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Archive for February 2017

The Attorney General’s Fight With Exxon Continues

Posted by NYPIRG on February 27, 2017 at 8:34 am
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Recently, a Congressional committee once again took aim at New York State Attorney General Schneiderman and his investigation of oil-giant ExxonMobil.  The action was a subpoena issued by Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas. Representative Smith is the chair of the United States House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.  His subpoena is to obtain internal records from the New York State Attorney General’s investigation of ExxonMobil, which may be intended as a way to derail any action.

The AG is contesting that demand.

In 2015, the Attorney General launched an investigation into whether ExxonMobil had deliberately ignored its own research about the dangers of global warming and instead set about a campaign to mislead the public – and investors – about the dangers caused by burning fossil fuels, one of which is oil.

And while the AG’s investigation of possible illegality will play out in the courts, what seems clear is that ExxonMobil used its knowledge of global warming not as a tool to educate the world on the rising dangers to the planet, but instead to confuse the public and muddy the debate.

As recent media investigations have found, the oil industry leader — ExxonMobil — has for decades known of the dangers of global warming and that burning fossil fuels was a key driver in raising global temperatures.

According to corporate documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, a leading Exxon researcher told an audience of engineers at a conference in 1991 that greenhouse gases are rising “due to the burning of fossil fuels. Nobody disputes this fact.” The senior Exxon researcher went on to add that there was no doubt those levels would double by the middle of the 21st century.

Yet at the same time, the company was telling its shareholders concerned about climate change that it had studied the science of global warming and concluded it was too murky to warrant action. The company said that its “examination of the issue supports the conclusions that the facts today and the projection of future effects are very unclear.”

Why would a company with well-documented research hide its conclusions and publicly argue the opposite? According to the LA Times, it was that Exxon feared a growing public consensus would lead to financially burdensome government policies.

And they succeeded.  So much so that national political figures, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, still argue that global warming is a hoax.  Furthermore, ExxonMobil’s former CEO is now the Secretary of State, and a leading opponent of the science of climate change is now the head of the US Environmental Protection Agency.  And the President says he doesn’t believe in the science either.

Exxon now argues that their internal science led them to make statements that at the time they believed were the truth.  The AG’s investigation may well shed light on the truth of that statement.

But what cannot be ignored is that climate changes are occurring due to global warming – and that such warming is primarily the result of human activity. The world has lost valuable time due to the tactics of the opponents of that scientific fact. As a result, millions worldwide will suffer.

Setting the record straight about what Exxon knew and when it knew it is important to moving forward decisively on climate change in 2017.

But with the nation’s political leaders firmly in the climate denial camp, the country and the world cannot expect action to help mitigate the damage caused by the oil industry’s strategies.  It is up to the states.

Which brings me back to the investigation by the state Attorney General.  It will take action by AG’s like New York’s Eric Schneiderman, Massachusetts AG Maura Healy and others to hold the oil industry to account and hope that those revelations finally break the stranglehold over climate change policies.

New Yorkers want Schneiderman to act.  Last week, over 350 state organizations delivered a letter to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in support of his investigation of ExxonMobil.

New Yorkers, unlike the Congressional leadership, want action on climate change.  A thorough investigation by the AG could help spur such action.  Time will tell.

The Governor’s Cancer Fighting Budget Falls Far Short

Posted by NYPIRG on February 21, 2017 at 8:11 am
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The governor has done a lot to promote the state’s program to boost breast cancer screening rates.  He spent considerable time advocating for the expanded program and made it a centerpiece of his 2016 State of the State address.  But cancer is not only a women’s issue, it affects all of us.

Cancer is the second leading cause of death in America – a close second to heart disease. According to the American Cancer Society, in 2017 an estimated 107,000 New Yorkers will receive a cancer diagnosis and nearly 36,000 New Yorkers will die from the disease.

Four cancers – female breast, prostate, colon and lung cancers – are responsible for roughly half of the cancers expected in New York State – both in terms of the number of cases and the estimated number of deaths.  Those “big four” drive the state’s cancer experience.

Of course, high rates of cancer occurrence do not necessarily translate to deaths occurring at the same rate.  While female breast cancer is the leading cancer for women, for example, it is not the leading cancer killer.

That “distinction” is reserved for lung cancer.  Lung cancer is far and away the biggest cancer killer in New York State, accounting for roughly one quarter of all cancer deaths.

And that key statistic should drive public policy.  We know that the overwhelming majority of lung cancers result from exposure to tobacco smoke.

There is no news there.

Using the experiences of states like New York, the federal government has offered blueprints on how to design tobacco control programs to have the most beneficial impact.  And here is where the wheels start to come off in New York.

The CDC recommends that New York State spend roughly $200 million on its tobacco control program.  But New York never has.  In terms of spending on tobacco control, the high water mark was in FY2007-08 when the state spent over $85 million.  But tobacco control spending has declined since 2008.

The program has suffered from devastating cuts during the Cuomo Administration and has lost more than half of its funding from ten years ago.  New York State was once considered the fifth best in tobacco control efforts; due to these budget cuts, it has tumbled to 22nd.

What is most inexplicable about this approach is that the state has the money for the program.  It collects over $1 billion in tobacco taxes and other revenues.

In this year’s budget, the Administration is expecting that additional revenues from legal settlements with the tobacco companies will start to flow again this year, with a 125 million new dollars expected.

Yet, the governor proposes no new money to fight tobacco use.

In another health area, the governor is proposing a massive cut to the state’s “evidence-based cancer services” program.  That program offers breast, cervical and colon cancer screenings to those who need it.  It is a program that already comes nowhere near meeting the needs of the eligible population, yet faces the budget axe.

