“We have some of the strictest reliability standards in the
country. We have high-rise facilities. We have remote rural
locations. You need electricity to pump water up to the 90th
floor, so we have to have tremendously strong reliability
standards. For them to suggest that you can dumb down and
provide a weakness, told me a couple of things—you're going
to destroy a system like ours, and you’re not requiring
those who own these operations to dig into their pocket.
‘Reliability standard reduction’ is merely saying you don’t
need to dig into your pocket and invest in your system.”
Q: How can the public best be educated on energy?
“Any kind of public information is good, but reaching
consumers directly. Schools are a great thought because our
young people can be agents of change. I remember a program
a local hospital I represent ran called ‘Beltman’—a
campaign to wear your seatbelt. Kids would carry on when
mom or dad would back out of the driveway without their
seatbelt fastened. They (children) can be very effective
voices of change. Inform them, the generation and consumers
to come. They need to know we don’t have an infinite
supply out there. If we want to sustain our quality of life, we
have to be more resourceful. We can’t lead our world of
natural supplies and resources by being wasteful.”
Q: So, should we begin with energy conservation?
“It’s good policy to begin with. However, (Hurricane)
Katrina—and to a smaller degree, Rita—reminded us that
we need to get back to the 1970’s. Some traditions or ideas
of the past need to be maintained. President Carter was right
on target when he talked about efficiency and conservation.
We need to inform the public, and school-age children, that
these efforts of conservation and efficiency really equate to
a power plant not built. If you can save megawatts of usage,
that’s another plant that you built without any kind of disruption
to a community or a threat to the environment. We
need to pursue that aggressively. Our miles per gallon quotient
has gone down as the price of gasoline has gone up.
We have to be alerted as a society—we have to do better.”
Q: Would building more refineries help supply?
“They are not building the refineries simply because they
are sitting on a huge profit margin. The supply and demand
issue in a free market capitalist model means that if there’s
this growth in demand global wise, then you’re making a
record profit. There’s a resistance to invest and cut into that
profit column. A lot of discussions and tugs of war within
the arena that we need to pay attention to.”
Q: Do you think there is a tie between greenhouse
gases and global warming?
“Oh yeah, yeah. The carbon dioxide emissions and other
greenhouse gases are influencing the global warming, which
many scientists theorize may be heating the oceans waters
enough so there are more violent reactions, such as Hurricane
Katrina and Rita. The relationship of that outcome then
comes in relation to the refinery and oil rigs in the ocean’s
waters or in the gulf areas.”
Q: What about cutting taxes at the pump?
“Taxes are a policy we are looking at because taxes cannot
be looked at just taxes—They may be energy policy. I
know that Jeanine Pirro (DA from Westchester County, running
against Clinton in 2006 for US Senate) advocated repealing
the federal excise tax at the pump. At the same time,
what is your solution to pay for the Federal Transportation
Bill that just came down? Yet, we require affordable prices
at the pump, but we should also demand safe highways.”
“To advocate to get rid of that federal tax, the (US) Senate
came back and did somewhat of a ‘stamped’ approach to
energy policy, and I think the Democrats, their House, has
some very pertinent questions. When they were asked, ‘Will
this savings come back to the consumer?’ No one said,
‘Absolutely.’ They’d like them to, they were hopeful, but
they know that there’s no way. Without a guarantee, why
relieve that tax if you are not guaranteeing it’s coming to
the consumer? And worse, compounding the damage, it
could create a new windfall for the profit-rich oil industry.
Is that good policy? A good outcome for consumers?”
Q: What is the State’s position on Peak Oil?
“There’s a Peak Oil theory we have not taken a position
on. It’s questioning whether it’s inelastic or elastic—
whether or not the behavior adjusts to the price, or can you
charge anything you want and still have it consumed. Some
of our behaviors suggest there’s real concerns about that.
Many suggest you get to a certain level and the public
kicks back and says, ‘I’m going to change my behavior.
I’m not going to use my vehicle as much. I’m going to buy
a better, more efficient vehicle.’ Many suggest Peak Oil
theory won’t stay in tact, that behavior will respond, and
we’ll give birth to all kinds of technology, research and
development, and lead us into a new age. If we stayed reliant
on fossil fuel, it wouldn’t be the wisest thing.”
Q: What kind of alternative fuels would be required by
‘Thruway Bill’ A.2717, passed this year?
“If I remember correctly, we direct the Thruway Authority
working with NYSERDA to develop the list. Propane
and combust natural gas would be a couple. Biodiesel and
electric chargers would also be available. ‘Such as’ is the
language so we offer recommendations, but it’s driven by
what NYSERDA working with the Thruway Authority
agree to. That list should be as inclusive as possible, and
when you put that list together, every 120 miles you have a
fueling station for that particular fuel. We’ve had this bill
for several years and we can’t get anywhere with it. Hopefully
with this latest crisis, it will start to spark some interest…
and advance with the support of the general public.”
Q: Is growing biomass a viable solution for fuel?
“Yeah, all the technologies need to be looked at. Our
directive is very clear. We want to introduce as many alternatives
as possible, and lead us off of the dependency of a
single-based fuel economy, which we are with fossil fuel.”
Q: How important are energy issues to economy?
“If an industry is going to be profitable, it can begin and
end with their energy costs and efficiency. If a household is
to enjoy a certain quality of life, energy policy could be
right there in the middle of that outcome. Certainly, if those
on fixed income or low-income households are faced with
other critical choices—to eat, to take pharmaceuticals—
then we shouldn’t create impossible choices. We really
need for the systems to eventually rule the day and not government
monies. If we rely on treasuries to reduce our
power bills forever, we’re not going to help ourselves. We
have to begin now, in the midst of a crisis, to respond more
effectively than we did three decades ago. History repeats
itself. We’re being revisited by the neglect of the past.”
Q: Tax incentives for residents and businesses?
“Different incentives are provided, and different programs
that NYSERDA runs for business. There is Power
for Jobs program where economic development cut costs.
There are incentives like net metering, wind power, and
where excess power you create can provide you with an
economic benefit. A lot of these have to be looked at to
ignite a system, change thinking, and influence behavior.”
Q: What should people know about energy?
“People need to know they can be part of the solution.
Public information is important, but the connection to the
issues—the disconnect will get us nothing. Cynicism or
complacency in a democracy gets us nowhere. It is technically
sophisticated, so we need to air as plainly as possible
the choices, and people need to engage—not only in consumer
advocacy but in consumer behavior. It’s almost time
to go back to the 70’s… We are faced again with a similar
challenge—It’s time to get very stringent and creative with
our conservation and efficiency measures. We need to understand
how valuable our energy issues are to our quality
of life, productivity as a state, and our economic recovery
based on the larger commercial users. Public information is
important, advocacy, and behavior.”