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"Can We Get Them to Join a Movement?" How Astoria Stood Up to One of America's Top Polluters
New Yorkers stopped a fracked gas power plant from being built in Western Queens. I spoke with the campaign's top organizers about what they learned.
Zohran Mamdani addresses a rally against NRG’s proposal for a fracked gas power plant in Astoria. Photo by Corey Torpie.
In September 2020, over 200 people gathered in Astoria Park for the neighborhood’s largest political rally in recent memory. Their purpose was to oppose new fossil fuel infrastructure being pushed by NRG, a New Jersey-based energy conglomerate that owns a number of power plants in Astoria. For over a decade, NRG has been trying to replace its generators that run on oil with newer ones that run on natural gas, which it says will reduce the plants’ environmental impact. But experts say these claims are based on misleading metrics and unproven technology, and that development of new fossil fuel infrastructure - particularly the kind that relies on fracked natural gas - would undermine New York’s ambitious climate goals.
The rally was organized by local environmental groups and headlined by Zohran Mamdani, the socialist insurgent who defeated Astoria’s incumbent assemblywoman Aravella Simotas in the Democratic primary just three months before. Opposition to NRG’s proposal (and support for a state takeover of New York’s energy sector) had been a centerpiece of Mamdani’s campaign, and his victory helped galvanize public resistance. Also in attendance were Mike Gianaris and Jessica Ramos, who represent Astoria in the New York State Senate. Both had harsh words for NRG. From QNS:
“‘Whether people know it or not, anyone that supports fossil fuel production today is a climate change denier,’ said Gianaris. ‘All you have to do is turn on your television, look what’s happening in California, for God’s sake. The skies are orange, the entire west coast of the country is burning, and that is because we have not moved fast enough to get off of fossil fuels and onto renewable energy.’
Ramos said NRG has ‘no business being in our district.’
‘I cannot believe that they are allowing this to somehow continue knowing how bad of an actor NRG is,’ she said. ‘We have to organize, organize, organize.’”
This was quite the reversal for Gianaris, who had supported previous versions of the project for many years. NRG first proposed replacing its oil-powered generators over a decade ago, and it recruited Gianaris to a commission of local dignitaries chaired by Aravella Simotas to advocate on its behalf. For a variety of reasons, NRG ultimately chose not to move forward with the project at that time. But in 2017, the company decided to make another go of it. In August 2017, Gianaris, Simotas, and City Councilman Costa Constantinides wrote to state regulators expressing their continued support for NRG’s plan. They also requested that NRG be exempted from New York’s most exacting environmental standards, and allowed to seek approval under a more permissive process called SEQRA. Regulators granted the exemption in June 2019.
Under SEQRA, the company had some nominal obligation to keep Astoria residents apprised of its activities and to solicit public feedback, but the standards were quite lax. In early 2020, NRG met privately with local groups that already supported the project, like the Queens Chamber of Commerce and Queens Community Board 1. The only two environmental outfits it spoke with, the NYS League of Conservation Voters and National Resources Defense Council, were carefully chosen to provide the project with a veneer of green legitimacy without subjecting it to any real scrutiny. “They’re two of the more conservative environmental organizations. LOCV especially is almost what I would call a natural gas front group, they’re very into protecting natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ to renewable energy,” said Andrea Guinn, an organizer with NYC-DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group.
NRG planned to hold a single hearing that would be open to the general public, scheduled for July 2020. It was advertised only in the print editions of two ultra-low-circulation Queens periodicals, and in physical letters mailed to a handful of civic organizations. Guinn says that this left progressive climate groups scrambling when by sheer coincidence, word of the hearing reached them from alternative sources just days before it took place. “After I heard about it, I brought it to Food and Water Watch and New York Communities for Change, which are the two big groups that work on opposing these repowerings - Sierra Club as well. None of them knew about it, they were quite shocked,” Guinn recalled.
But there were at least three people in Astoria who did know about it: Mike Gianaris, Jessica Ramos, and Aravella Simotas. Public records show that Ramos and Simotas met with lobbyists from Constantinople and Vallone - NRG’s lobbying firm - twice between January and June 2020; for Gianaris, it was three times. Between May and June 2020, Simotas and Gianaris met directly with NRG one time each; Ramos met with them twice in the same period. NRG’s reports to state regulators show that the purpose of the meetings was to provide updates on the status of the replacement project. Yet despite being in regular contact with NRG as the review process was kicking off, none of Astoria’s elected officials told a soul about it.
