“We’re at a point where the state needs to begin adopting policies at breakneck speed to meet our climate law mandates,” said Liz Moran, New York policy advocate for Earthjustice. “So far we are headed in the right direction, but there’s still much more to do and we’re looking forward to seeing some of that leadership from the governor.”
Albany wrapped its legislative session last week just as smoke from hundreds of wildfires in Canada made its way into New York. The crisis-levels of air pollution served as a stark reminder of the consequences of climate change—and should drive lawmakers to take action, environmentalists said.
“We are in our final days of session, literally in the midst of a public health crisis, with the dangerous air quality as a result of the wildfires in Canada,” Liz Moran, New York policy advocate for Earthjustice said Thursday before the legislative session came to an end. “It’s imperative for states like New York to act.”
But the session concluded with several legislative environmental priorities still on the table—including the NY HEAT Act, which supporters say would help make utilities more affordable, and another bill to make fossil fuel companies help pay for climate-related infrastructure projects.
Still, advocates pointed to other policy wins this session they say will move New York closer to its climate goals. The door is also open for more action: members of the Assembly are expected to reconvene next week to wrap up work they didn’t have time for, though exactly what bills they’ll vote on remains unclear.
What did and didn’t make it (so far)
Several climate initiatives made it previously into Gov. Kathy Hochul’s budget—which passed in early May after several weeks of delay—including the Build Public Renewables Act, which directs the New York Power Authority to provide renewable energy to customers and aims to lower energy bills for low and moderate-income communities.
The budget also included the All-Electric Building Act, a major priority for environmental advocates that will prohibit fossil fuel hookups in new building construction across the state, similar to a measure New York City passed in 2021.
“We’re really proud of our movement for passing that bill,” said Jessica Azulay, executive director at Alliance for a Green Economy. “We had to overcome extreme opposition from the fossil fuel industries, plural.”
While this a major step forward, advocates expressed dissatisfaction over the timeline for implementation: the gas ban will take effect starting in 2026 for smaller buildings and 2029 for larger buildings.
The law, like New York City’s version which will take effect starting next year, only applies to new construction and so will not require the more complicated process of retrofitting existing homes—something supporters say should’ve prompted the state to institute its gas ban sooner than 2026. “We really need to stop digging the hole and going backwards with our climate emissions,” Azulay said.
In addition to being a source of building pollution, a key driver of New York’s total greenhouse gas emissions, studies have found the use of fossil fuels in homes contributes to respiratory illnesses like asthma.
Other notable environmental legislation that passed last week included the Birds and Bees Protection Act, which limits the use of neonics, an insecticide that’s harmful to species, soil, and human health.
And while it has yet to pass, environmental coalition NY Renews pointed to legislation introduced by Sen. Pete Harckham as a significant step this session. The proposal would create a Climate and Community Protection Fund to oversee money earned through state climate programs—including the future cap-and-invest initiative, which will charge companies that produce carbon emissions over certain limits—and use that revenue to help communities, workers and small businesses cope with the impacts of climate change.
“Up until now, the vast majority of our climate spending has been from essentially the most regressive form of revenue raising we have, [which is to] charge low income customers fees on their utility bills. And so it’s a huge shift,” said Stephan Edel, coalition coordinator for NY Renews.
The climate legislation that did succeed this session didn’t go through without a fight. Many of the bills faced staunch opposition from the fossil fuel industry, which would be wounded by the state’s plan to transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Energy companies, on the other hand, offered varying levels of support. Con Edison, which services 10 million people who live in New York City and Westchester County, was the first utility company to come out in support of the All-Electric Buildings Act.
The utility company also supported a bill (which didn’t pass) by Sen. Kevin Parker to funnel revenue from renewable generation projects to low-income customers, and another (which did pass) from Harckham and Assemblymember Deborah Glick to make geothermal systems more accessible and affordable.
“True to its Clean Energy Commitment and its efforts to help New York State and New York City achieve their clean energy goals, Con Edison continues to support policies that reduce natural gas consumption such as repealing the so called ‘100-foot rule,’” said Anne Marie Corbalis, a spokesperson for Con Edison.
That “100-foot rule” is a reference to a provision in the state’s public service law that requires utility ratepayers to foot the costs of building gas lines to connect new customers who live within 100 feet of an existing line, what critics say is at odds with New York’s goal of phasing out fossil fuel energy sources.
“In effect, it forces customers to subsidize new gas infrastructure that the utility can use to expand its customer base, whether or not it was actually needed,” Assemblymember Karines Reyes wrote in a City Limits oped last month.
Reyes is a co-sponsor of the NY HEAT Act, which would overhaul the “100-foot rule” and cap energy costs at 6 percent for low and moderate-income utility customers across the state, saving households an average of $75 a month, its supporters say.
“We consider it the most important energy affordability bill of the session,” Azulay said of the HEAT bill, which has passed in just the State Senate so far.
Another piece of legislation that cleared the Senate but failed to make it to the Assembly floor for a vote includes the Climate Change Superfund Act, sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger, which would require the biggest greenhouse gas emitters to fork over $3 billion dollars a year for the next 25 years to pay for their outsized impact in greenhouse gas emissions.
Overtime, the State would feed the $75 billion collected back into infrastructure projects to protect New York from the worst effects of climate change. Funds would be earmarked, for example, to help hospitals prepare for influxes of patients during climate-related incidents and upgrades to HVAC systems in schools and libraries, said Justin Flagg, a spokesperson for Krueger’s office.
“Every season now has its extreme weather event that’s exacerbated by climate that requires this money,” said Flagg. “So the longer we put it off, the less money we have to deal with that.”
A spokesperson for Assemblymember Patricia Fahy, who sponsored the NY HEAT Act in the Assembly, said the bill is still her top priority, and she hopes the upcoming special session presents another opportunity to move it forward. As of June 12, the bill had 64 cosponsors in the Assembly.
If the NY HEAT Act and the Climate Change Superfund Act don’t make it through this year, advocates and legislators said they will push for them again during the next legislative session which begins on January 4, 2024.
“As disappointed as we are that they didn’t pass this year, I do think having passed them now in the Senate, that really does set us up well,” said Flagg.
CLCPA on track?
Several of the climate bills up for debate this legislative session were designed with the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) in mind. Passed in 2019, the law outlines New York’s climate goals and mandates the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels), and to achieve net zero emissions statewide by 2050.
Advocates say that although there have been advancements towards these benchmarks, there is still a lot of work to be done. All stakeholders will need to come out swinging in Albany next year, Edel of NY Renews emphasized, to ensure that the requirementsgoals of the CLCPA are met on time.
“[The CLCPA] mandates every part of government to both address the climate crisis and assess whether the decisions they’re making advance our climate crisis or add to the burdens of overburden,” he said.
NY Renews already has its sights on how to keep people mobilized in between legislative sessions. Other environmental groups, like Earthjustice, are also at the ready.
“We’re at a point where the state needs to begin adopting policies at breakneck speed to meet our climate law mandates,” said Moran. “So far we are headed in the right direction, but there’s still much more to do and we’re looking forward to seeing some of that leadership from the governor.”