Gotham Gazette Mon, 25 Jun 2018 07:36:08 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Holding Polluters Accountable is as Important Now as Ever 2016 adri chall

(photo via the Governor's Office)

The summer season is in full swing, with New Yorkers flocking to weekend getaways across the state, from Coney Island to Long Island beaches to the Catskills and beyond. But it is critical that we remain vigilant as good stewards of our shared natural treasures. With environmental protections under siege from the current federal administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), it is imperative that New Yorkers understand and exercise their civil justice rights to protect their communities and hold polluters accountable.

For years, our ability to enjoy and access New York’s natural treasures has been made possible in part by the environmental advocacy fostered by many committed individuals and the state’s civil justice system, which allows victims to hold negligent polluters financially accountable for adverse health impacts, drinking water contamination, and property damage.

From the Gowanus Canal to sports fields in Red Hook and the ongoing public health crisis in Hoosick Falls, we must remain strong in standing up to bad actors and polluters by protecting and exercising our civil justice rights, particularly in the absence of effective federal oversight.

New York State’s civil justice system provides people with the ability to hold companies and industries responsible when their actions put the public at risk. In a court of law, people injured by negligence and reckless endangerment have been able to address corporate transgressions and hold bad actors accountable.

For communities and residents up against powerful entities with overwhelming resources, the civil justice system often is the only way to get big, influential interests to do the right thing. Ordinary, hardworking New Yorkers are no match for a well-funded public relations campaign and a skilled team of professional lobbyists.

And for victims of dangerous, debilitating diseases and conditions caused by reckless pollution, the civil justice system serves as a mechanism to account for onerous and often overwhelming medical costs. It often spurs meaningful legislative action and oversight as well, to prevent further harm.

Over the past century, the civil court system has shaped environmental reform and delivered justice to communities time and time again. In the 1940s and 1950s, Hooker Chemical Company used a property in Niagara Falls known as Love Canal as a dumpsite for toxic chemical waste and contaminants.

Two decades after the town of Niagara Falls took over the land and developed it for residential purposes, homeowners noticed a suspicious black fluid flowing out of the canal, leading to widespread discovery of its use as a dumpsite, as well as the pollution’s harmful health effects on the community, including higher rates of miscarriage, birth defects, and leukemia.

Activists and residents were outraged at the company’s failure to consider the impacts of their actions or even to bother informing the community years later of what was done. Executives were never jailed or held accountable in a criminal court – but they were forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements with the EPA and affected residents.

The Love Canal calamity is widely viewed as a catalyst for stricter federal regulations that were subsequently put in place to protect the environment and our communities.

Fast forward to today, in Hoosick Falls, an effort is in motion to hold Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics and Honeywell International, Inc., accountable for dangerous contamination of the water supply—an important step toward bringing justice to this community and its residents.

There should be no question that any companies that pollute our communities and poison our children will be identified, held accountable, and forced to right their wrongs. We must always be vigilant.

Our communities, the health of our neighbors and loved ones, and our prized state environmental treasures must be protected. In an era of federal inaction, a strong civil justice system remains the cornerstone of an active and engaged public and empowers all of us to look out for and protect one another.

Matt Funk is president of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association. On Twitter @_mattfunk.

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Holding Polluters Accountable is as Important Now as Ever Sun, 10 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
City's Energy Reduction Program Saves Millions solar panels de Blasio energy 

A city energy announcement (Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office)

A de Blasio administration program to reduce the energy consumption of city agencies has yielded millions of dollars in rebates for the city from energy providers.

The Department of Citywide Administrative Services, which manages properties and resources for city agencies, received $9.3 million for cutting back on energy use during peak demand hours last summer. The program, called Demand Response, is in place at 414 municipal facilities and cultural institutions under 25 agencies, including DCAS.

“The Demand Response program is a common-sense way to reduce energy use, prevent brownouts and blackouts, and save taxpayer dollars,” said DCAS Commissioner Lisette Camilo, in a statement. “You can’t have the City that doesn’t sleep if you have a City that doesn’t have power.”

As is common each year, the city’s electricity usage peaks during heat waves, running the risk of disruptions to the entire power grid. Under the Demand Response program, DCAS -- which administers city buildings, vehicles, and more -- is rewarded for limiting the use of equipment and air conditioning, and other measures, when it receives warnings from the New York Independent System Operator and the utility company Con Edison that electricity demand may outpace supply.

The program reduced the power load by 75 megawatts over the summer of 2017, when there were three peak demand events and and three system tests, according to information provided by DCAS. Two more agencies have also joined the program since then. In the same time, private sector firms that are enrolled in the program reduced their load by 317 megawatts.

“The Demand Response actions by City government agency staff and facility operators reduce the extent to which extra power plants have to be used during peak periods,” said Anthony Fiore, DCAS deputy commissioner and chief energy management officer, in a statement.

The energy reduction program is a small part of the de Blasio administration’s larger goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the city. Last year, after President Donald Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, Mayor de Blasio passed his own executive order committing the city to follow the principles of the accord. In September, the mayor announced additional initiatives and mandates to retrofit 14,500 of the city’s most energy-inefficient buildings.

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

City's Energy Reduction Program Saves Millions Tue, 10 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
After Superseding City, Cuomo's Plastic Bag Panel Punts Cuomo climate change

Gov. Cuomo on climate change (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)

A task force convened by Governor Andrew Cuomo last year to study plastic bag use by New York consumers, and to propose solutions to reduce their usage, released its report on Saturday, and New York City officials are again disappointed in Cuomo on the subject, to say the least.

It’s been just about a year since the governor signed state legislation invalidating a New York City law to impose a nickel fee on single-use plastic and paper bags. In overriding the city’s legislation, Cuomo called the plan flawed, but acknowledged the problem of plastic bag waste, and announced a task force that would propose actionable ideas once it concluded its work.

