It’s been two years since Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a nation-leading climate agenda that is now the framework for all New York State climate policy.
The CLCPA outlines goals for reducing the state’s carbon emissions and transitioning to 100 percent renewables by 2050; it also establishes a Climate Justice Working Group to identify communities who bear the brunt of climate change and ensure that they receive a minimum of 35 percent of the benefits from the state’s climate programs. This model reportedly inspired the environmental justice provisions in President Joe Biden’s new federal climate plan, which similarly promises 40 percent of all new funding and benefits to front-line communities.
This January, the state Senate passed a bill to amend New York’s constitution with an environmental Bill of Rights guaranteeing that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” The Assembly followed suit in February. The amendment had already passed in both chambers in 2019, fulfilling the requirement of passage during two consecutive sessions. It will appear on the general election ballot this November.
New York’s big moves on climate policy look good on paper. But do they go far enough? Despite pioneering legislation and programs, New York’s progress toward carbon neutrality has been hindered by insufficient funding and the building of new fossil fuel infrastructure. In the past few years, the Hudson Valley alone has seen fossil fuel power projects approved and built in Wawayanda and Dover despite fierce community opposition, and the proposed repowering of the Danskammer plant in Newburgh is currently in the public hearing stage with the Public Service Commission.
Some new legislative proposals and initiatives have the potential to further tackle the climate crisis and end New York’s toxic relationship with fossil fuels. These include calls to tax some of the state’s wealthiest residents, fund communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis, and invest only in renewable energy. Let’s take a look.
It’s long been known that climate change disproportionately affects the poor, exacerbating hardships already placed on environmental justice communities who bear the brunt of weather-related disasters, and often suffer the effects of hosting gas infrastructure in their backyards. Global Citizen, an international anti-poverty group, researched this link in January 2020:
The fight against climate change and poverty are intertwined. Investments made to mitigate or adapt to climate change will inevitably reduce poverty, and investments made to reduce poverty will better protect people against the growing environmental crisis.
New York has the highest income inequality of any state in the United States, and the pandemic has only increased wealth disparities, with 1 in 4 New Yorkers currently experiencing food insecurity and more than 1 million at risk of eviction.
Most change starts at a local level, but when communities are under-resourced it limits the capacity of their climate initiatives and organizing. To that end, an advocacy group called Invest in Our New York has proposed a package of six state bills taxing some of New York’s wealthiest individuals and corporations, which would raise an estimated $50 billion to invest in education, jobs, housing, and health care.
Who Has the Power?
A statewide coalition of organizations called Public Power NY is championing two bills that would transition the state’s utilities out of the hands of for-profit corporations and into public ownership within two years. This comes amid tensions over National Grid’s proposed rate hike of $185 million over the next three years, an increase of $100 per year for their average customer.
Historically, New Yorkers pay some of the highest utility bills of any state due to the fact that its distribution utilities are controlled by privately owned corporations such as Con Edison and National Grid. Activists say this latest rate hike will fund the ongoing construction of the 7-mile fracked gas pipeline National Grid is building, which starts in Brownsville, Brooklyn and will end in Greenpoint. The pipeline has been heavily protested by Brooklyn residents: in March, 701 local families filed a lawsuit against National Grid and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for violating environmental justice and climate laws.
Democratizing distribution utilities would presumably lead to lower utility rates statewide, give communities more of a say in how their power is generated, and stop investor-owned corporations from building new fossil fuel infrastructure against public wishes.
The legislation is also touted as creating more than 35,000 new jobs through expanding the role of the New York Power Authority, which is already the largest state public power utility in the United States.
The two bills:
- The New York Build Public Renewables Act (A1466-A) would empower NYPA to build new utility-scale renewable generation projects and provide 100 percent renewable energy, first to state- and municipal-leased and owned properties by 2025, and then directly to customers. (Currently NYPA is legally prohibited from owning or building new utility-scale renewable generation projects.) The legislation also directs NYPA to release a 10-year climate and resiliency plan and hold regular public hearings. The bill has 38 sponsors and counting. The Public Power NY coalition is organizing canvassing, phone banks, and virtual information sessions in an effort to pass the bill by June 10, when legislators adjourn for the summer.
- The NY Utility Democracy Act, not yet introduced this session, would require the state to take ownership of all distribution utilities within two years, and create democratically elected utility boards which would be advised by a statewide oversight body comprised of community organizations, environmental justice groups, and independent policy and engineering experts.
In an April op-ed, Assemblyman Robert Carroll, cosponsor of the Build Public Renewables Act, wrote:
This isn’t a pipe dream. One in seven Americans already gets their power from a public utility instead of a corporation, and the 2,000 communities across the country who’ve enacted public power on average pay lower prices for better service, according to the American Public Power Association. This makes sense; when you stop shelling out $15 million per year to a single CEO and even more to Wall Street investors, you end up with more resources for upgrading the grid and can charge customers less.