No one told the people of Astoria that the particular type of power plants owned by NRG - called peaker plants - are a $4.5 billion cash cow for polluters despite providing only a fraction of the city’s energy needs. Or that the steepest drop in emissions promised by NRG by switching to gas-powered generators is based on unproven technology that the company’s own executives says is at least 20 years away. Or that the plants could easily be replaced by battery storage or renewable alternatives with no disruption to the city’s power supply. And if NRG had its way, no one would have. But Astoria was about to get two new elected officials who did.
Since there wasn’t time to drum up turnout for the public hearing, environmental groups had to pursue a different strategy for mobilizing opposition to NRG’s proposal and bringing it to the company’s attention. They decided to go directly to the people, and after the Democratic primary in June, they had some high-profile help. “After Zohran won the primary, his office started working with us in earnest to organize against NRG. They were very helpful, very instrumental,” Stylianos Karolidis, another of NYC-DSA’s ecosocialist organizers, told me recently. “We had ten people every single weekend day - Friday, Saturday, Sunday - flyering outside of Zohran’s office on Steinway, at a couple of hotspots in the Ditmars area, and we were getting hundreds and hundreds of comments every day.”
Almost uniformly, those comments expressed displeasure with NRG’s plan. Western Queens has some of the highest rates of respiratory illness in the city, as the fossil fuels that provide more than half of its electricity are burned at facilities in Astoria and Long Island City. The prospect of locking in decades of further emissions appalled almost everyone that organizers spoke with, and they were speaking with them all over the neighborhood. “We knocked on doors. We tabled and flyered in the street, at train stations, in the park. We did lit drops a couple times. We did phone calls. We had rallies, press conferences, teach-ins. And we worked with the electoral campaigns,” Karolidis explained.
By the fall, it was clear that the left had seized the initiative. Public opinion was turning against NRG, and the press started covering the issue with greater scrutiny. Politicians across the city took notice, and moved swiftly to get themselves on the right side of history. Public records show that Gianaris and Ramos’ meetings with NRG and its lobbyists, which had been bimonthly affairs in the first half of the year, abruptly ceased after Simotas lost to Mamdani. By September, the pair were standing on a platform in Astoria Park, inveighing against the scourge of fracked natural gas and NRG’s complicity in the climate crisis.
The company agreed to hold a second public hearing in January 2021 to try to reclaim the narrative, but it didn’t work. “We blew it up, they had no idea what was coming,” Karolidis told me. “It felt like all of Astoria came out. Queens DSA, so many people in the neighborhood we organized - they all called in, and it was four hours of righteous fury.” Though organizers lobbied for the hearing to be held in person, NRG decided to use a digital platform that required attendees to call in on their phones to make a comment. “It was funny because [NRG executive] Tom Atkins was running it, and you could hear him getting more and more exasperated throughout the night. They had to hear every single person who called in, and the hearing was going almost until 11pm.”
While NYC-DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group spearheaded much of the organizing, they were aided by other progressive climate groups that provided critical expertise in navigating the SEQRA process, as well as liaising with allies that wanted to support the campaign. “Organizations like Food and Water Watch did a lot of coordinating and some of the legal work. When we flagged the issue with the first public hearing, Sierra Club immediately involved their lawyer,” Guinn told me. “All those nonprofits were very helpful in guiding us through the legal side of the process. NYC-DSA brought a lot of the mobilization, as well as the lobbying strategy.”
Soon, even more help was on the way. “All this continued from Zohran’s campaign and the post-primary - when he had a lot of time and resources to help us - right into Tiffany’s campaign,” Karolidis explained. In August 2020, Tiffany Cabán - the public defender who ran for Queens District Attorney the year before with NYC-DSA’s support - declared her candidacy for City Council in the district where NRG’s Astoria facility is located. Like Mamdani’s, her campaign’s infrastructure would also play an important role in the fight against NRG, especially in the latter half of the race when key deadlines in the review process were looming.