“The costly and negative impact of plastic bags on New York’s natural resources is a statewide issue that demands a statewide solution,” Cuomo said at the time, promising that the committee of environment advocates, industry representatives, and elected officials would “bring the experience and knowledge necessary to tackle this problem and safeguard New York’s environment for future generations.”

What came of it, however, was the pros and cons of eight options that the state could pursue, including the continuation or strengthening of existing policies, an outright ban, or a partial ban along with the imposition of new fees. The report did not recommend any one option over the others.

“It’s a cynical cop out,” said City Council Member Brad Lander, one of the architects of the Council’s legislation that passed in 2016 but was preempted by the state Legislature and Cuomo last year before it could go into effect. “The Governor, by his own admission, made this problem his responsibility,” Lander added, noting that the city sends tens of thousands of tons of plastic waste to landfills each month, including nearly a billion plastic bags. “And every one is on the governor’s hands,” he said.

The city bill, co-sponsored by Lander and Council Member Margaret Chin, was a controversial piece of legislation that passed with 28 votes, a slim majority in the 51-member Council. An especially rare level of dissent in a chamber where bills virtually never reach the floor without the votes to pass, 20 Council members voted against the bill, many arguing that it would hurt the pockets of middle-class families and low-income New Yorkers, even though it included carve-outs for people receiving government assistance.

That argument carried the day in Albany, where the Legislature passed legislation preventing municipalities with more than a million residents from passing any new fees on single-use bags. New York City is the only municipality in the state that meets the criteria. A similar 5-cent fee on single-use bags was allowed to stand in neighboring Suffolk County, and went into effect on January 1. (Since localities lack the power to institute a tax on plastic bags, the legislation requires businesses to charge the fee and they get to keep the proceeds, something Cuomo pointed to as problematic.)

Many months later, the governor’s task force seemed to kick the can down the road further, with the report merely restating many facts about plastic bag usage that had already been thoroughly debated by the City Council. “A high school student with internet access could have prepared that report,” Lander said incredulously. “It’s ridiculous. I mean, honestly, what I especially liked is that of the eight recommendations, two of them are ‘do nothing.’”

Cuomo mentioned the plastic bag task force in passing at his budget presentation on Tuesday. The governor’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on whether he favored any of the options put forward by the task force or indicate any concrete next steps.

“The New York State Plastic Bag Task Force, and its six independent members, has completed a comprehensive review of options available to address the growing threat of plastic bag waste on the environment,” said Sean Mahar, a spokesperson for the State Department of Environmental Conservation, in an emailed statement. “While the Task Force did not reach a consensus around one specific recommendation, highlighting the complexity of the issue, the administration is currently reviewing the options identified in the report.”

That the task force was a redundant effort seems borne out by one of its own members. Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, publicly issued a “dissent” of the task force’s final report when it was released.

Bystryn insisted on only two “acceptable recommendations,” which involved either a fee on plastic and paper bags or a ban on plastic bags with an accompanying fee on paper bags. “It is the long-held position of the environmental community that a successful solution must include a fee component on all single-use bags,” she said, adding that improved recycling efforts would be insufficient. “We know from countless examples around the world that when consumers take responsibility for their actions by bringing their own bag or paying a fee to cover their environmental impact, single-use bag consumption drops precipitously. I am disappointed the final report fails to convey this position,” she added.

Neither Mayor Bill de Blasio nor City Council Speaker Corey Johnson had seen the report as of Tuesday afternoon, but both separately called for stronger measures to reduce bag usage.

“I proudly voted in favor of the plastic bag bill,” Johnson said, when asked by Gotham Gazette at a news conference at City Hall. “I was disappointed that our authority was taken away from us.”

“We have to do something about plastic bags. It is a scourge on the environment,” he added.

The mayor, at a separate news conference Tuesday, reiterated his call for a complete ban on plastic bags. “We’ve tried a previous approach and it didn’t find favor in Albany but the question at hand is, we can’t keep putting plastic bags into our environment, so what are we going to do? I think a ban makes a lot of sense,” he told reporters.

But the City Council can effectively do little short of passing yet another bill that can be struck down by the state. “We have to figure out what the next steps are,” said Lander, decrying the “weak” home rule powers in the state that allowed the Legislature to quash the city’s first attempt. “I feel like trying again here would be like Charlie Brown and the football and it just doesn’t make sense.”

Lander believes the best solution is a hybrid of a ban on thin plastic bags and a fee on thicker plastic and paper bags. An absolute ban on thin bags does not work, he said, citing the example of Hawaii and Chicago where retailers simply started handing out thicker bags and consequently increased the amount of solid waste. And he insisted that the onus for a solution now lies entirely with the governor.

“[Governor Cuomo] took this problem on when he vetoed our bill, when he created the commission, when he announced he was taking responsibility for it,” Lander said. “We took a lot of responsibility. We did the hard work here. We were ready to bear the challenge of doing it. We had robust debate in the chamber. Not everybody was on board but we agreed to do it. This is on the governor.”

by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

After Superseding City, Cuomo's Plastic Bag Panel Punts Tue, 16 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
There Will Be Three Big Questions on Your Ballot in November voting election ballot proposals

Voting (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)

A state constitutional amendment slightly loosening stringent environmental protections in the Adirondacks and Catskills in certain cases will be on the ballot this fall, the state Board of Elections announced this week.

The legislation, which has passed through two consecutive sessions of the Legislature in order to make it onto the ballot, allows for select infrastructure projects deemed necessary for the safety and economic vitality of nearby areas to be installed without a constitutional amendment.

It is the third referendum that will to be presented to voters on Election Day in November. Along with candidates for office, there will be three “yes” or “no” questions on voters’ ballots. The measure related to some building in the Adirondacks and Catskills will be number three, after a question of whether New York should hold a constitutional convention and whether pensions should be stripped from elected officials convicted of public corruption.

