Fresh from a 2-1/2 week vacation after passing a ban on plastic shopping bags, state lawmakers should be primed and ready to take on a full environmental agenda.
Upon returning to Albany on Monday, they’ll have 25 working days until the end of the legislative session to build on the momentum of the bag ban and make some real progress on securing a clean future for New Yorkers.
Whether they can muster the public support and political will to do so is the big question.
Given the current fragile state of our environment, and considering the deregulation mindset in Washington that threatens to undo much of the environmental progress that’s been made over the years, state lawmakers owe New Yorkers their best effort.
CLIMATE PROTECTION ACT
The big item on the legislative agenda is the Climate and Community Protection Act (A3876/S2992), which is designed to address the long-term effects of climate change through a host of initiatives that will help the state and the planet.
That legislation includes establishing a state climate action council and a climate change working group to work on solutions for reducing greenhouse gases; creating a scoping plan for setting emissions limits and for reporting on the progress; preparing regulations; establishing permitting and licensing guidelines; setting up funding mechanisms for renewable energy projects; and setting aside money to help disadvantaged communities where so-called “dirty technology” is prevalent in order reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Among the ambitious specific goals contained in the legislation is reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel sources 100 percent over 1990 levels by the year 2050. The interim goal calls for 50 percent of electric generation that’s regulated in the state be produced by renewable energy systems by the year 2030 -- less than 11 years away.
The Act also sets up prevailing wage requirements for projects that receive more than $100,000 in financial assistance or have a total value of at least $10 million, a requirement that will ensure these new initiatives create good-paying jobs but one that’s also bound to drive up the costs of such projects.
The Climate and Community Protection Act is an ambitious piece of legislation that requires the Legislature’s full attention.
The approval process should include public hearings on the terms of the legislation, as well as a full public airing of the proposed regulations to ensure they’re reasonable and achievable and that projects are reviewed for their effectiveness and transparency.
The time for New York state to set up a regulatory structure for the inevitable changeover to renewable energy and for the reduction of greenhouse gases is long overdue.
But lawmakers need to be cautious not to bog the state down with unending meetings, commissions, an oppressive regulatory structure and overbearing requirements that might drive business away and drive up taxes without achieving the goals.
Working closely with the New York Power Authority, the regional energy-regulators, power companies and environmental organizations within the state is necessary to come up with plans for both residential and commercial projects to reduce energy use and pollution.
OK, so that’s a big undertaking. But it’s manageable, and legislators should at least get a good start on it.
As they’re taking on these tasks, they need to resist forces, such as lobbying from the fossil fuel industry, to water down the legislation to the point of making it ineffective or delaying its implementation.
Smartly, lawmakers didn’t allow this legislation to get bogged down in the budget process, where it could have become a political football in much the same way election reform and ethics legislation has.
Lawmakers have a clear path until mid-June to address the numerous aspects of this legislation outside budget politics.
All of this environmental do-goodingness has the real potential to result in a spike in residential and commercial energy prices to pay for some of the initiatives.
To ensure that consumers, particularly senior citizens and others with low- and moderate incomes, don’t get overwhelmed financially, state lawmakers need to create a state Office of the Utility Consumer Advocate to represent the interests of consumers on the state and federal level. A bill to create that office (A1966/S4399) is pending.
Besides this kind of catch-all environmental bill, there is other legislation that lawmakers should consider and other action by state agencies and the governor’s office that could reduce pollution, both in the long-term and short-term.
One bill (A593), for instance, would compel the state Health Department to study the effects and health risks of glyphosate and its by-product aminomethylphosphonic acid, chemicals found in a popular herbicide. Another bill (A904) would create a toxics information clearinghouse, requiring companies to fully disclose the chemicals used in consumer products. Other bills would strengthen state oversight of oil and gas extraction operations (A2302); set up a task force to recommend security devices and systems for vehicles used to transport hazardous materials (A2628); and increase the chances that companies report hazardous waste discharges by making it a felony to fail to report them (A3175).
The state should also be pushing hard to establish drinking water limits for PFOA and PFOS, two chemicals used in the production of non-stick cooking products, stain-free carpeting and firefighting foam that have polluted communities like Hoosick Falls. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is dragging its feet on setting such standards. The state needs to step in and do the job for the EPA.
The state also needs to continue to push against federal initiatives that could lead to continued and future contamination of our waterways. That includes pushing the EPA to force General Electric Co. to finish its PCB cleanup of the Hudson River and being vigilant in the courts against a Trump administration proposal to expand off-shore drilling off the coast of New York and other states. That initiative was put on hold last week, but there’s no guarantee it will stay that way.
The state also must keep up its legal fight against Trump’s EPA to limit air pollution that enters the state from plants in the South that contribute to acid rain in the Adirondacks and Catskills and threaten air quality throughout the state.
And, of course, the state should continue on its path to reduce the impact of plastics in the environment, by banning the use of plastic straws statewide and expanding the ban on plastic bags while also providing incentives for manufacturers and retailers to develop alternatives.
That all sounds like a lot to do in just the next two months. And that’s just scratching the surface of what needs to be done.
But if protecting the environment is important to their constituents, it should be important for state lawmakers and the governor.
If our representatives in Albany want to get this done, they can.
We fully expect them to try.