Climate activists were hoping for more out of New York State legislators this year.
In 2019, New York enacted the sweeping Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a landmark piece of legislation that vaulted the state to the forefront of the effort to adopt tough, ambitious climate goals. The CLCPA commits New York to a fully renewable-fueled electrical grid by 2040, and net-zero carbon emissions in the overall economy by 2050.
But without legislation to support concrete decarbonization plans nor revenue to fund the hard work ahead, the CLCPA is a car without a battery: going nowhere. Grist recently wrote about New York’s failure to come up with any solid plans for making climate progress, even in a year when other progressive priorities got plenty of love in the state budget. “You have the lead politicians, like [Governor Andrew] Cuomo, saying this is an existential crisis, and then they fund it like it’s a pedestrian walkway in some small town,” Pete Sikora, climate advocate at New York Communities for Change, told the outlet.
With last year’s session largely lost to the pandemic emergency, 2021 was the year state legislators were supposed to begin making real progress toward New York’s climate goals. With a Democratic supermajority and a new influx of progressive legislators, the state seemed poised to take ambitious climate action. But they didn’t get too far.
On June 10, legislators in the Assembly and Senate wrapped up the final session of the year before heading home from Albany. They left a few broken hearts in their wake. Several large, high-profile bills never came to a floor vote, and will now languish until at least 2022. Among them were most of the bills aimed at spurring bold action on climate in New York, including a tough new carbon tax to fund climate targets, support for public buildout of renewables, a ban on new fossil-fueled plants, and more. Rather than risk riling up either environmentalists or industry, “lawmakers are hiding behind secretive processes that allow legislation to be stalled anonymously,” writes The New Republic’s Kate Aronoff.
Below, we take a look at a piece of climate law that passed in the just-wrapped session—and a lot more that didn’t.
Soil Health and Climate Resiliency Act
Climate bills often face steep uphill battles to passage, but helping farmers take up more climate-friendly practices is uncontroversial on both sides of the political aisle. Sponsored by local state Senator Michelle Hinchey (D-Saugerties), the bill sailed to victory with no votes against in both the state Senate and Assembly, cheered on both by environmental groups and the more staid New York Farm Bureau.
The SHCRA will create new soil health and climate initiatives within the state Department of Agriculture and Markets; the goal is to identify and support farm practices that sequester carbon within the soil, and make farms more resilient to the worst impacts of climate change. It now heads to Governor Cuomo’s desk for signature.
ON THE BALLOT
Another piece of climate-related legislation held over from 2020 is set to make an entrance next year. The Restore Mother Nature Bond Act, a ballot referendum delayed in 2020 because of the coronavirus emergency, will be put to New York State voters in the general election in November 2022. If voters approve it, the act will allow the state to borrow $3 billion for a variety of environmental projects. If “Restore Mother Nature” sounds like 70s-era old-school environmentalism, the bill’s priorities are too: the focus is more on conservation and mitigating climate change impacts than on tackling tough decarbonization and emissions reduction problems.
On the general ballot this November: The New York Environmental Rights Amendment, or so-called “Green Amendment.” If passed by voters, the amendment would add “the right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment” to the state constitution’s bill of rights. Similar measures have already been passed in Hawai’i, Illinois, Massachusetts, Montana, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island.
NO VOTE TAKEN
Climate and Community Investment Act
This bill is the meatiest piece of climate legislation currently in the works in New York, and its failure to pass in the 2021 session is a major disappointment to advocates who are pushing New York State to start putting its money where its mouth is on climate action. The CCIA would establish a $55-a-ton tax on carbon, to be paid by fossil fuel companies, power plant operators, and other major industrial polluters.
The CCIA’s carbon tax would mean a new $15 billion annual revenue stream dedicated to accomplishing the state’s ambitious climate goals—a critical piece, if New York State is to actually meet its targets of carbon-free electricity by 2040 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Its backers estimate that it would create 160,000 jobs statewide, many in lower-income communities that are vulnerable to the worst impacts of climate change and fossil fuel pollution. It also raises the specter of fossil fuel companies passing on the cost to consumers in the form of increased gas and home energy prices, although the bill contains a provision that would issue substantial rebate checks to low- and moderate-income households, as well as small businesses.
NY Renews, a broad coalition of environmental and community justice groups that has made passing the CCIA a priority, says it will push hard for passage in 2022. “NY Renews is not deterred. There is too much at stake,” the coalition writes in a statement on the failure of the legislature to act on the bill.
New York State Build Public Renewables Act
Another big-ticket item that failed to make it through this legislative session, the NYBPRA would enable the New York Power Authority to embark on a mass buildout of bond-funded renewable energy projects.
Clean Futures Act
To get to decarbonization quickly, it’s not enough to build more renewables—we also have to stop building new fossil fuel plants. The Clean Futures Act would prohibit the new construction of electric plants designed to run on fossil fuel. It’s not a theoretical prospect in New York: Three new fossil fuel electric projects are currently moving forward in the state, including the controversial rebuild of the Danskammer natural gas plant in Newburgh.
Power Plant Zero Carbon Emissions Act
This bill would require all existing fossil-fuel-reliant electric plants to demonstrate that they can achieve zero carbon emissions by 2040.
Electric vehicles legislation
Earlier this year, the state legislature passed an ambitious bill requiring all new light-duty cars and trucks sold in New York to be electric by 2035. Still on the legislative to-do list are a host of provisions aimed at electrifying and decarbonizing road transportation in New York State, including a proposal to exempt energy-efficient vehicles from sales tax, a bill requiring public transportation systems to purchase zero-emission buses when replacing their fleets, a bill aimed at establishing a clean fuel standard, and a bill that would allow more EV manufacturers to sell directly to customers in New York instead of through franchises.
STALLED IN THE ASSEMBLY
The state Senate passed a few broad climate-related bills this year that have yet to come to a floor vote in the Assembly:
Cryptocurrency mining moratorium
Greenidge Generation, a gas-fueled power plant in Yates County, sent waves of horror through environmental advocates this spring when it embarked on plans to expand its power generation to fuel bitcoin mining. S6486B, a bill that has been through several revisions, seeks to nip similar projects in the bud by enacting a moratorium on large cryptocurrency mining projects.
Advanced Building Codes, Appliance and Equipment Efficiency Standards Act of 2021
This bill, which would strengthen energy efficiency standards for buildings and a wide variety of consumer products, didn’t make it through the Assembly this year despite an assist from Cuomo’s office. Like the carbon tax, this bill would put sharper teeth in the CLCPA’s targets if passed.
Environmental justice bill
New York State made a commitment to environmental justice in 2019 in passing the CLCPA, which set targets for investment in disadvantaged communities and created a new advisory group dedicated to ensuring equal enforcement of environmental policy. S1232 would commit the state more explicitly to environmental justice by setting forth a policy that all people “regardless of race, culture, national origin, income, gender identity or expression, disability, or community of residence” will be treated equally under environmental law, and that communities should not be saddled with disproportionate pollution burdens because of lack of political power.