Currently, the New York State Constitution’s “forever wild” clause, which protects the state forest preserve as wild forest land, prohibits the lease, sale, exchange, or taking of any forest preserve land. For counties and townships in the relevant regions, road and bridge repairs and the installation of things like bike paths, broadband internet, or a water well infrastructure that cut into the surrounding forest preserve would require a constitutional amendment -- which takes a minimum of two years, involving double passage by the state Legislature and then approval from voters.

The sluggish process of critical projects has created safety concerns and hampered economic growth in New York State’s North Country, according to a spokesperson for state Senator Betty Little, a Republican from Queensbury County who sponsored the bill.

"The impetus for doing this amendment is to enable a very, very small category of projects to move forward without, in every instance, amending the constitution," said Daniel MacEntee, Little’s press secretary. “The North Country can't afford to be left behind. If there was better connectivity, it would be very beneficial to the economy, health, and safety of the region,” he added.

If the amendment passes, the state will create a “land account,” or up to 250 acres of forest preserve land surrounding county and town highways that can be encroached on for select projects. A town, village, or county can apply to the land account if it believes it has no viable alternative to using forest preserve land for certain limited health and safety purposes on or near major thruways.

Projects concerning the safety of bridges; the elimination of dangerous highway curves; relocation and maintenance of roadways; and the construction of water wells within 530 feet of a major highway, in order to meet basic drinking water quality standards, are all covered under the first exception.

The proposed amendment, sponsored in the state Assembly by Democratic Assemblymember Dan Stec, would also allow bicycle paths and specified types of public utility lines (including high speed internet), to be located within the widths of state, county, and certain town highways that traverse forest preserve land -- as long as there is minimal removal of trees and vegetation.

While the ammendment past during the normal legislative session, state lawmakers passed the enacting language for the amendment in June, when the Legislature reconvened in a special session to extend mayoral control of New York City schools and pass other measures. If New Yorkers vote in favor of the ballot measure on November 7, it will be enacted immediately.

The measure, which has been years in the works, has widespread approval from elected leaders, stakeholders, and environmental agencies, and Senator Little is optimistic that it will be passed on Election Day, according to MacEntee.

While environmental groups have historically resisted constitutional scale-backs of the “forever wild” provision, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the governor’s office were heavily involved in drafting the legislation, according to Assemblymember Steve Englebright, chair of the Assembly’s Environmental Conservation Committee.

Englebright noted that the legislation is based on a similar constitutional amendment made for state highways, which designated 400 acres of land for such restoration projects. Based on the pace of utilization from that land pool, the 250 acres of land is expected to last at least half a century, according to Englebright.

“This is not a short-term project,” said the assemblyman. “It’s meant to be an ongoing mechanism to enable the people who use the roads, need to access part of the road network, make use of communication devices on those roads, or need to drill a well nearby -- they can do that without going back to every voter in the whole state. It will simplify life in the Adirondacks, and it sends a message that we honor and respect the well-being of the people who live there.”

Two other questions, one asking voters to decide on whether to hold a convention to amend the constitution, and an ethics measure to strip pensions from a public officer that has been convicted of a crime related to his or her official duties, will also be on the ballot in November. The outcomes of all of these questions will be heavily influenced by New York City voters, given that the city is such a population center and is holding a mayoral election, as well as many others for City Council and other offices. While turnout is expected to again be low, it will account for a significant portion of the total, along with those voting in local elections elsewhere across the state. There are no statewide elections this year, though, other than the ballot questions.

The second and third questions, as constitutional amendments, have passed the Legislature twice, and have been rigorously vetted by elected officials, advocates, and other stakeholders.

Aside from the convention question, the two pieces of legislation touch on larger reforms proposed by advocates of a constitutional convention: ethics reform and strengthening home rule.

The Con Con question, though facing a more uncertain future, poses a unique once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically overhaul the state’s lengthy and outdated constitution. Proponents say it can, among other things, be used to enact term limits for elected officials, improve the state’s courts system, create a strong system for legislative redistricting, and enact significant campaign finance reform.

While the referendum on holding a constitutional convention is posed to voters once every 20 years, New Yorkers voted down the measure in 1997, and it faces strong opposition from certain interest groups including environmentalists who are worried about preserving the “forever wild” law in its original form and labor unions who want to protect organizing and pension provisions.

It is unclear how sharing the ballot with two other questions will impact the constitutional convention vote, and vice versa. Gerald Benjamin, a SUNY New Paltz professor and longtime advocate for a constitutional convention, said he believes the other two questions will be overshadowed by the debate over the convention, which is heating up.

“The driver is going to be the Con Con vote,” said Benjamin. “You are getting an elevated attention to referenda, which is uncommon in New York. So you are expanding the electorate for the other two, potentially.” Groups are beginning to spend heavily to raise awareness about the convention questions and push their preferred vote.

However, the other two amendments may fuel arguments by opponents of a convention -- including one made by both legislative leaders -- that tweaks to the constitution can be done slowly over time, through amendments.

Benjamin said that this argument is specious, because the use of constitutional amendments as a legislative fix has grown less frequent, and when it is used, the matters that do get changed are small.

The amendment related to forest preserves expressly does not permit the construction of new intrastate gas or oil pipelines that did not receive necessary state and local permits and approvals by June 1, 2016.

by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

There Will Be Three Big Questions on Your Ballot in November Thu, 03 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Policy Implications of the Mayor’s Paris Climate Order 32541723780 9deef3a979 z

Mayor de Blasio tours the Electrical Industry Training Center in Queens (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)

 Soon after reports surfaced that President Donald Trump would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, a landmark accord to limit global temperature increases signed by nearly every country, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he would sign an executive order committing New York City to the agreement. On June 2, after Trump confirmed the rumors in a White House Rose Garden speech, the Mayor signed such an order.

Though the city has undertaken ambitious measures to curb emissions under the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations, the city may now have to go further than it already has in addressing climate change through policy.

