Crunch Time on Climate Action in Albany

The future of climate action in New York State is at a critical inflection point. The new budget has been approved and the remaining weeks of the legislative session are now focused on policy proposals. At the same time, the draft Scoping Plan issued by the Climate Action Council at the end of 2021 has been undergoing scrutiny at public hearings around the state and only a handful more of these hearings remain.

When the New York Legislature convened in January, environmentalists and climate activists were hopeful that dramatic headway could be made on such issues as reducing the consumption of natural gas, building electrification, cryptocurrency mining, fossil fuel divestment, and investments in renewable energy development.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the oil and gas industry and its supporters have stepped up their opposition to these measures in recent weeks, spending millions of dollars on ad campaigns and lobbying, money that could be put towards a clean energy future.

The pushback has revealed the obstacles to phasing out fossil fuels even in a relatively progressive state such as New York. A recent Washington Post article highlighted the challenges faced by those who take the ambitious goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act seriously, focusing on the fight over banning natural gas use in new construction.

Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) included a ban on gas use in new construction by 2027 in her executive budget for the next fiscal year. But, by the time the negotiations came to a close, the proposal was absent from the final budget deal. The ostensible reason for its exclusion, according to a spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, was that policy measures don’t belong in the proposed budget.

Climate advocates are now pressing state lawmakers to pass the measure as a stand-alone bill before the legislative session ends on June 2. The Renewable Heat Now coalition, in particular, is pushing for passage of the All-Electric Building Act as part of a package of proposals to reduce demand for fossil fuels and compel utilities to plan for a transition to renewable heat.

An organization called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, essentially a front group for fossil fuel and utility companies and corporate lobbying interests, is mounting a well-oiled campaign to defeat the measure. It contends that banning gas use in new buildings would harm consumers. Among those behind the organization are National Grid, the American Petroleum Institute, the pipeline company Enbridge, and the Business Council of New York State. A recent investigative report concludes that “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy smacks as a classic industry-funded astroturf effort.”

The lines couldn’t be drawn more distinctly: on one side, the backward-looking oil and gas companies, utilities, and other corporate defenders of the fossil-fuel status quo, and on the other, citizens, activists, and other members of the public who want a decent, bright future where runaway climate change has been averted, mass species extinction avoided, and clean air and water acknowledged as fundamental human rights.

The next few weeks will tell us unambiguously where Gov. Hochul and the state legislature stand. In the meantime, we must make our voices heard in Albany as loudly and clearly as possible.

Next Steps for the NYS Draft Climate Plan

The Climate Action Council, headed up by Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos and New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) President and CEO Doreen M. Harris, has just issued its draft scoping plan. Now it’s our job to review it carefully and respond. Beginning on Jan. 1, the public will have 120 days to offer comments and make sure their voices are heard.

The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), signed into law in 2019, calls for New York to achieve a 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 70 percent renewable energy generation by 2030, establish a zero-emission electricity sector by 2040, and create a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The CLCPA established the Climate Action Council, a 22-member committee charged with determining how to meet these statutory goals. The Council also consulted with a wide range of advisory panels and working groups over the past two years to address issues in areas such as transportation, solid waste, energy generation, workforce development, and climate justice.

A December 30 wildfire destroyed hundreds of homes in suburban Denver, the latest dramatic sign of climate change. Photo by Tristantech licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

The release of the draft scoping plan is the crucial first step in reaching the ambitious but necessary climate goals laid out in the CLCPA. There is certainly plenty of material for New Yorkers to wade through. The body of the report itself is 330 pages, followed by 520 pages of appendices. The Climate Action Council’s seven advisory panels – Transportation, Agriculture and Forestry, Land Use and Local Government, Power Generation, Energy Efficiency and Housing, Energy Intensive and Trade Exposed Industries, and Waste – submitted recommendations for the Climate Action Council to consider in the draft scoping plan, all of which can be found in the appendices.

In addition, the Climate Justice Working Group and Just Transition Working Group played key roles in the development of the draft scoping plan. The Disadvantaged Communities Barriers and Opportunities Report examines why some communities are disproportionately impacted by climate change and air pollution and have unequal access to clean energy, and recommends ways to rectify these problems using a climate justice lens. The Just Transition Working Group Jobs Study explores the consequences of climate change mitigation for the job market as well as actions required to provide adequate training, education, and workforce development.

The release of the draft scoping plan takes place against an increasingly dire climate crisis. The latest manifestation of this crisis is the Colorado wildfire that raced through suburbs between Denver and Boulder on Dec. 30, destroying at least 500 homes and forcing the evacuation of thousands of residents. Needless to say, December wildfires are not a common occurrence in Colorado, but a severe drought combined with high winds to fuel the most destructive blaze in the state’s history. Elsewhere, a new report has found unsettling evidence that the so-called “Doomsday Glacier” in Antarctica could collapse in as little as five years, raising the world’s sea level by several feet. The Thwaites glacier already loses 50 billion tons of ice each year and makes up about four percent of the planet’s annual sea rise.

The need to take dramatic and immediate climate action, then, is obvious. Although one of the most sweeping plans issued by any state or country, the NYS draft report leaves many specifics to be worked out. The broad outlines of any effective climate plan must include, as this one does, calls for the electrification of buildings, a shift to electric vehicles, the expansion of renewables such as solar and wind power, the development of feasible energy storage strategies, the decommissioning of natural gas, and the implementation of a carbon tax. But still unclear are the details and timing involved with setting these steps in motion, and how to do so in a way that takes into account historic inequities and brings about a just transition.

The draft scoping plan is now in the hands of Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state legislature. It remains to be seen to what extent public input will influence the final shape of the plan, but it’s critical that New Yorkers weigh in. The final report will be issued on Jan. 1, 2023 and the DEC will then announce legally binding regulations by Jan. 1, 2024 to ensure that the state achieves the CLCPA’s required targets.

Information about how to participate in the public hearings on the draft scoping plan will be disclosed in early 2022, according to the press release issued by the Climate Action Council. There will be at least six hearings held across the state. In addition, comments can be submitted via the online public comment form, by email at scopingplan@nyserda.ny.gov, and by U.S. mail to Attention: Draft Scoping Plan Comments, NYSERDA, 17 Columbia Circle, Albany, NY 12203-6399. Stay tuned!