Cutting colon cancer screening, and keeping funding for the tobacco control program at only 20 percent of the funding level that experts at the CDC recommend, means that some New Yorkers who may not have gotten cancer are now at a greater risk.

As lawmakers move ahead on developing a final budget, they should make sure that new revenues are added to the state’s tobacco control and cancer screening programs.  Not only is it the right thing to do, those investments will save lives down the road.

The state has the money.  The public has a need.  The state should spend it wisely and follow the advice of the nation’s experts.

A $7.6 Billion “Tax” That’s Not Part of the Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on February 13, 2017 at 9:17 am
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It’s not only winter in Albany, it’s budget season—arguably the biggest and most important job for the Legislature each year.  Once the governor proposes his budget, it’s up to the Legislature to decide how to react.  Every year, both houses of the Legislature hold joint hearings to look into what the governor has proposed.  This year is no different.

Virtually every working day since the last week of January up until President’s Day, hearings on various budgetary topics are taken up.  Usually the heads of the relevant state agencies testify first followed by various business and nonprofit interest groups and any members of the public.

The hearings are supposed to cover all aspects of the governor’s proposed state budget.

But some topics fall outside of the hearings.  One such case is the decision by the Cuomo Administration to jack up electricity rates by an estimated $7.6 billion.  You heard that right, $7.6 billion.

Under the Cuomo proposal, everyone has to pay.  It is being imposed by the government, so it is essentially a “tax.”  But since it was imposed by a state agency – in this case the Public Service Commission – the Legislature has no direct say.

And, despite it being a hike on everyone, the public has had little say in the decision.

What makes this different than a traditional tax is that the benefits are not going to the government, or to individuals in need, or to broadly enhance the public’s interest.  Instead, the money is being directed into the coffers of an Illinois-based company, Exelon, which is one of the most profitable companies in America.

Some have called this is the biggest transfer of wealth in New York State history.

While not part of the budget, the issue of the Administration’s bailout of aging, inefficient nuclear power plants located on Lake Ontario will have a huge financial impact on every resident, local government, non-profit group and business in the state, and divert funds from transitioning to clean, green renewable energy.

The impact will be real: if you’re a National Grid residential customer, $465 million will be added to electricity rates over the next twelve years.  For New York State Electric and Gas energy consumers, nearly $350 million.  For ConEd residential ratepayers (who already pay one of the highest rates in the nation) another $700 million will be tacked on.

And while many of us may be able to absorb the additional increases, many cannot.  There are roughly 6.5 million residential ratepayers, but more than 800,000 – or one in eight – are currently more than 60 days behind their due dates on their electric bill.

Hiking those rates even more will not help.

The Trump Administration and New York

Posted by NYPIRG on February 6, 2017 at 8:41 am
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The public focus on policymaking at the state Capitol has taken a backseat to the actions of the Trump Administration.  Almost from the minute the new President was inaugurated, his nonstop, frantic pace has captured the nation’s attention.

In his first sixteen days, President Trump has pledged to construct a wall between the United States and Mexico, imposed new sanctions on Iran, ordered that no refugees from seven mostly-Muslim nations could enter the US, made the preposterous statement that the crowd size of his inaugural was the largest seen, and has continued to claim that voter fraud allowed millions to vote – incredibly only for his opponent – even though there is not a shred of evidence that this is true.  Incredibly, the Trump Administration cites “alternative facts” as the basis for its claims.

In such a political environment, New Yorkers can be excused for not paying close attention to debates at the state Capitol.

When it comes to environmental policy, the Trump Administration had ignored well established scientific evidence that the burning of fossil fuels is a prime contributor to global warming.  The President has chosen the former head of ExxonMobil to be his Secretary of State and chosen individuals who ignore science as the heads of important environmental agencies, such as the EPA.

In addition, the President has also taken steps to overturn the Obama Administration’s limitations on coal mining and the construction of oil pipelines in the Midwest.

Here in New York, there has largely been a different approach: the governor has followed the advice of experts that the best place for fossil fuel is in the ground and banned the exploitation of natural gas through fracking, and he has advanced plans to encourage the use of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar.

Yet, the Cuomo Administration has approved permits for the construction of a 200 mile pipeline to deliver fossil fuels.  The Administration has done so quietly, flying under the radar of the Trump spectacle.

When it comes to ethics, the spotlight has remained on the President.  He simply refuses to completely disentangle himself from his business dealings and he still hasn’t released his tax returns – despite promises to do so.  In a decision which could lead to serious consequences for American consumers, the President issued an executive order that halted the implementation of another federal rule which mandated financial advisers act in the best interests of their clients.

On a more positive note, the President signed several executive orders — an ethics order banning administration appointees from ever lobbying foreign governments and from federal lobbying for five years after they leave office.

Here in New York, despite corruption scandals of historic proportions, there has been little movement to overhaul oversight to rely on independent agencies.  Instead, the governor has proposed the creation of a number of new watchdogs – but who are appointed by, and are accountable to, the governor.

It has been the lack of independent oversight that has contributed to Albany’s scandals.

It makes perfect sense for all Americans to pay close attention to the new Administration in Washington.  The new President enjoys the spotlight and has challenged the status quo with new approaches and, unfortunately, deceptions and deliberate falsehoods to hide his intentions and to mislead the public.

Yet, there is a necessary challenge to also focus on the actions of state government.  In a quote often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “eternal vigilance is the price we pay for liberty.”

The work of holding elected officials accountable is the responsibility of all citizens.  Given New York’s recent scandals and the deliberate deceptions of the new Trump Administration, we will all have our hands full.

The consequences will be dire, if we neglect that responsibility.