The Paris agreement, signed by 195 nations (including the United States) and ratified by 147, stipulates three aims for all countries of the world to collectively strive for:

1. “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change.”

2. “Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.”

3. “Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”

The president’s action makes the U.S. one of only three countries not party to the agreement; the other two are Nicaragua, which claims that the agreement doesn’t go far enough, only committing the largest polluters to voluntary targets, and Syria, which is in the grips of a massive, six-year civil war.

A Yale University survey published last year showed that almost 70% of Americans believe that the country should remain in the agreement, much higher than the number of people who consider themselves "concerned believers" in climate change, which is about 50%. According to the Yale survey, New York State actually registers the highest percentage of residents out of any state in terms of believing that the country should stay in the Paris Agreement; with over 75%.

The agreement is effectively non-binding due to a lack of enforcement measures, a fact that has been criticized by environmental activists. The agreement also doesn’t stipulate any specific policies through which these aims are to be achieved, leaving the policy solutions to the signatories. Many of the enforcement measures for the U.S. to abide by the deal were stripped when Trump announced an executive order to review former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan; it is widely expected that the EPA will dismantle it.

The Paris aims are to be met through “nationally determined contributions,” or NDCs, which are dictated individually by signatories in such a way that the targets are collectively met. More developed countries would pledge financial aid to less developed countries so they can meet their targets, such as through the UN’s Green Climate Fund, which Trump harshly criticized in his White House Rose Garden speech announcing U.S. withdrawal.

Trump’s pulling out of the agreement, and de Blasio’s subsequent commitment that the city will stick with it anyway, could require the city to determine its own NDCs.

The mayor chastised the president in a May 31 press conference in Red Hook, Brooklyn for being callous regarding an issue that will disproportionately affect his own hometown.

“We have to understand that if climate change is not addressed, one of the greatest coastal cities on the Earth will be increasingly threatened,” the mayor said. “And it's very painful to reflect the fact that Donald Trump is from New York City. He should know better. He should know that what he is thinking of doing would hurt his hometown more than almost any place else, because we're an entirely coastal city.”

The next day, Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from Paris and de Blasio issued his executive order. What the mayor’s order did not immediately make clear was whether the city would be specifically drawing up targets to send to the UN, as a country is supposed to do. Asked for more detail, a City Hall spokesperson sent a statement capturing the city’s commitment and goals.

“The Mayor’s executive order adopted the goals of the Paris agreement,” the spokesperson said, “in particular reaffirming the City’s goal to reduce its greenhouse gas contributions to the level needed to limit warming to 2C, and to explore how to develop further plans that keep to the 1.5C goal. In the face of Trump’s abdication of American leadership to meet the global challenge of climate change, it is more important than ever that we take action at the local level.”

The spokesperson added that Section 3 of the mayor’s executive order “is about working with others to deliver on the US NDC,” though the order refers to the “2016 commitment to the Paris Agreement” rather than specifically saying “NDC” or “nationally determined contribution.” The spokesperson did not specify whether New York would be formally determining an NDC. Subnational entities are not required to submit NDCs to the UN, as national entities are.

Only sovereign states, not subnational entities, can donate to the Green Climate Fund, according to the spokesperson. So, the current structure of the fund and financing scheme would preclude New York City from actually being able to contribute financially.

The two-page executive order doesn’t contain many particulars, especially compared to the much larger, 32-page Paris Agreement framework. The EO states that New York City will attempt to limit temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, but doesn’t include specific strategies for the city to meet the targets.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed by almost every country in the world, there is not much language regarding subnational entities like cities. The Agreement “welcomes the efforts of all non-Party stakeholders to address and respond to climate change, including those of civil society, the private sector, financial institutions, cities and other subnational authorities,” but the Agreement has been adopted almost universally and is organized under a United Nations framework, which a city or state cannot join, and therefore does not stipulate language about subnational entities formally joining if the national entity pulls out.

For the city to meet Paris stipulations, it will have to craft policy without the aid of federal regulations, and likely in conjunction with the state government, due to state control over the city’s massive public transportation network. Governor Andrew Cuomo also signed an executive order committing the state to meeting the standards of the Paris Agreement regardless of the federal government’s position. Cuomo then announced that New York would be part of the “United States Climate Alliance,” consisting initially of New York, California, and Washington (state), then joined by other states, to abide by the Agreement.

New York City already has a low carbon footprint compared to other major American cities, owing largely to its high density and plentitude of mass transportation options; New York is the only major city in the nation where a majority of households don’t own an automobile.

New York State has the lowest carbon footprint, per capita, of any state, according to data collected by the Environmental Protection Agency.

De Blasio, in 2014, announced a goal, known as 80 x 50, for the city to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050. The plan involves cutting emissions -- from vehicles, energy consumption in buildings, and waste disposal -- by 43 million metric tons by 2050. The plan is part of de Blasio’s larger OneNYC initiative, which includes a variety of environmental, resiliency, and sustainability goals and strategies. De Blasio’s initiatives, on top of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s own substantial environmental efforts, have essentially charted the city on a path to meeting the Prais standards well before the city’s commitment to Paris through executive order.

Russell Unger, executive director of the Urban Green Council, a nonprofit that advocates for more environmentally sustainable buildings, says that the numbers add up to 80 x 50 meeting Paris standards, but that, especially in city policy, models and implementation are two entirely different beasts.

“The city recognizes there’s a lot of work to be done to take a plan that mostly relies on, kind of, modeling and figuring out how you actually make that work with industry,” he said. He noted that the plan was not thoroughly mapped out to 2050; in the 33 years until then, a lot can change.

The city, which contains hundreds of miles of coastline and at some points is barely five feet above sea level, is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to the potential for floods, which was seen to a chaotic degree in 2012 during Superstorm Sandy. The mayor, at the Red Hook press conference, pressed the issue.

