SHULTZ: Somerset deserves support of environmentalists

Somerset is a small town that sits on the shore of Lake Ontario, a jewel of western New York. It’s a place where a grandfather can pick blueberries in a field with his 2-year-old granddaughter. Just down the road in Olcott, children and adults can ride a 1921 carousel for 25 cents apiece. Nearby Singer Farms specializes in organic garlic and cherries.

In this corner of rural New York people express their environmentalism not with proclamations but by being the actual hands-on stewards of the land. But the environmental and climate change movements downstate in New York City are letting these neighbors of ours down, even though lifting them up would be one of the smartest things they could do.

Somerset is the home of the Kintigh Generating Station, one of New York state’s last two coal-powered electricity plants. Under new state rules that were championed by groups like the Sierra Club, the plant will be closed down by the end of 2020. That closure will have a dramatic impact on Somerset and surrounding communities, in both lost jobs and cuts in the tax revenue for local services and public schools.

The push to close down the nation’s coal plants is not without good reason. Coal is responsible for a third of the country’s carbon emissions and is a leading contributor to global climate change. Residents along the shores of Lake Ontario have gotten their own taste of climate change already, with record-breaking water levels that threaten homes, beaches and the local economy. A warmer planet means more moisture in the air and harder rains, like the ones this year that flooded much of the midwest and filled the Great Lakes.

But in practical effect, the small Somerset plant is no real factor at all in global warming. It is a very small fish that got trapped in a net designed to catch very big ones. Its production today is less than 10% what it was in 2007 and in 2018 it didn’t operate at all on 340 days. That has a lot to do with larger economic forces that have made natural gas a less expensive way to generate electricity than coal.

Nonetheless, the new state rules handed down by the Cuomo administration are the last nail in the Somerset plant’s coffin and many people who live there feel like the downstate environmental groups that pushed the plan have left them high and dry. Somerset’s town supervisor, Dan Engert, described the breech this way: “New York City environmentalists were clapping wildly, but they were targeting two communities that are reliant on these plants for jobs and for revenue.”

I have been an environmental activist for three decades and I agree with Dan on this. The abandonment of Somerset and its neighboring communities is both unfair to those communities and bad politics for fighting climate change.

The compensation being offered communities like this is like a flight token from an airline after they cancel your flight. It lets them pretend they have done something but you are still left a lot worse off. State officials and environmental groups talk about job re-training for displaced workers and temporary subsidies to replace lost local revenue. But no one is fooled. Somerset is still losing, a lot.

What environmental groups could do is this. They could make it their mission to assure that communities like Somerset don’t end up losers in the transition to clean energy, but instead serious winners. And this does not mean fake solutions like converting a rural community into a massive wind farm for downstate, surrounded by rotor towers taller than the Washington Monument. It means real help.

The people of Somerset are not sitting around waiting for the environmentalist cavalry to arrive; they have a plan. They have a company ready to convert the plant into a high-tech data processing center. The project’s backers, including the town, say it will create 500 union construction jobs for the retrofit and another 160 well-paid, full-time jobs after it is opened. That will also help rebuild the area’s battered tax base.

To make that happen, Somerset and its neighbors say they need support from the state. This includes a guarantee to the plant of affordable electricity from the New York Power Authority and $65 million in state development funds to be matched by $500 million of private investment.

If New York climate change groups want to accelerate a transition to clean energy, they need communities like Somerset to be their allies not their adversaries. One way to do that is to make Somerset an example and offer serious support to its efforts to reinvent itself in a sustainable way.

Almost every day I get some email promoting the Green New Deal. It is a proposal that essentially marries action on climate change to goals about economic fairness. There is a lot of value in that, but it is still just words. Here is my message to downstate environmentalists: Don’t just talk about a Green New Deal, help build a real one right here in your own state backyard by supporting Somerset and its neighbors. That’s the way to build strong political support for a transition to clean energy. Actions will always speak louder than words.

Jim Shultz, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center, is a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: jimshultz@democracyctr.org. He recently picked blueberries with his granddaughter in Appleton.