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Democrats Control New York but Can’t Even Pass Climate Legislation

For climate advocates worried that Republicans and swing-Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema are about to torpedo green infrastructure plans in Congress, the state of New York would seem to be in an enviable position. New York already passed ambitious carbon reduction targets in 2019. Democrats now enjoy a supermajority in the legislature there, meaning that the GOP doesn’t have much of a say over whether climate policy can pass or not. And yet, for the second year in a row, no climate packages are likely to come up for a vote before the legislative session is slated to end this week.Three separate measures aimed at making good on the state’s climate goals have yet to make it to the floor. So far only much more piecemeal climate-related bills have made it through both chambers. A mixed bag of measures on energy efficiency and building codes and cryptocurrency mining may yet sail through. Bills related to greening transit are currently stalled. Climate advocates and organizers are frustrated. They say politicians are refusing to even talk about what changes would make broader climate bills passable; instead, lawmakers are hiding behind secretive processes that allow legislation to be stalled anonymously. That lets them avoid alienating either environmentalists or fossil fuel interests. If forced to take a side during a public vote, they’d wind up riling one of these two groups.The Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, a relatively robust piece of legislation, passed in 2019, aims to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent by 2050, with the goal of achieving zero-emission electricity in 2040 and a 70 percent carbon-free grid by 2030. It took four years for that to get brought to a vote in both the Assembly and the Senate. When it was first introduced, the Independent Democratic Caucus—a group of right-leaning Democrats who caucused with Republicans—handed Republicans a majority in the Senate, where the CLCPA died without a vote after passing in the Assembly. The year after the IDC was kicked out by a group of young challengers backed by the Working Families Party and the Sunrise Movement, it passed in both houses.Now a series of complementary bills to help meet the CLCPA’s goals have stalled. The Climate Action Council created by the CLCPA brings together representatives from climate and environmental justice groups, government, industry, labor, and academia to create a Scoping Plan to figure out how to satisfy CLCPA targets. Last month, the Council’s Power Generation Advisory Committee recommended that New York “deny additional gas infrastructure permits to avoid creating additional stranded assets and exacerbating GHG emissions,” as well as advocate that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission—which oversees interstate energy matters—deny any new gas infrastructure that will exacerbates emissions. “These actions,” the panel added, “should be taken to the extent consistent with reliability.”The Clean Futures Act would follow through on that recommendation by prohibiting new fossil fuel–powered generating facilities unless electricity demand cannot be met by other sources. It’s also a response to three new proposed fossil fuel generating projects in the Hudson Valley, Queens, and Brooklyn, none of which fill gaps in electricity supply. The bill, which has 16 co-sponsors in the Senate, was brought to conference, a strictly off-the-record meeting for parties to decide which legislation makes it to the floor for a vote. It didn’t make the cut and doesn’t have a clear path to passage this session. That opens the way for new gas projects to move forward. “It’s not that Albany is dysfunctional, but certain interests in Albany use the existing bureaucracy to prevent action on specific topics.”“It’s one thing to pass a bill that sets out climate targets. It’s quite another thing to pass a bill that immediately and materially impacts fossil fuel profits,” Sierra Club Senior Organizing Representative Shay O’Reilly told me over the phone. “We’re running into that difference with Clean Futures.” The conference process, he said, helps give cover to politicians who don’t want to take a side and companies who want to block legislation. Measures that aren’t assured to pass handily are rarely brought to a vote. “It’s not that Albany is dysfunctional, but certain interests in Albany use the existing bureaucracy to prevent action on specific topics,” O’Reilly told me. The Climate and Community Investment Act was devised as an explicit companion to the CLCPA by the coalition of climate, environmental, racial justice, and labor groups that pushed for its passage, New York Renews. It would levy a $55 tax on every short ton of carbon dioxide. Revenue would be directed toward investments in climate mitigation and adaptation efforts, with funds for job creation and other benefits allocated specifically to low-income New Yorkers and New Yorkers of color. That’s in keeping with the CLCPA mandate to direct 40 percent of clean energy investments toward disadvantaged communities, a pledge mirrored in the Biden administration’s own climate plans. While the White House’s pledge will have to run the gauntlet through a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, New York’s Democratic supermajority would seem to give it an easier path toward passage. And yet it languishes: Despite having 29 Democrats signed on in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly, the bill does not seem poised to move forward this session.“At least we knew what we were up against in 2016, 2017, and 2018,” said Rahwa Ghirmatzion, executive director of the housing justice group PUSH Buffalo and a member of the New York Renews steering committee. “The IDC went away, and our bill got passed. Now not only has that roadblock been removed, we would think we have additional support from our elected officials,” given how much more urgent the climate crisis grows each year, Ghirmatzion told me. Though there’s been pushback from more conservative Democratic lawmakers on the potential burden a fee on polluters could pose to consumers, she said they’ve shown very little interest in a substantive dialogue on the bill. That’s in stark contrast to debates around the CLCPA, which included “line-by-line” discussions in the lead-up to passage.Changes simply to appease the fossil fuel industry would be a “nonstarter,” Ghirmatzion said. But New York Renews is eager for a constructive debate on the CCIA. “If the governor’s office or New York Assembly or State Senate have different solutions to getting us to achieve the [CLCPA] mandate, let’s hear them.… We’d be more than happy to work out the details.”Those pushing for the Build Public Renewables Act—for the New York Power Authority to provide renewable energy and power state and municipal buildings—have received similar treatment. “We have been pretty clear that we welcome comments and feedback: If you have pushback, we’d love to hear that. Nobody has told us if they have any feedback or anything they’d like to change,” Sarahana Shrestha, of the Public Power New York coalition, told me over the phone. “At the end of the day, we are doing a lot of free labor that could be very useful for them if they were interested in pushing climate legislation,” she said of lawmakers. “They’re not playing what should be their role. We can only do so much from the outside.”Among the biggest advocates for the BPRA have been the Democratic Socialists of America, whose muscular New York arm has mounted several successful challenges against establishment Democratic candidates. DSA-affiliated lawmakers have been pushing climate bills in Albany, often as co-sponsors, but are up against strong headwinds. “The legislature is in a position this year to move as much as they want. They are acting as if they believe we have a lot of time to take action on climate, which is basically the same thing as not believing the science,” Shrestha said.Democratic leaders in Albany who control the fate of climate bills have each accepted thousands of dollars from fossil fuel interests in recent years, including National Grid, Con Edison, and the Independent Power Producers of New York. In the months after the CLCPA’s passage, ExxonMobil donated $5,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee controlled by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie. It donated another $5,000 just days after a protest against the North Brooklyn Pipeline last October. After a protest against the proposed gas project in Queens last fall, NRG—the company behind it—donated $10,000 to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, controlled by Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Lawmakers deny that such contributions have influenced their votes. “The speaker is always guided by the members of our conference,” a spokesperson for Heastie wrote in an email to City & State New York. “We don’t care about any conspiracies anyone wants to peddle. Ever.” One way for politicians to show they aren’t in the pocket of fossil fuel interests, advocates say, would be finally to put climate bills up for a vote.
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