“There's no question about it,” de Blasio said. “Hurricane Sandy, the nor'easter, all that occurred in that superstorm was because of climate change. We've already borne the brunt here in New York City. It's only going to get worse if something is not done quickly to reverse the course the Earth is on.”

Transit policy would likely be an area of significant interest in a New York committed to the Paris agreement, due to the amount of emissions from vehicles. The city is responsible for the large fleet of vehicles it owns, ranging from emergency vehicles, sanitation vehicles, the mayor’s transport, and others. Meanwhile, the MTA, which is controlled by the state rather than the city, is responsible for bus, subway, Metro North, and the Long Island Rail Road service. Some vehicles services are contracted to private vendors, such as school buses.

The MTA has long been a point of contention between City Hall and the Capitol, more so of late as the subways are in crisis, with funding negotiations part of the long-running feud between the governor and the mayor. But reducing greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles will require cooperation, and will in all likelihood involve investment in MTA projects with the goal of reducing the number of vehicles on the road and reducing emissions from some of those that stay in circulation.

The MTA in April announced road tests for electric buses to join a fleet consisting of diesel, hybrid electric diesel, and natural gas-powered buses. The NYC Clean Fleet plan, part of OneNYC, calls for 2,000 new electric vehicles to be added to the city’s fleet by 2025.

But ambitious transportation projects, the type that could reduce the city’s carbon footprint significantly, frequently become stalled due to lack of adequate funding, or disagreements between Albany and the City, especially when those projects must go through the MTA. The first leg of the Second Avenue Subway was opened in January after being in progress for almost 90 years. The mayor’s request for a study to consider funding an extension of the subway along Brooklyn’s Utica Avenue, the southern stretch of which is a notorious subway desert, has led nowhere.

De Blasio has been behind an expansion of Citi Bike in the city and recently launched the first phase of a new ferry service that has initially shown to be quite popular.

Despite the fanfare around transportation policy, the lion’s share of city emissions comes not from vehicles, but from buildings. In a statement on June 8, City Council Member Brad Lander said, “without stronger energy efficiency standards for buildings – which account for 75 percent of New York City's total emissions – we will fail to meet our urgent goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.”

Lander and fellow Council Member Jumaane Williams called on the mayor to require large buildings to be retrofitted for energy efficiency. The administration has pursued policy regarding retrofitting through the One City Built to Last program and other initiatives; last October the mayor signed a trio of bills that, according to the mayor’s office, “are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 250,000 metric tons, and spur retrofits in 16,000 buildings.”

Unger believes that despite large and important steps in the right direction, through initiatives such as the 80 x 50 plan and the One City initiative, there are still large strides to be made.

“I think there’s a general recognition that the energy code needs to keep getting stronger,” he said, referring to the city’s Energy Conservation Code. He continued, “there are lots of places where the code still doesn’t make sense, where there are requirements that are kind of based on older technologies. Cleaning those up is something to look at.”

Some believe that the furor that erupted after Trump’s Paris Accord announcement is overstated. Unger believes that the city and state will not be impacted all that much by the withdrawal.

“You know you got a strong team, and the coach goes on hiatus, you can keep playing. And so you have a lot of states and a lot of cities that have strong policies and have strong industries, and those things aren’t going anywhere,” he said. “New York State was already going to be ahead of what it would be required to do under Obama’s Clean Power Plan. So the Clean Power Plan disappears; we’re still going to be ahead of it.”

The mayor has been criticized for lecturing the public on playing their part in lowering the city’s carbon footprint while having his SUV detail drive him 11 miles many days from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side to his gym in Park Slope. The mayor has responded that his individual behavior is not what’s important, but rather, what’s important is encompassed within the policy he sets. “I don’t think the vast majority of New Yorkers care about this. They care about the results,” the mayor told NY1’s Errol Louis of his gym routine.

However, some believe that he is setting a bad example by exempting himself from the individual responsibilities associated with mitigating climate change while telling the public to change behavior, such as by using fewer plastic bags. The mayor argues that he is the mayor, with a unique life and schedule, and that he chips in in his own ways, like through recycling. He also said that the SUVs are hybrids and that because of his unique power as mayor, he can affect widespread policy that has a huge impact.

Unger believes that, despite the fanfare regarding the mayor’s gym routine, robust policy is indeed where the focus must be.

by Ben Brachfeld

Policy Implications of the Mayor’s Paris Climate Order Wed, 21 Jun 2017 21:48:27 +0000
New Yorkers Deserve Answers About the State’s Nuclear Bailout indian point

Climate change is a serious threat to New York. With so much of the state’s population, infrastructure and economic activity crammed into the coastal communities of the New York metropolitan area, sea level rise and increasingly intense hurricane seasons spell certain disaster in the long term.

In light of this, I’m sure that I share the concerns of many New Yorkers in expressing my disgust with President Trump’s executive action aimed at dismantling Obama-era climate regulations. That’s why it’s more important than ever to take action at the state level to combat this growing threat.

New York has already developed an ambitious Clean Energy Standard with a “50 by 30” goal of generating at least 50% of New York State's electricity from renewable energy sources by 2030, and reducing carbon emissions by 40% by that same year. These are important efforts that should be undertaken transparently and with the full cooperation of both government and the general public.

Sadly, that has not been the case. Last month, the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which I chair, held a joint hearing with the Committees on Energy, Consumer Affairs and Protection, and Environmental Conservation to examine state plans around nuclear power plants and utility costs for New Yorkers.

Specifically, our hearing was intended to provide New York ratepayers with the opportunity to learn more about the state’s plan to offer Zero-Emissions Credits (ZECs) to upstate nuclear power plants and the program’s potential impact on utility costs. We invited the Public Service Commission (PSC) to testify about its controversial plan to provide ZECs. However, by failing to even appear before the committees, PSC officials continue to keep ratepayers in the dark on some of the program’s most pressing and questionable aspects.

