ALBANY — Renewable energy projects in New York are often touted for what they can do to slash dirty fossil fuel emissions and make the state more self-reliant when it comes to its power needs.
But a process for turbo-charging reviews for green energy projects is now under legal attack, with an assortment of rural towns, bird conservation clubs and citizen groups arguing the state government has stripped localities of sufficient time to evaluate the plans.
The platoon of plaintiffs includes the town of Somerset in Niagara County, the town of Malone in Franklin County, the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society, a civic group called Save Ontario Shores and the American Bird Conservancy.
They are united in their concern that planned wind turbine developments and solar arrays planned for across the state could be approved before they have enough time to consider their potential impacts in detail.
"The new process is a dramatic change" from earlier rules where reviews of projects weren't as compressed as they are now, said Andy Mason, co-president of Delaware-Otsego Audubon.
His group is concerned that eagles and other raptors could be caught up in the massive metal blades of towering turbines designed to turn wind energy into power that can be loaded onto the electricity grid.
The conservation group opposed one wind project in eastern Broome County, but opted not to challenge a second one planned by the same developer in Chenango County because the latter one was not viewed as a threat to the raptors, Mason said.
"So it's not like we are just blindly opposing wind projects," Mason said. "We support alternative energy. And we know some projects are worthwhile. But we think there should be adequate review of all of them."
The lawsuit, filed in state Supreme Court in Albany, requests that injunctions be imposed on any projects before the new state Office of Renewable Energy Siting. It maintains new siting regulations flowing from the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act fail to conform to the state Environmental Quality Review Act.
Alex Stone, spokesman for the energy siting office, said the agency is aware of the litigation but noted he had no comment on it. The state attorney general's office will represent the agency in the matter, Stone said.
James Denn, a spokesman for the state Public Service Commission, also declined comment, citing the pending litigation.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls the state's energy regulatory apparatus, hailed the controversial siting regulations after they were issued last September, emphasizing they are tailored to hasten the production of renewable energy in New York.
"These regulations will supercharge our growing green economy and reaffirm New York's position as a definitive hub of the clean energy sector through a revamped and rapid process for building and delivering emissions-free power," Cuomo said at the time.
But the lawsuit is being welcomed by some state lawmakers who argue the rapid review process curbs the ability of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to fully review energy projects and threatens farmland and the natural habitat of endangered species of wildlife.
“It is the ultimate irony that in their rush to ‘save the environment,’ ORES and the Cuomo administration are violating a state law that is the cornerstone of New York’s environmental protection efforts," said state Sen. George Borrello, R-Chautauqua County. "That contradiction speaks volumes about the true motives behind this so-called ‘green energy’ agenda."
Benjamin Wisniewski, one of the lawyers representing the parties suing the state, said the siting process that has evolved in New York represents "regulatory capture."
A consultant hired by ORES drafted regulations favoring green energy developers, "then ignored broad-based criticism from nearly everyone else with a stake in power plant siting," Wisniewski contended. "The goal of this litigation is to force ORES to actually consider the concerns of rural New Yorkers, host municipalities, and environmental groups."
The New York Public Interest Research Group, which champions New York's efforts to cut reliance on electricity from fossil fuel plants, is taking no position on the controversy, said Liz Moran, the advocacy group's environmental policy director.
Moran acknowledged that some proposed green energy projects have potential negative impacts, but suggested there are often options available for mitigating them if developers and regulators listen to residents of surrounding communities.
"We know that to fight the climate crisis, we need to get more renewables online as rapidly as possible," Moran said. "But we can't jeopardize the environment in other ways. We have to strike a balance here."
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com