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Seven Days: The Straight Dope From the Week That Was

National Fuel: Oh, boo hoo hoo.

National Fuel Freaks Out

For more than six months, People United for Sustainable Housing has been seeking an audience with David F. Smith, CEO of National Fuel, to talk about the company’s conservation incentive program, which furnishes $10 million annually—funded by a surcharge on your fuel bill—to underwrite energy efficiency program. The program is mandated by the New York State Public Service Commission, a service National Fuel must provide in exchange for the right to do business here.

PUSH believes that National Fuel is spending too little of that $10 million on weatherizing low-income properties, and also that National Fuel ought to kick in some of its own money toward the program, rather than funding it entirely through a surcharge on its customers.

Last Friday, PUSH’s efforts to get Smith to listen manifested in a visit by a crowd of activists and community leaders to National Fuel’s headquarters in Williamsville, where they were denied a meeting with Smith and eventually shooed away by police. PUSH’s people met a similarly chilly reception when they tried to deliver a letter to Smith in May at National Fuel headquarters.

Then, on Tuesday, Smith gave PUSH Buffalo the biggest gift an activist organization can hope for: a temporary restraining order.

Citing PUSH’s “illegal, unprofessional and harassing tactics,” National Fuel obtained a court order barring PUSH members from company property. A court date, when National Fuel will make its case for requesting a restraining order, is scheduled for September 28.

What could be more encouraging to street-level activists than so ill-considered and heavyhanded an overreaction? As PUSH’s Aaron Bartley said the next day, “This is not the thing we hoped to be dealing with over the next couple days, but it’s gratifying to know that our efforts are having an effect.”

“It’s pretty scary for some of our community members to be served with a restraining order, “ says Sara Gordon of PUSH. “Much more scary that it would be to a big corporation. But we will not be silenced, we will keep advocating for our views on the conservation incentive program to be heard.”

About 30 percent of the $10 million is spent on weatherization for low-income homeowners; that program is adminstered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA. About 50 percent of the funds is spent on rebates to consumers purchasing energy-efficient appliances and updating their heating systems. The remainder is spent marketing the rebate program.

Those rebates are useful, but they tend to go to home- and business-owners who already have the means to invest in expensive appliances and system updates. The rebates are out of the reach for many of the region’s low-income homeowners, Bartley argues, especially those living in aging, urban housing stock, where heating costs tend to be much higher than their middle-income counterparts. Indeed, Buffalo has the fourth highest heating costs in the country.

National Fuel received $50 million last year from the federal Heating Energy Assistance Program, which helps pay the bills for low-income homeowners. So, Bartley says, the shortcomings in National Fuel’s conservation incentive program—a program funded by consumers to begin with, and not by the company—ultimately costs taxpayers.

PUSH believes that a greater emphasis on weatherizing the aging housing stock in which low-income customers are more likely to abide will have a greater impact on energy use region-wide than than does the current program, thus pushing down rates. National Fuel responds that PUSH’s focus on low-income, urban housing stock is a “narrow agenda.”

“Given the egregious conduct Friday of PUSH, its leaders and members, we will not, under any circumstances, partner with PUSH, nor will we support organizations that do so,” Smith said in a statement issued on Tuesday.

(Take a breath, Dave. Don’t let those pot-stirrers get your goat. Remember what happened to the British Raj after Dyer opened up at Jallianwalla Bagh.)

National Fuel has asked an extension the Public Service Commission to extend the conservation incentive program, and the commission is seeking public comment. Two weeks ago, PUSH filed a letter asking the commission to deny the extension until National Fuel agrees to sit down with community leaders and activists to discuss their concerns.

Gary Brown, the commission’s chairman, has agreed to meet with PUSH and listen to their arguments. Will David Smith? He will if the Public Service Commission tells him to.

Public Meetings on the Inner Harbor

Another group of community activists stepped forward this week to take on the powerbrokers. On Monday, the Canal Side Community Alliance, which has been pushing for a community benefits agreement attached to public funding of the development of Buffalo’s Inner Harbor, joined with the litigants suing the state agencies overseeing that development to announce a series of community planning sessions that will solicit public input into waterfront development plans now that Bass Pro has slipped the hook.

The first community planning session, open to all, takes place at VOICE-Buffalo’s annual meeting on October 14. A session focusing on environmental issues takes place on October 23 at the Burchfield Penny auditorium. There will be a conference on November 6 at City Honors Auditorium on best practices and models for waterfront development, featuring experts from across the country. And on November 18, again at the Burchfield Penney auditorium, there will be a discussion of the economic impacts that attend different kinds of public investment.

The purpose of the meetings, the alliance said in a statement, is “to ensure full community participation” as waterfront development plans move forward.

Not long after the alliance announced the series of public meetings, Larry Quinn, vice-chairman of the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corporation, reiterated his plan to ask Bass Pro to reconsider its decision to withdraw from the proosed Canal Side development.

Golombek Says He'll Soldier On

The final reckoning of votes in the Democratic primary rave between Joe Golombek and Sam Hoyt seems ever more likely to confirm the initial result—a victory for Hoyt. A count of absentee ballots increased Hoyt’s narrow lead from 167 votes to 213. There are 250 ballots left to be vetted and counted; many will be ruled invalid, but even if all were valid, Golombek would have to win 85 percent of the remainder to overtake Hoyt. Golombek, who will appear on the November ballot under the Conservative Party line, told the Buffalo News he’d continue to campaign actively against Hoyt.

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