The PSC even added insult to injury by sending a letter to me and my three fellow committee chairs giving conflicting reasons for its absence. In its letter, the PSC accuses us of not giving them sufficient notice for the hearing, while simultaneously blaming pending lawsuits brought by environmental groups against the Clean Energy Standard.

This is exactly the kind of half-baked reasoning we’ve seen recently from our federal government: blame as many groups and individuals as possible and see what sticks. The simple fact is that New Yorkers deserve transparency on such a vital issue, and yet the PSC is offering us just the opposite.

The Trump comparisons don’t end there. The plan would also mandate companies under the PSC’s jurisdiction to purchase these credits to subsidize four unprofitable upstate nuclear plants, all owned by the Exelon Corporation. The cost to ratepayers is estimated to total as much as $7.6 billion over the next 12 years. This is corporate welfare, pure and simple, with downstate ratepayers footing 60% of the bill and getting zero in economic benefit. The President would be proud.

My colleagues and I continue to demand that the PSC testify on these matters, and we’re prepared to fight until we get answers to our questions: How were these plants determined to need the subsidies? What are the potential taxpayer-funded profits for this private corporation? New York ratepayers deserve to know.

It's time we shine a light on our state’s electrical network, and ensure that the term “green energy” applies to the environmental impact for our state, not the economic impact to a company’s bottom line.

Assembly Member Jeffrey Dinowitz (D – Bronx) Chairs the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions. On Twitter @JeffreyDinowitz.

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New Yorkers Deserve Answers About the State’s Nuclear Bailout Thu, 06 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Cuomo Holds the Key to Bold Climate Action in 2017  latrice walker

Assemblymember Latrice Walker, the author

Here are a few things we know:

President Trump’s policies benefit the one-percent.

His agenda, particularly dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as rolling back climate and public health protections that New Yorkers benefit from, disproportionately harms low-income communities of color. (The World Health Organization just released data that 1.7 million children die annually worldwide due to environmental pollution.)

Trump’s denial of the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, and gutting of life-saving policies like strong vehicle emission standards, will push our planet to the brink of catastrophe, jeopardizing vulnerable people while enriching the fossil fuel executives driving his backwards energy policy.

Here’s what we also know:

Governor Cuomo holds the key to leading the nation in climate action with passage of the Climate and Community Protection Act in this year’s State Budget.

This groundbreaking bill sets into law the elimination of climate pollution from all economic sectors in New York, while making sure at least 40-percent of state energy funding is directed to disadvantaged communities, also attaching fair labor standards to a robust renewable jobs agenda.

Like most New Yorkers, I’ve seen the devastating impacts of climate change, especially in the communities I represent in New York City. Superstorm Sandy hit frontline communities first and worst – after the flood, there were outbreaks of mold in public housing that greatly exacerbated the already chronic problems of asthma and bronchitis in communities like East New York and Brownsville.

Another well-documented firsthand impact is the “urban heat island,” which creates dangerous temperatures in the summer, especially for seniors, children, and those with chronic illness.

In other words, even when New Yorkers are not directly harmed by a weather event, the pollution fostering extreme weather, and the aftermath when the storm has passed, compromises our health.

If we don’t get a handle on this problem, it’s going to run away from us, with disastrous consequences.

Tackling climate change isn’t just a safety measure for my community, but every community represented by the Governor and my colleagues in state government. As Chair of the Assembly’s Subcommittee on Renewable Energy, I know that bold action is a down payment on a new future – one built on wind power, solar power, microgrids, energy retrofits, and community-shared renewable energy.

According to data from the Solar Foundation, the solar industry in 2015 added jobs 12-times faster than the rest of the economy.

Last August, wind industry jobs were on track to end the year up more than 20 percent according to the U.S. Wind Industry Annual Market Report.

That means if we make the right policies now, those jobs can be guaranteed to support families and lift up our communities.

There’s a tremendous risk in doing nothing in the face of Trump’s intransigence, or to simply continue the status quo. If New York ups its ambition, we can be the lodestar to the entire country, rising to the climate challenge in a way that lifts thousands of people into the middle class and protects our most vulnerable communities at the same time.

No state in the country is better prepared, and no legislation in the country better accomplishes that goal, than the Climate and Community Protection Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Steven Englebright, championed by the NY Renews coalition, and placed on the budget negotiating table by the Assembly Majority.

Last year it passed the Assembly easily. But Senate leadership refused to allow a vote despite having a clear and bipartisan majority of support. If Senate leadership continues to blindly follow the lead of the only national political party that denies climate science, then it’s up to Governor Cuomo to join the Assembly to make sure that the key provisions of the bill are included in this year’s enacted state budget.

Climate change is not an “environmental issue.” It is fundamentally an issue of both racial and economic justice, two principles we hold dear as New Yorkers. As Trump and his cronies shirk the responsibilities of history, New Yorkers can and must lead.

Assemblymember Latrice Walker represents parts of Brooklyn and is Chair of the Assembly Subcommittee on Renewable Energy. On Twitter @AssemblyLWalker.

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Cuomo Holds the Key to Bold Climate Action in 2017 Tue, 21 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Protecting the Hudson: Federal-State Partnership or Conflict? dec hudson river hudson falls upper hudson

Hudson Falls, upper Hudson River (photo: NY DEC)

Who is responsible for keeping the Hudson River free from pollution? Actually, it is a responsibility shared by Federal and State authorities. Sometimes they agree; other times, they may be at cross purposes. That can make for some interesting political debate and interplay between the federal and state governments.

Two current environmental issues are good examples.

Cleaning up PCBs in the Hudson
GE dumped PCBs, toxic chemicals resulting from its manufacturing facilities in Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, into the Hudson for many years. Most of the chemicals settled to the bottom but some drifted downstream. They were ingested by fish, leading to a ban on eating fish caught in the river. After years of controversy and discussion, GE agreed to pay for dredging the river from Fort Edward to Troy, under supervision of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a federal Superfund project. Dredging work began in 2009 and concluded in 2015 with the removal of some 310,000 pounds of PCBs. GE called it a "major environmental success" and declared it had met its cleanup responsibilities.  

