Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino Submits to Gas Pipeline Influence

On Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino’s official website, he promises to lead the fight against government corruption: “New York government is ranked as the most corrupt in America. It is a disgraceful distinction.” But it seems that Astorino is part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. Astorino issued a revocable license to the Houston, Texas, based oil pipeline company Spectra Energy Partners, LP, to expand the existing Algonquin Pipeline through Westchester County’s Blue Mountain Reservation, ignoring the proper channels of the parkland alienation process, which would require a vote at the state level for approval. For this, it appears Astorino was amply compensated. The National Institute on Money in State Politics reveals that Charles P. Joyce, president and CEO of the oil and gas pipeline construction company Otis Eastern Service, made three contributions to Astorino’s campaign fund for a total of $41,100. In addition, Otis Eastern Service is listed as a donor to Astorino’s election campaign, contributing $2,500 more to him. The official website of Otis Eastern Services lists Spectra Energy as a client of Otis.

Reports submitted for filing year January 2014 show that the New England regional headquarters of Spectra contributed an additional $2,000 to Rob Astorino’s campaign fund.

These are obvious quid pro quo transactions, and would be a contradiction, in spirit at least, of Section 16 (Conflict of Interest) of the agreement between Westchester County and Spectra Energy, which states:

Licensee warrants and represents that no officer, agent, employee or representative of the County of Westchester has received any payment or other consideration for the granting of this License Agreement and that no officer, agent, employee or representative of Licensor, has any interest, directly or indirectly in Licensee, this License Agreement, or the proceeds thereof… It is specifically agreed, that, in the event the facts hereby warranted and represented prove, in the opinion of Licensor, to be incorrect, Licensor shall have the right to terminate this License upon forty-eight (48) hours’ notice to Licensee and to rescind this transaction in all respects.

Unfortunately, these donations appear not to be isolated incidents. Rather, they seem to be part of a recent and disturbing trend for statewide natural gas lobbyists to channel a massive outpouring of money into the campaign coffers of state elected officials, pressuring them to support natural gas infrastructure projects, such as pipeline construction. An analysis of data from the state’s public disclosure database reveals that in 2015, the companies behind major natural gas infrastructure projects spent a staggering $1.3 million on lobbying efforts in New York State, a nearly 119 percent increase from 2011 levels.

Apparently, Spectra’s undue influence has not been limited to local and state governments. According to DeSmogBlog, Spectra Energy successfully lobbied for former high-ranking electric and gas utility executive, Cheryl LaFleur, to chair the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) while petitioning that agency for approval of a number of projects in the Northeast, including, one can safely assume, the AIM pipeline currently being constructed through Blue Mountain. FERC is the federal regulator which oversees, among other things, gas pipeline construction projects. Spectra asserted its influence through the Washington, DC lobbying branch of the New England Council, of which Houston-based Spectra is a member.

A recently settled lawsuit brought against Spectra by the citizens of Yorktown leveraged significant concessions from the oil pipeline company, such as a promise to move the pipeline infrastructure and a commitment from the company to replant and maintain large numbers of trees in the vicinity of the pipeline. This would indicate that with sufficient bargaining, the county could have extracted more favorable conditions from Spectra. Of course, such settlements and negotiations likely would not stop the pipeline work entirely, but it does represent a lost opportunity to negotiate a favorable compromise. Had Rob Astorino been willing to go through the proper channels rather than granting a carte blanche license to Spectra to cut through Blue Mountain, it would be reasonable to assume he would have received similar concessions for the park.

In light of the revelations about Joyce’s, Otis Eastern Services’ and Spectra’s apparent contributions to Astorino, we deserve an immediate impartial investigation into the matter. And if the findings of that investigation uphold these disclosures, this agreement between Westchester County and Spectra Energy should be nullified.