Thursday, February 07, 2008

Is the Sound up for sale?

Valentine’s Day is coming and Broadwater Energy wants to win your heart. And it’s come calling with more than a box of chocolates and a dozen roses. The would-be natural gas provider has an open checkbook and the deep pockets of its owners, Shell Oil Company and TransCanada Corp., to tap for cash to influence public opinion.

Broadwater has initiated a media blitz in what might be — should be — the last days of opportunity to gain New York’s approval for its plan to moor a huge floating LNG terminal in the waters off the coast of Wading River. In TV, radio and print ads throughout the metropolitan region, Broadwater is crowing about its purported benefits to the Long Island economy and local residents, including a $300 “median household annual savings” on energy costs for Long Island residents.

Why now?

According to John Hritcko, Broadwater’s senior vice president, Broadwater is in the public eye right now, with the Feb. 12 deadline for a decision by the state department coming up and the possibility that the company’s permit application might be on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s agenda for approval at its Feb. 21 meeting. Time for some good PR. And Broadwater is willing to spend a pretty penny to get it, though Mr. Hritcko won’t divulge the amount.

The PR campaign includes well-timed check-passing events like the one staged in the Deer Park headquarters of United Way of Long Island Tuesday morning, where Shell Oil CEO John Hofmeister joined Mr. Hritcko and United Way board members to announce a gift of $150,000 to the organization’s Project Warmth, which provides emergency assistance to residents who need help meeting their heating bills.

United Way of Long Island board members gushed with love and appreciation for Shell, TransCanada and Broadwater, declaring the energy behemoths “good corporate citizens,” and “friends and neighbors.” Bill Savino, chairman of the board, vigorously pumped Mr. Hofmeister’s hand as he proclaimed, “Welcome to Long Island.”

Yep, money talks.

Money wins friends and influences people in high places. Money no doubt explains why Mr. Hofmeister and TransCanada CEO Hal Kvisle got some private face time with Governor Eliot Spitzer a few weeks ago. Mr. Hofmeister told me they wanted to make sure Mr. Spitzer understood their proposal and their commitment to protecting the Long Island Sound. Mr. Hofmeister said the governor was “very clear about his neutrality” on Broadwater in his meeting with the chiefs of the two multi-billion-dollar multi-national corporations.
Another thing that’s very clear about Mr. Spitzer is his reluctance to accord the same opportunity for an audience to anti-Broadwater citizen activists. He delegated the task of meeting with “the little people” on this issue to his staff. When the feisty executive director of Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment, Adrienne Esposito, heard last week about Mr. Spitzer’s confab with Shell’s CEO, she blasted him on it publicly. Her complaint was picked up by Channel 12 News last Tuesday and the very next day, the governor’s deputy energy secretary called Ms. Esposito to say the governor would, in fact, meet with her. She’s still waiting for his appointments secretary to call to set it up, as promised.

Mr. Spitzer is in a bind. Both of the state agencies charged with reviewing the Broadwater plan hate it, but he’s under pressure from people like NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to clear the path for its approval, according to sources inside the Spitzer administration. Word is the energy execs sat down with the governor to propose another extension of the state’s consistency review decision deadline. Broadwater will use the time to win the hearts and minds of the public with a slick ad campaign and the spreading of its partner’s corporate largesse. If Broadwater can sway public opinion and the governor can avoid another public relations debacle — he’s already had his share — he’ll go along with it. Shell and TransCanada also reportedly offered to “sweeten the deal” for the Empire State.

Following Tuesday’s PR ceremony, I asked Shell CEO Hofmeister and Broadwater vice president Hritcko if a deadline extension is being sought and if the company had upped the ante for the supposedly still-undecided Gov. Spitzer. Denials all around. No comment from the governor’s spokesperson or his counterpart at the department of state. By this time next week, we’ll know.

Yet even as the state considers giving a pass to a project that will destroy more than 200 million fish eggs, larvae and small fish in L.I. Sound each year, with the unavoidable impacts that will have on the commercial and recreational fishing industries — not to mention the fish — the DEC on Tuesday issued stricter catch limits for tautog, or blackfish, citing the fishery’s depletion in state waters, including the Sound. Knowing the current condition of local fisheries like this, how can the state even consider approving Broadwater?

If reliance on foreign fossil fuel products like LNG is unavoidable, and some number of the 42 planned new LNG facilities is needed to meet America’s energy demands, surely there’s got to be a better place to build one than the fragile, already-stressed estuary of Long Island Sound.

No comments: