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Albany Lawmakers Plot Climate Priorities and Ways to Find Green

Finally armed with a roadmap for how to achieve the environmental mandates outlined by a sweeping new state law, it’s now up to legislators to advance those policies.

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The state’s climate law envisions a day when smokestacks, like these near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, are obsolete, Jan. 19, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

When it comes to state climate action, the ball’s in Albany’s court, and by all appearances, lawmakers are still figuring out how to shoot it. 

New York passed its nation-leading climate law over three years ago. Just last year, a state group finalized its scoping plan or “blueprint” for achieving the mandates of that law. And Gov. Kathy Hochul kicked off 2023 by laying out her climate priorities in the State of the State address last week.

Now, as the legislative session gets into full swing, state lawmakers are expected to write and pass bills to accelerate specific emission-reducing initiatives that touch on all sectors of the economy — including power, housing and transportation — and greenlight dollars to fund climate spending.

“Everybody’s going through the [scoping] document right now, [asking] what should be done through rules? What should be done through legislation?” state Sen. Pete Harckham (D-Westchester), chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, told THE CITY earlier this month.

While the outcomes of the climate law are mandated, the scoping plan is not. It serves to inform lawmakers about policy options for ensuring those outcomes — though the governor can order agencies to carry out some of the suggested measures. Lawmakers enjoy greater leverage over the executive branch in the budget process, which involves lengthy negotiations. 

The Senate Committees on Finance, Environmental Conservation, and Energy and Telecommunications on Thursday held a hearing over more than eight hours on how to use the scoping plan — which maps a route for how the state can meet its climate goals — as a resource for plotting legislative and budget priorities.

Lawmakers, some expressing skepticism and some getting up to speed with the components of the climate plan, grilled scientists, lawyers, environmental advocates, and executives from the clean energy and fossil fuel industries about what the legislature should prioritize.

“We think it’s important for people to have an opportunity to go on record with what they think the state of New York wants to be doing in this year’s budget, as we just are beginning that process,” said Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), chair of the finance committee, during the hearing.

Costs of Action and Inaction

The state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) of 2019 mandates that New York must get 70% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030, and achieve a zero-emissions electric grid a decade after that. With the first deadlines less than a decade away, lawmakers and advocates have acknowledged there’s no time to waste in generating revenue to fund the initiatives that will transition the state to a cleaner future.

“Now that we’ve passed the CLCPA, let’s think through what it costs,” Sen. Kevin Parker (D-Brooklyn), chair of the energy committee, said at the hearing. “I’m particularly interested in the issues around economic justice and environmental justice and equity.”

Questions about how to fund the transition away from fossil fuels and how to lessen the cost to consumers loomed large on Thursday.

“I have many constituents that would definitely struggle with that cost,” said Sen. Daniel Stec (R-Adirondacks), referring to the expenses of converting a fossil-fuel powered home to use all or almost all electricity.

“We still have to figure out how to make sure that the cost is not borne in an unreasonable way or an inequitable way by consumers,” said Sen. Brian Kavanagh (D-Manhattan, Brooklyn).

Robert Howarth, an ecology professor at Cornell University and member of the group that approved the scoping plan, emphasized the need for the state to come up with a way to help New Yorkers with upfront costs of such a transition. Howarth suggested having utilities cover those costs and recoup them later.

He reminded the lawmakers the cost of inaction will likely outweigh the cost of action, which the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) has estimated to be $270 billion over the next 30 years. But senators still questioned what that idea means for state spending.

“How do we evaluate that within the context of the state budget? Like, what savings to taxpayers are there if we do act as opposed to if we don’t act?” asked Sen. Rachel May (D-Syracuse).

The scoping plan envisioned a statewide cap-and-invest program, which aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions across the economy, using the revenue to pay for climate action. The governor’s budget, due Feb. 1, is expected to provide more details about possible funding.

Hochul has directed the Department of Environmental Conservation and NYSERDA to begin a process to implement that system, but called in her speech last week for the legislature to create an associated rebate program to direct some of the money generated to families to offset costs of energy and upgrades.

“I think the legislature needs to be involved in the cap-and-invest program, at least deciding or having input on how that money for ratepayers will be paid for,” said Gavin Donohue, president of the Independent Power Producers of New York, and a dissenting member of the group that approved the scoping plan. 

A slew of other legislative proposals are on the table to fund the program and incentives that could lead to reducing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Several state senators and Assembly members have thrown their support behind a package of bills pushed by the NY Renews coalition, which is backing a new $10 billion fund earmarked for climate spending and a fee on polluters. And the scoping plan floated the idea of a fee based on how many miles vehicles travel, in the hopes of lessening those miles and generating revenue.

How to Hit Climate Targets

During the last legislative session, which took place during an election year, the Senate advanced key climate bills — from a bill to mandate all-electric new construction to one that would allow the New York Power Authority to build renewables — but they got stuck in the Assembly. Some lawmakers last session pointed to the not-yet-finalized plan for how to hit the CLCPA’s targets as a reason to delay advancing climate-related bills.

“We kept hearing, ‘Don’t we need to wait for the Climate Action Council to adopt these recommendations and move these policies forward?’” said Lisa Dix, New York director at the Building Decarbonization Coalition. “Legislators wanted the process to finalize before taking the next steps. There is a sense that everyone is ready now.”

Assemblymember Didi Barrett (D-Dutchess/Columbia), new chair of the Assembly Energy Committee, echoed that sentiment.

“We’re still getting our sea legs,” Barrett told THE CITY. “I think there’s definitely a recognition that the next step is what we do with what the scoping plan recommended.”

“We need to be aggressively advancing and building more renewable energy, encouraging people, where practical, to install their own solar energy, and make it easy … for people to do the right thing,” said Assemblymember Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), new chair of the environmental conservation committee.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-The Bronx) opened the current session at the start of the month by touching on the need to “double down on efforts to address the global climate crisis” and “meet the goals of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.”

When asked about Heastie’s climate priorities this year, a spokesperson referred to the speaker’s remarks after the governor’s State of the State address.

“Remember, the CLCPA was born in the Assembly,” Heastie said at the time. “When I became speaker, that was one of the landmark things that we’ve done, and I do think that the faster we wean ourselves off of fossil fuels, I think, the better we are for it.”

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