EPA monitored the work and expressed satisfaction as it went along. EPA is scheduled to test sediment and fish mostly near the site once more in 2017 and then was expected to certify that GE had met its obligations. When the dredging concluded in 2015, EPA allowed GE to dismantle its PCB processing plant at Fort Edward with the implication that the work was done. The Cuomo administration did not object. Political pundits pointed out that at the time the administration was trying to convince GE to move its headquarters from Connecticut to New York. GE ended up moving to Boston instead.

But the PCB issue is not resolved.

In strongly-worded letters to the EPA in November and December, 2016, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Basil Seggos expressed "significant concerns" and asserted that "EPA's work is not done." The river is still "much more contaminated than EPA originally predicted." He added, "it is clear that the dredging performed will not meet...targeted fish PCB concentrations and EPA will not be able to deliver on the projected benefits to public health and the environment from this cleanup unless additional actions are undertaken." Much more sampling and testing are needed, along the entire length of the river from Fort Edward all the way to New York City.

"It's simple," Seggos explained. "DEC is calling on the EPA to finish the job and hold GE accountable for cleaning up the Hudson River. If EPA won't do the job and protect New Yorkers and the environment, DEC is ready to step in and lead."

The war of words escalated in December. EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck wrote Seggos on December 21 to say, "we strongly disagree" with the "baseless accusation" that EPA has not done its job. She rejected his demand for additional sampling beyond what EPA was already planning, adding that "NYSDEC is free to pursue that sampling itself if it so chooses."

EPA will make its decision early this year on whether GE needs to do more dredging.

Keeping oil off the Hudson
A consortium of maritime and oil companies has proposed construction of 10 "anchorages"  along the shores of the Hudson River, from Kingston to Yonkers, to store large barges carrying crude oil south from Albany. The anchorages would include a total of 40 berths, or parking spaces, for the ships. The proposal resulted from a decision by Congress last year ending a ban on export of oil produced in the lower 48 states.

Proponents say that the action by Congress will increase the amount of oil moving by rail to the Port of Albany and then down the Hudson by boat. Their proposal will produce jobs, help lower energy costs, and boost the economy, they say.

Opponents counter that the anchorages are unnecessary and will cause environmental damage to the river.

The U.S. Coast Guard has legal responsibility for reviewing and deciding on the proposal. It has received more than 10,000 comments from interested citizens, environmental groups, local governments, and others.

New York state government weighed in with two long letters in December.

A joint letter to the Coast Guard from the New York Secretary of State, Department of Environmental Conservation, Public Service Commission, and Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, set forth a long list of concerns about the proposal and called for more study, concluding that the proposal "lacks sufficient justification and detail." The state agencies expressed concern about the number of anchorages, lack of specificity about how many barges would be accommodated or how long they would stay, impact on state parks and other state-owned lands, the risks of accidents and spills, and the impact on fish, particularly two species of endangered sturgeon that inhabit the Hudson. But they couched their reservations not as outright opposition but instead mostly in terms of assertions that there needs to be lots more study and consultation.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who sometimes makes a point of expressing positions on public issues that are independent from those of the Cuomo administration, sent his own letter, not to the Coast Guard but to the head of its parent agency, the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Schneiderman asserted that the Coast Guard should discontinue consideration of the proposal until it is reviewed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which Schneiderman asserts is required by law. But he went on to express more direct opposition than his colleagues in the other New York State agencies. “No one has demonstrated a manifest need for so many new anchorage sites along the river; no one has demonstrated a need for long-term anchorage at any of those specific locations...." The barges "would create significant security and hazard risks" particularly since the anchorages "would essentially allow barges to serve as oil storage facilities on the river,” he wrote.

The Coast Guard will decide on the barge anchorage proposal early in 2017.

The Hudson River and public policy
The Hudson River's extraordinary historical importance magnifies the importance of these issues. "Far more than a short river flowing through New York State, the Hudson is a thread that runs through the fabric of four centuries of American civilization -- its culture, its community, and its consciousness," wrote Tom Lewis in The Hudson: A History. It is "the valley where nature's creation and human creation meet, the river that connects so much of America's past with its present and future, unchangeable in presence yet always changing."

The PCB and oil barge issues illustrate a number of themes. Public opinion recognizes the commercial importance of the Hudson River. But people seem more concerned these days with the river's historical, aesthetic, scenic, and recreational values. Commercial exploitation has been at least partially upstaged by insistence on preservation for public benefit. There is a consensus that public authorities need to enforce policies to keep the river clean and, to the degree practical, that polluters need to clean up their pollution under government supervision.

But major policy decisions turn primarily on scientific evidence, and some imprecision is inevitable. When has there been "enough" dredging of PCBs? How much harm will giant oil barges cause to protected fish habitats? When federal and state perspectives and standards differ, which should prevail? How should economic and commercial benefits be balanced against environmental concerns?

These questions will be debated as the two issues discussed above play out in 2017. They are judgment calls that, inevitably, whether we admit it or not, are tinged with political considerations. But they are the sorts of issues that will continue to reverberate in environmental discussions here in New York, and indeed across the nation, in coming years.

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne's latest book is The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State's History, published in 2015 by SUNY Press.

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Protecting the Hudson: Federal-State Partnership or Conflict? Tue, 03 Jan 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Solar is Clean, Popular and Under Attack solar panels house

Solar panel installation (SolarCity)

Let’s start with the good news.

Solar energy is growing and more popular than ever.

The amount of solar energy installed in the United States has quadrupled since 2010, generating enough energy to power 1 in 20 American homes.

In 2016, the United States witnessed its millionth solar installation and the industry expects to hit 2 million solar installations in just the next two years.