Activist-led efforts to negotiate with utilities here in the Hudson Valley have proven effective. An unprecedented agreement was reached last June between local environmental groups, the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation, and Rochester Gas and Electric: the utility companies committed to offsetting their gas sales with other technology and work towards a net-zero growth in natural gas sales, as well as providing $1.5 million to fund renewable heat-pump technology for low-income communities. (Heating, hot water, and cooking account for more than 60 percent of New York’s natural gas use, according to a letter sent to the governor in 2020, signed by 160 organizations.)
To work to that end, a dozen or so environmental groups formed Renewable Heat Now, a campaign to replace aging furnaces with geothermal and air-source heat pumps through rebates, incentives, and other measures. Efforts are ongoing as of February, when the state Department of Public Service released a long-awaited white paper covering natural gas planning procedures, which the group says did not go far enough to reduce the state’s use of natural gas.
A new bill in the state Senate called the Clean Futures Act (S5939) could help to force the widespread utilization of new, green technology: the bill prohibits the permitting, licensing, siting, and construction of any new fossil fuel power plants. It was introduced by Senator Jessica Ramos (D-East Elmhurst.) In the bill’s legislative justification, Ramos writes: “Construction of new fossil fuel plants is not aligned with the pollution reduction goals of the CLCPA.”
Funds Are the Missing Piece
Bold legislation like the CLCPA needs large state investment in order to succeed—and at the moment, New York’s funding for its climate goals is falling short.
A recent article in Grist, a nonprofit publication focused on climate reporting, pointed out that the new state budget, announced in early April, does not contain sufficient funds for advancing the goals of the CLCPA:
The governor’s press releases on the budget have led with a topline figure of $29 billion invested in combined “public and private green economy investments.” But analysts say that number is misleading, since it is cobbled together from ratepayer bills and private capital committed in past years.
And last November, New York Focus reported that although the CLCPA was originally touted as a $33 billion initiative, “more than $28 billion of that sum referred to already-existing programs, rather than new revenue sources.”
NY Renews, the same coalition which fought to pass the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, has a new bill proposal called the Climate and Community Investment Act (CCIA) which seeks to follow up on the CLCPA’s justice goals by charging polluters to create a continuous stream of funding to communities.
The act would raise $15 billion a year by instituting a $55 surcharge on every short ton of carbon dioxide emissions produced in the state. The funds would go directly to towns in the form of grants for climate change initiatives, support for building new renewable energy projects and preparing the local workforce for those jobs, and energy rebates for low-income residents and small businesses.
This carbon tax proposal has been controversial for its potential effect on energy consumers, with opponents saying it could raise consumer gas prices by 127 percent and utility bills by as much as 25 percent.
There is already a statewide price tag on carbon: New York is a participant in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate cap-and-trade program started in 2005 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The program sets statewide caps on CO2 emissions; polluters are only allowed to exceed those limits if they purchase emission allowances through an auction process.
The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the DEC are responsible for spending funds from the RGGI program to further the state’s emission reductions goals. In NYSERDA’s current RGGI Operating Plan, available on the state website, the more than $1 billion in proceeds from the program through 2023 are allocated to various sources, including climate initiatives like tax credits and incentives for clean energy, the Green Jobs-Green New York program, and the Climate Smart Communities Program, to name a few.
However, since the program began, a significant portion of its funds have been diverted to the general state budget on an annual basis. This year’s original budget proposal took $23 million from RGGI.
Unfortunately, throughout the life of the program, almost 15% of the total amount raised has been swept away to plug budget holes elsewhere…Sweeping $23 million of RGGI funds means that disadvantaged communities will be deprived of millions of dollars that are supposed to be there to improve their environment and create jobs.
RGGI’s 2021 budget amendment claims the $23 million transfer would “support clean energy tax credits.” But stretching the funds from this program thin to avoid cutting into the state budget is another consequence of the state underfunding its goals. One point rarely addressed by NYSERDA is that large, unprecedented investments in carbon reduction must go hand-in-hand with the RGGI program to ensure its long-term effectiveness: as emissions caps become stricter and stricter on their way to net-zero, existing emissions must be reduced directly and quickly. An independent economic evaluation of RGGI’s progress toward cutting emissions by Roger Caiazza, a retired air pollution meteorologist who runs the policy blog Pragmatic Environmentalists of New York, found that so far, the cap-and-trade program has reduced emissions only slightly, and at high costs per ton. “If New York has to rely on NYSERDA to reduce fuel combustion emissions to zero for the CLCPA, then the cost would be $91.948 billion,” Caiazza writes.
The Role of Local Governments
One way towns can take matters into their own hands is by voting.
A slate of Democrats running for elected office in Peekskill have just announced their environmental platform, a comprehensive plan that includes establishing a Sustainability Task Force, adopting the NY Stretch Energy Code, and passing a citywide tree ordinance.
