This story was co-published with The American Prospect.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer on Friday announced his opposition to NRG Energy’s proposed fracked-gas power plant in Astoria, Queens, joining a band of high-profile lawmakers now arrayed against the plant. The once-marginal battle has gained steam, as activists have made Western Queens a hotbed of socialist organizing.
“I’ll lend my voice, my clout, and my muscle to stop this dastardly plant,” Schumer said at a press conference on Friday.
Whether to permit the plant will be decided by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s environmental agency. Like another fracked-gas plant in the deindustrialized Hudson Valley town of Newburgh, NRG is seeking permission to be born again as a relatively cleaner facility that would still burn fossil fuels, ahead of tougher emission limits and rapidly-approaching requirements to decarbonize New York’s grid by 2040.
In bigger news for national activists, Schumer committed to keeping gas out of the clean electricity standard, which was part of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan. The CES, which would aim to decarbonize the power grid entirely by 2035, did not make the bipartisan infrastructure framework, but Schumer said that he intends to put in the reconciliation bill that will include education, health care, and climate-related measures.
There are currently around 230 gas plants being proposed around the country, Leah Stokes, a political science professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who works on climate, said in an interview. A CES, she said, would be “the fundamental policy to stop that gas buildout.”
The Biden Administration has expressed continued support for the standard, which may be more difficult to get through on reconciliation, which requires a budgetary component. If a standard does pass through reconciliation, though, it would be a federal investment program—unlike CES programs passed at the state level, which are typically credit programs.
“This is an investment by the federal government. And, were the federal government to invest in gas plants, we would call that a fossil fuel subsidy,” Stokes said. “I’m not surprised to hear Leader Schumer saying we don’t support gas in a CES through reconciliation, because it makes no sense to have gas within a CES through reconciliation, because it would be literally a fossil fuel subsidy.”
Schumer’s support for the NRG fight, meanwhile, signals the senator’s shift left on climate—and organizers’ mounting power. It also is a case study in the way the left is knitting together local organizing with the broader climate movement.
“Local politics in this area have changed dramatically in the last few years,” said Michael Gianaris, Deputy Majority Leader of the New York State Senate. “The DSA Ecosocialist folks are the people you want to talk to.”
“Kids traded their asthma inhalers”
Until 2020, Stylianos Karolidis worked for a lobbyist that represented, among other clients, NRG Energy, the power plant’s parent company. When he got fed up with working for polluters last summer, he quit to become a full-time volunteer for the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Since then, he has become a key organizer in the fight against the plant.
Quitting felt vindicating. Karolidis grew up in the heavily immigrant neighborhood of Astoria, dotted with dozens of immigrant communities—Bangladeshi, Chinese, Greek, Egyptian—where a ConEd campus sits along the East River waterfront.
The street next to the plant is nicknamed “Asthma Alley.” Oil and gas plants in New York City are heavily concentrated in poorer, less white areas—the Bronx, Queens, the Lower East Side of Manhattan—causing higher rates of respiratory disease.
That’s part of why NRG is applying for a new permit. Regulations lowering the maximum threshold of harmful air pollutants will kick in starting 2023. To avoid being shuttered, NRG and Danskammer, the upstate plant, have applied to build state-of-the-art complexes. NRG argues its new plant would be a major improvement, replacing outdated technology. Its proposal would likely emit fewer pollutants but still run on natural gas, much of it fracked and piped in from Pennsylvania.
“Contrary to what was heard today from some legislators, the Astoria Replacement Project is fully consistent with the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) because it actually results in large reductions in statewide greenhouse gas emissions,” an NRG representative said in an emailed statement. “In addition, the plant will be fully convertible to green hydrogen in the future.”
New York’s climate law requires the state to attain 100% renewable energy by 2040. NRG argues that when those requirements kick in, it could switch to green hydrogen, a much-hyped but still inefficient and expensive technology that energy experts say may not be commercially viable anytime soon.
The new NRG facility would be used infrequently but intensively as a “peaker plant,” sending energy to the grid at peak demand time—typically on the hottest days of the year. Many of New York’s peakers are almost 50 years old, and spew out nitrogen oxide, a pollutant which worsens smog. NRG’s current turbines are derivatives of jet engines, poised to rev up when households turn on their AC units across the city. Residents often experience coughing fits and respiratory flare-ups in the summer.
Growing up in Astoria, Karolidis said, asthma was so common it was almost cool. “Kids traded their asthma inhalers around, decorated them. It was a fun little thing for kids.”
Karolidis attended PS 122 middle school, which sits a block from smokestacks. Only when he left the neighborhood to attend a high school in Brooklyn did he notice fewer kids had inhalers. “I was like, oh, this is a little unusual,” he observed. “There weren’t power plants everywhere.”
Infrastructure fights build electoral power
When he left the energy lobbyist and joined DSA, Karolidis was at first skeptical that his former client would be the right target.
“I did not originally think that infrastructure fights were particularly good or strategic — I thought they were actually a bad idea,” he said. “Generally, you don’t want to be in a position where you’re saying no, or you’re fighting something new.”
Without concurrent plans to inaugurate new wind and solar farms, some activists fear, anti-infrastructure activism could leave U.S. cities like Switzerland, which has become more reliant on energy imports as political veto points have stymied the building of new renewables.
Opponents to power plants aren’t just acting locally. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, an overwhelmingly successful program that has retired hundreds of coal-fired power plants, relied on closing polluting infrastructure as a forcing mechanism. Energy demand subsequently fueled new building of renewables. Also, New York is slated to bring a bevy of renewables online in the next decade (though few developments arrive on schedule in the Empire State).
But what has shocked Karolidis has been the ability of infrastructure campaigns to activate previously apolitical residents. When he began street canvassing and handing out flyers about the plant, he said, the response was overwhelming. “I’m not some random person with Greenpeace soliciting you for $10 a month,” Karolidis found. He said the words “power plant” and “Astoria,” and people lit up.
While Astorians care about the neighborhood, they’re not myopic environmentalists, Karolidis insisted. “It’s very easy to make this a neighborhood-specific issue. But any time we’re talking about fossil fuel infrastructure, we’re talking about general climate change.”
Energy infrastructure became a front-and-center issue for Tiffany Cabán, who is poised to win her campaign for City Council in the district. Cabán narrowly lost her campaign for Queens district attorney, which focused on issues like the criminalization of poverty.
Canvassers mentioned climate on every doorstep they visited, Cabán said in an interview Friday. She joins a multiracial bevy of new elected eco-socialists in state and local government, including Zohran Mamdani, Jabari Brisport and Phara Souffrant Forrest.
“The top vote-getters in Astoria Houses were myself and Eric Adams,” she explained, referring to a large public housing complex in the neighborhood. Cabán-Adams voters in public housing care about issues of public safety, like the climate emergency, she said.
“While they’re still at historic lows, we are experiencing rises in violence, for example. And so—even though we [Adams and I] take significantly different approaches to this, we lean into and don’t shy away from the fact that this is a problem,” Cabán said. “Astoria Houses residents were hit so hard during Superstorm Sandy. Some of the buildings are still being fixed, while other buildings—just as vulnerable as they ever were.”
Like Schumer’s support, Cabán’s likely victory signals how DSA strategy has nudged local climate activism into the mainstream.
“Everybody knows Western Queens is now the heart of progressive politics in the country,” Gianaris said.