All this growth in solar power brings tangible benefits to local communities across New York.
Environmentally, solar power reduces the need for harmful fossil fuels and cuts pollution that science shows causes climate change. Here in New York, we know we need to act now to reduce the worst impacts of climate change. We already see its manifestations in hotter summers, wildfires, and more frequent extreme weather events.

Economically, solar power can lower energy bills over time as an energy source with zero fuel costs. It also creates local jobs. In 2015, solar employed over 8,200 people in New York. At the end of 2015, solar employed more Americans than the oil and gas extraction industry.

Furthermore, solar power fosters civic engagement between decision-makers and energy stakeholders, from homeowners to school principals and small business owners, creating more invested parties in the future of clean energy across New York.

Because of these benefits, solar power is tremendously popular across the political spectrum. Recent polls show that majorities of Republicans and Democrats support the advancement of clean energy.

Now here’s the bad news.

As solar power has grown, it has been attacked by entrenched energy interests who see rooftop solar as an existential threat to their bottom line.

A new report by Environment New York Research & Policy Center, Blocking the Sun, documents 17 fossil fuel-backed groups and electric utilities running some of the most aggressive campaigns to slow the growth of solar energy throughout the country.

Rather than value the full benefits of distributed solar energy, these utilities and their fossil fuel backers have attempted to cut credits to solar customers and charge them extra fees. In some states, they have even attempted to do away with renewable energy standards altogether.

The fact is we can’t maintain a status quo mostly filled with an energy portfolio of gas, coal, and nuclear power plants that threaten our environment and our health. We need to tap into solar and renewable energy sources on rooftops across New York and beyond.

Of the findings, the report documents how the Koch brothers have provided funding to the national fight against solar by funneling tens of millions of dollars through a network of opaque non-profits; the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has provided utility and fossil fuel interests with access to state legislatures and inspired anti-solar legislation in a group of states; utilities in Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Nevada, Ohio, West Virginia, California, and Illinois have undertaken extensive campaigns to revoke renewable energy policy or impose new charges on their solar customers.

In mid-2016, there were at least 84 ongoing policy actions in U.S. states that could impact the growth of solar energy, including limitations to net metering or new charges to make rooftop solar power less economically viable.

With all the advantages of solar energy, we can’t just turn our back on tapping the power of the sun. So far, New York leaders have stood up to those who have wanted to stop progress of rooftop solar. Let’s make sure they know how much support there is for solar power and continue to push back against attempts to stunt the growth of renewable energy.

Heather Leibowitz, Esq. is the Director of Environment New York, a statewide advocacy organization. On Twitter @EnvNY.

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Solar is Clean, Popular and Under Attack Wed, 28 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000
Building in the Wrong Places: A Pivotal Choice hudson river park aerial

photo: Hudson River Park Trust

Building sites for so-called "parks" or other misplaced uses in or over the water offshore is a ruinous policy. Unprecedented proposals now before the City Council to help finance such in-water construction by selling legally dubious "air rights" (supposedly unused development rights) from sites in the lower Hudson River--starting with Pier 40--or other public waterways to mega-developers would magnify this harmful policy's potentially catastrophic citywide impacts.

Joanne Witty's Dec. 2 op-ed contained misrepresentations used by both the Hudson River Park Trust (HRPT) and the Brooklyn Bridge Park Corporation to market the in-water parts of these public authorities' projects. In both cases, the green space on dry land under their purview is genuine parkland. But the real estate these authorities plan to keep rebuilding in the water in the guise of a park is not.

The public waterway in the lower Hudson River--the natural resource now under the gravest immediate threat--is not a "park.” The River's priceless nearshore waters are the worst possible place to build or rebuild real estate for any non-water-dependent use. The 490 acres of open waters and piers and other structures under HRPT's jurisdiction are in a #1 (highest risk) hurricane evacuation zone, so building sites to attract more people to the river at that location puts too many people in harm's way in deadly storms. These waters are also an irreplaceable aquatic habitat for living marine resources, including valuable coastal fisheries. And the river's open waters are a treasured public open space resource for many thousands of New Yorkers.

Some good reporting on the risks to human life and property from building real estate offshore followed right after Superstorm Sandy, but since then too many investigative reporters have been asleep at the switch. The staggering risks to public safety from Hudson River development are matched only by the risks to city finances and to sensible public spending priorities, since under disastrous 2013 state legislation city and state taxpayers would be on the hook for storm and hurricane damage costs and liability claims and disaster recovery costs -- potentially billions of dollars worth, based on Superstorm Sandy.

Stealth 2013 amendments to the Hudson River Park Act approved when now-convicted State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos were still in office shifted massive financial risks to taxpayers. This appalling package of 2013 amendments also paved the way for this week's "air rights transfers from the Hudson River" City Council proposals (LU 0506-2016 and related actions).

None of the Council's large staff had made timely, accurate information about these complex proposals public before crucial Council subcommittee and committee actions Dec. 5, despite an outpouring of opposition from Sierra Club, Clean Air Campaign, Friends of the Earth, and other activists. If the full Council approves and signs off on unprecedented, legally dubious "air rights" transfers from public waterways on Dec. 15, high-risk, complex financing schemes are likely to follow.

For what purpose? To implement a budget-busting, legally dubious, environmentally destructive, astronomically expensive 1960s policy that would unleash totally avoidable risks on New Yorkers today—along with swarms of “air rights” poised to land on any neighborhood where politicians want to make a deal to misuse our air, water and land.

That policy (building and rebuilding in-water development sites offshore) should be firmly rejected by any City Council member who values public safety, disaster prevention, genuine sustainability and resiliency policies that work, and fairer, wiser city spending priorities.

Marcy Benstock is executive director of Clean Air Campaign and its Open Rivers Project. Clean Air Campaign shares the website with other groups.

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Building in the Wrong Places: A Pivotal Choice Sun, 11 Dec 2016 05:00:00 +0000