We know from the work of Cornell University Professor Robert Howarth and other scientists that two properties of methane make it a critical greenhouse gas: on the one hand, it has roughly 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, and on the other, it begins to dissipate in the atmosphere after a decade, as opposed to many centuries for carbon dioxide. Together these characteristics mean that rapidly cutting methane can have a major impact in the near future on heading off runaway climate change.
For this reason Howarth, a member of the NY Climate Action Council (CAC), sought to secure a new approach to methane emissions as part of the 2019 Climate Protection and Community Leadership Act (CLCPA), measuring them over a 20-year time frame rather than the 100-year time frame previously used in the state. Doing so, in his words, provided NY policymakers with a tool that “more heavily weighs the role of methane as an agent of warming over the next few decades.”
Dropping a Bomb
Most officials in Albany and the climate and environmental justice movements assumed this change was a settled matter following the release of the CAC’s final scoping plan last December.
But in early April Gov. Kathy Hochul indicated her support for bills sponsored by Democratic chairs of the State Senate and General Assembly energy committees to abandon the new method of methane accounting embedded in the climate law and the CAC report, reverting to the 100-year time frame.
Highlighting the Hochul administration’s support for this initiative, the co-chairs of the CAC published an opinion article arguing that the change was necessary to protect “the competitiveness of our businesses” and retain jobs. “As it stands today, the climate act’s emissions accounting method is certain to be a major driver of future costs for New York families,” wrote Basil Seggos, commissioner of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and Doreen Harris, president and CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
Besides the proposed alteration in measuring methane emissions, the bills introduced by Sen. Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn) and Didi Barrett (D-Hudson) would exclude emissions generated by the combustion of biomass and biofuels from statewide totals of GHG emissions and include anaerobic digestion and forest biopower in the state’s definition of “renewable energy systems,” contrary to the CLCPA and CAC.
A Fierce Reaction
Coming in the midst of budget negotiations, these moves set off a firestorm. Opponents in the climate and environmental movements rallied immediately, asserting that the bills would deliver a “a body blow” to the nation-leading climate law and constituted “an accounting trick” designed to placate the oil and gas lobby. “Governor Hochul would side with the fossil fuel industry to torpedo New York’s landmark climate law, along with her own budget proposals to address the climate crisis, should she move forward with a proposal to weaken the state’s accounting for methane emissions,” said Liz Moran, the NY policy advocate for Earthjustice. TCCPI joined dozens of other groups in sending a memo of opposition within 24 hours of the breaking news.
The ability of so many organizations to mount a powerful campaign of phone calls, emails, and social media messages on such short notice was both impressive and inspiring. The depth and breadth of the backlash clearly came as a surprise to the Hochul administration. Two days after the Seggos and Harris op-ed, Gov. Hochul backed off the drive to weaken the climate law as part of the budget negotiations. It was not a coincidence that this took place the same day that Howarth and two dozen other scientists from Cornell University, Stanford University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sent a letter of protest.
In the end, at least for now, science won and the fossil fuel industry lost. There is a distinct possibility, however, that the attempt to water down the climate law will raise its head again following the approval of the state budget. As it is, the proposal to redefine renewable energy to include biofuels is still on the table. Both this and the effort to change the methane accounting rule must be kept from becoming law.
It is one thing to stop these kinds of ill-considered and ill-timed moves and another to achieve victory for the crucial climate justice and clean energy legislation still under consideration in Albany. The so-called “conceptual agreement” on the budget reached on April 27th includes a ban on the use of fossil fuels in new construction, and the proposal for a cap-and-invest program is still in the mix. The details of both, however, as well as the fate of other important climate and energy bills, remain uncertain.
Time grows short to implement the measures necessary to ensure the success of the CLCPA and bolster the CAC’s plan to avoid even worse climate chaos. The lesson to be learned from the latest developments is clear: the only real possibility of success in the face of the relentless pressure brought to bear by the oil and gas lobby is unstinting collective action by well-organized citizens fighting for their communities. We must remain vigilant and make sure our elected representatives hear us.