“We worked with a number of local environmental experts and activists to shape our platform, since the people who have been working on these issues for years in our community have invaluable insight into solutions and areas to prioritize,” says mayoral candidate Conor Greene.
Peekskill Councilmember Vanessa Agudelo is also part of the slate, and has been serving her hometown since 2017. “Without serious state or federal investment, small cities like mine are left with choices that continue to set us back and put our families at risk,” she says. “Environmental justice communities like ours that have borne the burden of hosting fossil fuel infrastructure for far too long deserve to be at the center of this green investment in order to start to close the gaps on these disparities.”
Counties can serve as a go-between to secure state funds for municipalities to utilize. Ulster County is the first in the state (and seemingly the nation) to adopt a Green New Deal, which lays out specific goals to prepare the workforce for green jobs, update homes and buildings with efficiency measures, and make the transition to 100 percent renewables by 2030. The deal also establishes a Green Growth Fund for infrastructure and affordable housing projects, a large portion of which will be used “to leverage state and federal funds to expand our home retrofit program to weatherize and upgrade home efficiency, prioritizing the homes of those who can least afford the work and will benefit most from the energy savings.” Establishing projects like this at the local level first can make grants easier to obtain.
The county argues that state policies need to be mirrored on a county level to enact real change. “As the interface between state and federal governments and the towns, villages, and cities where our residents live and work, counties are ideally placed to translate policy into progress,” the plan’s authors write. “Because while we need policy frameworks—like the CLCPA—at the state and ultimately the federal level to set standards and mobilize resources, the real work of transformation happens on the ground.”
Part of Ulster County’s goals rely on locally generated solar energy and promoting the community solar model, which allows towns to collectively purchase solar electricity at low costs, subsidized by state tax credits. The county plans to use solar power generated from a new installation at the site of a former tire dump in Quarryville.
New Paltz is currently seeking approval from the county to use a former landfill site on Clearwater Road for a 5-megawatt solar energy installation that could reportedly provide electricity to a third of the town’s residents. New Paltz, along with a growing number of Hudson Valley municipalities, is also a participant in the New York State Climate Smart Communities program, which makes towns eligible for state grants to use on bigger projects.
The transportation sector represents 36 percent of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions. A report by Synapse in 2019 analyzed the state’s transportation emissions in relation to the goals of the CLCPA, and found that the legislature must focus on promoting electric vehicles with EV rebates, expanding the fueling infrastructure for EVs, and increasing fuel prices.
Senate Bill 7349 would require public transportation systems statewide to begin replacing their bus fleets with zero-emission buses in 2029. Another bill (S9008A), introduced last year by Hudson Valley Senator Pete Harckham (D-Peekskill), would amend New York’s environmental conservation law to set a timeline for transitioning most in-state vehicle sales to zero emissions by 2035, with heavy-duty vehicles and equipment transitioning by 2045. The bill also addresses affordability, a major hurdle in transitioning the transportation sector, and specifies various state agencies to implement affordable fueling and charging options for zero emissions vehicles in low-income communities.
Creating Jobs in New York City—And Statewide
With a statewide unemployment rate of 8.5 percent, creating jobs is a priority for New York. Last October, the Climate Works for All coalition released a detailed proposal called the Climate and Community Stimulus Platform, which outlines steps to a just economic recovery through creating 100,000 climate jobs for frontline communities of color, specifically in New York City. If implemented, it could serve as a framework for other regional job creation investments across the state.
The plan would require an investment of $16.2 billion over three years to create these jobs through multiple initiatives, including installing solar on public buildings, expanding bike lanes throughout the city, and investing in labor and workforce training by creating a path through the education system to connect New York City residents to climate industry job skills. It is supported by several New York City council members and more than 50 faith, labor, and community organizations.
The Climate Outlook
A simple ethos that has become popular among environmentalists is: stop burning things. Under President Biden, the federal government has committed to reducing US emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2030, and on April 15 a new bill called the End Polluter Welfare Act of 2021 was introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ilhan Omar. If passed, it would stop federal subsidies and plug tax loopholes for the fossil fuel industry and prohibit using taxpayer funds for fossil fuel infrastructure and development, among other things.
Meanwhile, states like California and Massachusetts have started passing regional bans on natural gas, but New York is still building pipelines and power plants.
State and federal laws are only as good as the mobilization behind them, and will not be fully implemented without state support for a broad range of smaller-scale legislation that directs resources to affected communities.
Peekskill Councilmember Agudelo knows this firsthand. “We need our electeds to pay close attention to what is happening in Albany, and to have the backbone to stand up to the governor when municipalities aren’t being heard,” she says. “It’s an uphill battle, but it must be done. If Albany doesn’t want to hear from us, we need to fight to be heard.”
This story has been updated to include information about the Clean Futures Act, which would ban new fossil fuel power plants in the state.