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Sunday, September 27, 2020

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NYSEC President & CEO Rocco Lacertosa on COVID-19, biofuel blending standards and more

With well over one million homes depending on renewable liquid heating fuel, downstate New York — the area comprised of New York City’s five boroughs and Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties — is the industry’s largest metropolitan market in the United States. Separate state and city laws currently require all heating oil sold in this territory (plus neighboring Westchester County) to contain a minimum 5 percent biofuel. These laws were passed with the full support of the New York Oil Heating Association (NYOHA) and the Oil Heat Institute of Long Island (OHILI).

In January 2020, the two associations merged to create the New York State Energy Coalition (NYSEC). It’s been a busy seven months for the new state association, led by former NYOHA President & CEO Rocco Lacertosa. Having recently moved NYSEC’s office from the Empire State Building to OHILI’s former headquarters in Hauppauge, Lacertosa took some time out of his schedule to speak with Oil & Energy Editor Samuel Diamond about how things are going in their shared home state – once the United States epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our complete conversation follows.

O&E: Downstate New York was one of the areas most devastated by COVID-19. How did the region’s heating fuel industry operate amid this crisis?
RL: First, I have to say that I am proud to be part of this industry and to be associated with the hardworking people who make this a great industry. I can say with certainty that our members here in the five boroughs and in Nassau and Suffolk counties came through as they always have in the midst of crises past and present. Whether it was 9/11 or Superstorm Sandy or blizzards, our members were there for their customers. A crisis of this magnitude is something none of us have seen before, but our members were and still are out there every day performing deliveries, service and installations. And while there has been a lot of uncertainty surrounding this crisis from the beginning, every last one of our members answered the call day after day.

Oil & Energy documented the relief efforts of several of our members, which ranged from food donations for first responders to fuel deliveries for hospitals and testing sites. In terms of day-to-day operations, NYSEC members did successfully adopt recommended social distancing protocols, and many limited their equipment work to emergency services and installs in order to minimize risk of exposure for their customers and employees. At the end of the day, New York’s heating fuel dealers proved why they are essential businesses, as they have before and will again.

Experts say a resurgence is likely this fall and winter. Do you think the area’s heating fuel industry is prepared?
Yes. But I want to qualify that by saying it depends on the scope of the expected resurgence. As for having the infrastructure, supply and personnel, I think we are prepared as always.

NYSEC is one of several trade associations representing New York heating oil dealers. There’s also the Empire State Energy Association (ESEA) for example. How does NYSEC coordinate with these and other trade groups?
We manage to compare notes, but at the end of the day each region has its own set of challenges. Looking at the current crisis in particular, New York City and Long Island were the last regions of New York to begin reopening as we’ve had the highest number of cases. Therefore, NYSEC was in a unique position, as is often the case. Downstate New York is the single biggest heating oil market in the U.S. by volume. We remain steadfastly committed to defending the collective future of our industry, understanding that there is no future without our members and their customers.

Since the NYSEC merger took place, how have the association’s New York City and Long Island based members worked together?
The boards of the former organizations are now one under the NYSEC flag, and they have been operating very well. The merger was much smoother than I anticipated, and at this point it’s in the proverbial “rear view mirror.” It should be noted that many NYSEC members serve customers in New York City’s outer boroughs (like Queens and Brooklyn) as well as Nassau and Suffolk County, Long Island. This might have helped smooth the transition, but I think the deciding factor — as always — has been the dedication and professionalism of our members.

Downstate New York currently has a B5 requirement, which is slated to increase in New York City to B10 and eventually up to B20. NYSEC has proposed a statewide standard that would require the minimum biofuel blend level to increase even quicker than the NYC law. Can you provide some specifics on this proposal?
The latest bill proposal calls for B5 by 2022, B10 by 2025 and B20 by 2030 — all statewide. This would preempt the existing New York City law, which calls for B20 by 2034. Both state associations — NYSEC and ESEA — are aligned on this issue and support the biofuel blending bill currently in Albany. Historically, New York’s policymakers have helped lead the push toward renewable liquid heating fuel. There is still much work to be done, but I like our prospects for the next legislative session.

New York City in particular has been on the cutting edge in terms of a big city embracing biodiesel and Bioheat® fuel as clean-energy solutions for transportation and heating, and in terms of public-private enterprises making this possible. What do you see as the determining factors behind this success story, and how might other municipalities build on this success?
I think the catalyst for this goes back to the Bloomberg administration and the desire to reduce emissions in the city. New York City has been a leader in the green movement, and our local heating fuel industry has led on biodiesel blending. Coordination has been key. So has our industry’s adaptability.

We now see a similar story playing out across the entire Northeast U.S. as the Providence Resolution aligns our industry with the net-zero 2050 movement. As local heating fuel dealers and policymakers work to achieve this goal, I think they can look to New York as an example of what can be done when industry and government come together for a common cause.

Natural gas has made a number of headlines in New York over the past couple years; in 2019 it was National Grid’s hookup moratorium, and in early 2020 it was the state’s decision to reject the Williams Pipeline. What is the latest on NYSEC’s fight against the natural gas utilities?
I can’t say that we have been fighting the utilities; let’s face it – it’s a David and Goliath story. What we have done with the addition of ultra-low sulfur heating oil and then blending biodiesel has garnered a lot of attention for our industry. We are friendly with several of the enviros — the New York League of Conservation Voters for one — and they realize that we can be a part of the solution to reduce GHGs.

Governor Cuomo recently signed a NYSEC-endorsed bill requiring heating oil customers to notify their supplier in advance of a natural gas conversion. Can you give us a little bit of the history behind this effort, and why is it so important for NYSEC members?
Before this bill was passed, there was little in the way of accountability for contractors of homeowners when they switched fuels. Quite often the heating oil company didn’t know that their customer had switched fuels until they pulled up to make a delivery. This new law puts the responsibility clearly on the homeowner and will help to protect the heating oil company from a potential liability claim.

Downstate New York is also home to the longest running and most successful Upgrade & Save rebate programs. How have these programs helped New York heating oil dealers and their customers?

Participating companies have been able to protect their customers and replace outdated equipment with more efficient models. These investments by consumers will keep them with us for the long term.

Any final thoughts for Oil & Energy readers?
Associations and their execs work hard for this industry, for the benefit of not only their dues paying members but the non-members who also benefit from what we do. I would urge non-members to join their local associations, because the only way the associations can continue to do the work they do is with the support of the industry stakeholders they serve, members and non-members alike.


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