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Green Means Wait: Big Climate Bills Stalled in Albany, While Those That Passed Still Need Gov’s Go

The State Senate and Assembly were able to combine for action on cryptocurrency, thermal energy and electronics repair.

SHARE Green Means Wait: Big Climate Bills Stalled in Albany, While Those That Passed Still Need Gov’s Go

Hurricane Sandy carried tons of sand over the Boardwalk in Coney Island and Brighton Beach, Nov. 11, 2012.

DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

This weekend marked the sunset of another legislative session in Albany. Facing a climate crisis that will bring about rising seas, hotter summers and more extreme storms, state lawmakers gave the greenlight to a handful of green measures now awaiting the governor’s signature. 

Others, including some meant to help the state comply with its own sweeping climate law, didn’t make the cut.

While lawmakers halted the expansion of some digital digging for dollars and gave a thumbs up to geothermal energy, they punted on measures to ban natural gas from new buildings and allow a state authority to develop renewable energy projects.

The governor has 30 days to sign or veto bills from the time they’re sent to her desk, which could happen anytime through the end of the year. If Hochul takes no action, that’s the same as a veto.

What Passed

Cryptocurrency Moratorium

Lawmakers approved a limited, two-year moratorium on cryptocurrency “mining” at fossil fuel power plants in an effort to tamp down on increased carbon emissions that come from reactivating old power plants upstate.

Some crypto mining uses an energy-intensive process by which computers solve random puzzles and receive a reward when done. Worldwide, Bitcoin, for instance, is estimated to consume about as much electricity per year as Argentina, a country of 45 million people. 

Some environmental advocates fear the operations would jeopardize the goals of New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act of 2019, under which the state must achieve a carbon-neutral economy by 2050.

The moratorium, which requires the Department Environmental Conservation to study the impacts of the cryptocurrency industry, does not ban the mining of all digital currencies: companies that have already applied for or received air permits are exempted from the moratorium, as are operations that use electricity from the grid.

Mayor Eric Adams talks cryptocurrency at the Security Token Summit in Manhattan, May 16, 2022.

Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

The implications of the moratorium on New York City, which Mayor Eric Adams  has indicated he envisions as a center of the cryptocurrency industry, are yet to be seen. But Alex de Vries, an economist and the founder of the blog Digiconomist, notes the local industry could still thrive.

“If you’re trying to become a cryptocurrency hub, having miners around is completely irrelevant. Mining operations can take place anywhere around the world,” de Vries told THE CITY Monday. “It’s a very specific restriction because [mining operations] can still connect to the grid…. They can still relocate to New York, they just can’t revive one of those obsolete power plants.”

Gerrick Hileman, a cryptocurrency and blockchain technology researcher who is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, raised concerns that the measure out of Albany “regulates what are acceptable uses of electricity” and selects “technology winners and losers.” 

But, he added, the industry in “New York City could be uniquely positioned to overcome’’ any of the challenges the moratorium may present, given the city’s continuing role as an economic powerhouse.

Thermal Under Where?

A broad swath of labor unions, environmental advocates and utility companies came together to push for the Utility Thermal Energy Network and Jobs Act, which was only introduced in the final days of the session.

If Gov. Kathy Hochul signs the bill, gas and electric utility companies would be able to build thermal heating systems, in which underground pipes of liquids absorb heat and pump warm air into homes in winter. Each company would start out with up to five programs to pilot the technology in an attempt to transition off fossil fuels, train utility workers and cut carbon from buildings, which account for a third of emissions in the state.

The Harlem River, Nov. 12, 2021.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/ THE CITY

In addition, the legislature passed a bill that creates stricter efficiency standards for home appliances and incorporates guidelines for reducing greenhouse gasses into building codes. The New York State Energy and Research Authority estimated the measures will result in avoiding the equivalent emissions as taking about three million cars off the road for a year, and will save utility customers about $15 billion on their bills over 15 years.

Death and Electronics

New Yorkers could become compost when they die, under another bill Albany passed. Converting human bodies into soil is a more eco-friendly alternative to burial and cremation, supporters say. Facilities that offer human composting would be subject to the same rules as crematories, such as those that prohibit mixing remains of different bodies.

And New Yorkers might be able to extend the lives of their laptops and smartphones longer, with a bill the legislature advanced that requires certain electronics manufacturers to make more information and equipment available to facilitate repairs. The measure’s environmental impact is that it could prevent people from junking equipment before the end of its useful life.

