Fourth Branch of America -
NY Assemblyman Paul Tonko: Energy Committee Chairman

Interview by Ray Feliciano (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.

N.Y. Assm. Paul Tonko before he was a Congressman
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 gouging (concerns).”

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 way.”

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.”