Hochul Walks Back Push to ‘Weaken’ Climate Law After Uproar
Gov. Kathy Hochul had proposed revising the state’s landmark 2019 law in an effort to reduce costs for state residents.
Under pressure from scientists, environmentalists and lawmakers, Gov. Kathy Hochul backed off on Wednesday from a proposal to rewrite the state’s landmark climate law — an effort that her critics said would have fundamentally undermined the measure.
Speaking to reporters in Albany on Wednesday afternoon, state officials said that the administration would not prioritize the proposal in the state budget, which is now under negotiation, but would continue to pursue it and other initiatives that would make the transition to a green economy affordable for New Yorkers.
“We’re focusing on the environment, making sure that we have affordability embedded into our nation-leading climate change initiatives, which I’m very proud of,” Ms. Hochul told reporters on Wednesday.
Ms. Hochul’s decision to walk back her push to change the law, the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, came the same day that some two dozen professors, including scientists from Cornell University, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sent a letter to her office protesting her bid to “weaken” the measure, which requires the state to meet aggressive emissions reductions targets.
The basic contours of the proposal that Ms. Hochul was supporting first surfaced in a bill introduced just days before the state’s budget deadline. It sparked a firestorm in Albany, amid concerns that the governor was trying to make an end run around one of the nation’s strongest climate laws.
The changes Ms. Hochul had backed included altering the time frame used to measure greenhouse gas emissions in a way that critics said would have benefited the energy industry.
The proposal had won the backing of an airline industry group and Energy Vision, an organization that champions the interests of the bioenergy and renewable natural gas industries. Todd Kaminsky, who helped craft the climate law when he was a state senator, lobbied to amend it on behalf of Energy Vision. He declined to comment for this story.
The element of the proposal that gained the most attention was the bid to substitute New York’s 20-year accounting method for greenhouse emissions with a 100-year accounting method. State officials argued that the current method, unique to New York and Maryland, would be costly for New York consumers, and could possibly undermine climate change efforts.
Environmentalists argued that the change would underplay the impact of methane, a potent gas that dissipates in the atmosphere more quickly than carbon dioxide.
Methane is a chief component in the natural gas that many New Yorkers use for cooking and heating their homes, and which the industry has sought to position as a cleaner alternative to coal and oil. It is also a byproduct of organic decomposition that Mr. Kaminsky’s clients would like to repurpose for lower-carbon fuel.
“The short-lived gases, such as methane, are the biggest and most important knobs we have to turn down the rate at which our planet warms,” according to the Wednesday letter signed by, among others, Edwin A. Cowen, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University.
Mr. Cowen said he was “pleasantly surprised” by Ms. Hochul’s decision. “I think the backlash was incredibly strong and swift,” he said.
Ms. Hochul has supported a range of other climate actions, including a “Cap and Invest” program that would force polluters to purchase allowances from the state, the cost of which would be used to fund climate initiatives and offset consumer costs.
Still, her administration insists that the accounting method should be changed, noting that the current approach includes some emissions that occur in other states, adding to costs for New Yorkers. The administration has stressed that the proposed shift would bring New York in line with states like California and Washington, as well as with the federal government.
Backers of the governor, including Tristan Brown, a board member of Energy Vision and associate professor at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, say that the current accounting method artificially increases New York’s emissions, and thus, the amount and cost of reductions.
By Mr. Brown’s analysis, New York will have to reduce emissions by about 20 percent more under its current law than it would have to if it adopted the federal model. Mr. Brown, who has received funding from National Grid, the biofuel industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimated the cost of the additional reductions to be $4.7 billion.
Analysis put forth by the governor suggests that the cost would be shared with consumers, leading them to pay an average of $595 more each year per family on natural gas, for example, versus $330 more under the federal accounting method.
Industry members and fiscal conservatives have long warned that environmental goals would lead to increased costs. But the governor’s critics say that moving the goal posts will fundamentally undermine the efficacy of the state’s climate plan.
“Changing our methane accounting means we save money by simply not doing what we need to do to save human civilization — which doesn’t seem like much of a savings to me,” State Senator Liz Krueger, who leads the Senate Finance Committee, said in a statement.
The presence of methane in the earth’s atmosphere rose during the 20th century, only to level off in the first decade of the 21st century, according to Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University who helped craft the state’s climate law. But with the growth of the shale gas industry, the presence of methane in the atmosphere began to skyrocket and “is now rising faster than it ever has before,” he said.
Mr. Howarth warned that the ongoing emission of greenhouse gases risked further melting of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice and Greenland ice sheets, and the dramatic — and catastrophic — slowing of the North Atlantic’s system of ocean currents.
Stopping the ocean currents would be devastating for agriculture in North America and Europe, he said. “You’re talking mass famine if that were to happen. Does anyone think about that? And it could happen in the time period of 10, 20, 40 years.”
State officials argue that the financial burden of such a regime on customers could run the climate plan aground on the shoals of statewide sticker shock, putting the entire plan in jeopardy; a more palatable plan for New Yorkers would be far superior.
“I don’t see a law as a victory,” Basil Seggos, commissioner of the State Department of Environmental Conservation, said in an interview earlier this week. “I see implementing the law as a victory, and if the law itself becomes too costly to implement, then ultimately it doesn’t succeed.”