What Didn’t Make It

Electric Buildings

The All-Electric Building Act, which would have banned gas in new buildings under seven stories starting in 2024 and all others in 2027, never got a vote from the full Senate or Assembly. It was originally introduced in May 2021.

Following New York City’s ban on natural gas hookups in new construction, the bill would have implemented a key recommendation of the Climate Action Council, the group charged with figuring out how to achieve the goals under the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The Council supported a gas ban in new single-family homes by 2025 and a ban in new multi-family and commercial buildings by 2030.

Without a measure, the state is at risk of not meeting the legal climate targets. The DEC has yet to come up with rules for ensuring the state complies.

“Failing to pass the All-Electric Building Act was a big miss and though there were other policies passed, it’s not enough without that,” said Megan Ahearn, program director for New York Public Interest Research Group. “Every year there’s not enough done is a year closer to more carbon in the atmosphere and that closing window of opportunity to stave off the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul supported the 2027 timeline and the measure in her executive budget, a move the Senate followed. The Assembly left it out of its one-house budget earlier this year. A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not respond to a question about that bill.

The measure faced opposition from some trade unions and the real estate industry. Facebook and television ads paid for by New Yorkers of Affordable Energy — a coalition of companies like National Grid and certain unions — and Energy Citizens, funded by the American Petroleum Institute, argued that the gas ban would be prohibitively expensive and would cost jobs.

Who Can Own Renewables?

Bills that would have fundamentally reshaped who can build and own renewable energy generation languished this session. Supporters argued new laws are necessary to speed up the rate at which renewable sources of electricity, like wind and solar, could be developed.

Under the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, New York must be powered by 70% renewable energy by 2030 and fully zero-emissions electricity by 2040. Currently less than a third of energy generated in the state is from renewable sources.

A wind turbine in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Oct. 28, 2020.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Senate passed one, the Build Public Renewables Act, but it stalled in the Assembly. That bill would have given the New York Power Authority the go-ahead to build renewable electricity generators and sell the juice to residents. (The other bill would have allowed investor-owned utility companies, such as Con Ed, to develop and own renewable electricity generation and sell the energy. It never got a full floor vote in either chamber.)

Critics of the bills, including associations representing independent power producers and private renewable developers, contended the measures would not address the red tape that slows or stymies renewable developments and would bring about unfair competition in the renewable development market.

In a statement, Heastie said he agreed with the goals of the Build Public Renewables Act and asked two committees to hold a hearing on the bill in July. Public Power NY, a coalition of environmental organizations and DSA chapters backing the measure, on Monday called on Heastie to “convene a special session the week after the hearing” to pass the legislation.

Well Before Deadline

Not all climate legislation came in the 11th hour, but none of it has been signed by the governor yet.

Earlier in this year, the legislature advanced several green measures waiting to become law. 

In May, lawmakers passed a bill that aims to stop polluting facilities — like warehouses and waste transfer stations — to proliferate in neighborhoods where non-white and lower-income people live, exacerbating their health and environmental burdens.

That same month, Albany approved a bill that requires the conservation of at least 30% of state land by 2030, aiming to protect natural resources and the plants and animals that inhabit those lands, keep air and water clean and promote climate resiliency. About 19% of New York’s land is already conserved or protected, according to the bill’s sponsor memo.

Gov. Kathy Hochul tours East Elmhurst, Queens homes damaged during Hurricane Ida, Sept. 3, 2021.

Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor

In April, a bill passed requiring all passenger vehicles the state owns to be zero-emissions by 2035, with heavy- and medium-duty vehicles to follow suit by 2040. It was a move to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, the second-largest source in the state.

A spokesperson for Hochul said the governor is reviewing all legislation that passed both houses this session and “will continue ​​pushing initiatives that support New York’s nation leading climate action plan.”

At least one piece of climate legislation is not in jeopardy of a veto or dying on the governor’s desk.

As part of the state budget, Hochul already signed the $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act, which lawmakers passed earlier this year and touted as a climate accomplishment.

But it does still need to be approved by voters in November. The bond act allows for spending on electric vehicles, offshore wind and other green investments. 

With elections on the horizon, green backers are hoping lawmakers in the next year’s session are able to push more climate legislation.

“We’re facing down a really aggressive 2030 goal in terms of renewable generation and emissions reductions,” said Alex Beauchamp, Food and Water Watch’s Northeast region director. “We could hit them but we need policymakers to do what’s necessary to follow the law.”

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