“Later in the campaign, canvassers and phone bankers were being told to open with the NRG plant, and it got a huge response,” Karolidis says. “People were talking about Tiffany in different neighborhood groups and about the NRG plant, and everyone recognized her as the climate candidate. EcoSoc also did joint canvasses with her field team where everyone would both talk about Tiffany’s campaign and then tell voters how to submit a public comment opposing NRG’s plan.”
By fall 2021, the company’s proposal had become toxic with the public and in the press. Its list of opponents included Mayor Bill de Blasio, City Comptroller Scott Stringer, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Senator Chuck Schumer. Then, on October 27th, 2021, the Department of Environmental Conservation issued its decision denying NRG permission to install gas-powered generators at its Astoria facility, citing their negative environmental impact. From the New York Times:
“‘I applaud the Department of Environmental Conservation’s decisions’ to deny the permits, [New York Governor Kathy] Hochul said soon after the announcement, drawing a cascade of praise from climate and environmental groups.
‘Climate change is the greatest challenge of our time,’ Ms. Hochul added. ‘We owe it to future generations to meet our nation-leading climate and emissions reduction goals.’
Tiffany Cabán and Zohran Mamdani discuss the immortal science of dialectical materialism in Astoria. Photo by Kara McCurdy.
Defeating NRG’s plan for more fossil fuel infrastructure was an impressive achievement, one that its organizers should take great pride in. But what sets NYC-DSA apart from other actors on the New York left is its theory of change, which goes beyond mobilizing people to wage individual policy battles. The real goal is to build a base of consistently engaged, working-class New Yorkers mobilized around a comprehensive radical agenda on an ongoing basis, ready to deploy to the battlefield as needed. I ask Karolidis if he thinks the NRG fight brought us closer to that goal.
“I hate to say it, but I’m not sure. By the end of the campaign, we had a contact list of a little over 6,000 people - every single person who submitted a public comment, came to a rally or action, participated in any way. We did a lot of recontacting. We texted people, we called people. We sent them countless emails with different types of opportunities. We held teach-ins, and we did a lot of socials in the last six months. And it was hard. It’s very difficult to get your average working-class person to dedicate their time to something like this - they’ve got so much else going on. Ultimately, we had a couple dozen people join NYC-DSA and around five became consistent organizers,” he tells me.
That actually sounded pretty good to me, considering that joining an organization and becoming politically involved are some of the hardest conversions to make. I posed the same question to Andrea Guinn, and she also had a more sanguine analysis. “I thought they did a great job. They had a real onboarding plan for the people they spoke with,” she told me. “We were having a debate in the working group about base-building - does it work, does it not work - and Stylianos was like, ‘it doesn’t work, we only got a couple dozen new DSA members.’ And everyone was like, ‘What?! That’s amazing!’ That’s just how hard it is. I looked up the numbers for Zohran the other day, and there are almost a thousand people on the ecosocialist mailing list in Queens DSA, which is really good for just this one subcommittee of the Ecosocialist Working Group.”
Still, the left should consider not merely whether organizing outcomes are good relative to the current baseline, but whether the outcomes are adding up to the power it will take to realize our goals. With this in mind, I asked Karolidis about a concern that I’ve written about many times: that the cultural gap between the people who dominate DSA and the broader working class makes it difficult for us to connect with them effectively. Organizing, after all, isn’t an intellectual exercise. You can’t prove to someone that socialism is the answer to their problems through argumentation. If you want people to support your agenda, they need to trust - on an instinctual level - that you have their best interests at heart. And if you want them to spend their time organizing with you, they need to…you know, enjoy spending time with you.
“I do worry about us mostly being accessible to young people, young educated people, and no one else. I will say the NRG list is 80% not that. And while I’m disappointed that most of them didn’t join or come to more events, they did do something this year on climate change. A lot of them were older, many didn’t have college degrees. So we did get a lot of different people from different backgrounds to do at least one climate-related thing. The question is: can we get them to join a movement?”
Then he noted the tactic that was most effective in getting people to do just that: “I will say that the social events do work. The people who joined our org were the people who came to our socials. Building community, seeing that people are fun and interesting and normal, developing friends - that’s the best way to get people involved. I feel like nowadays a lot of people don’t have a bustling social life, they don’t have a church that they go to, they’re in New York so they’re away from their friends and family. They want to connect with other people.” In other words, they’re looking for solidarity, even if they don’t know it yet.