Archive for April 2022

Earth Week 2022

Posted by NYPIRG on April 25, 2022 at 10:19 am

April 22nd was Earth Day.  Since 1970 the world has marked Earth Day as a time to reflect on the state of the environment and debate how best to improve the only habitat we have. As we know, the world faces an existential threat posed by climate changes driven by global warming.

There is no longer a credible debate over whether human activity, primarily the use of fossil fuels to create energy, is warming the planet. According to the world’s climate experts: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic [human-caused] emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.  Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) experts tell us that human society has to curb its carbon emissions by at least 50% by 2030 and then achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to avoid the worst impacts from global warming.

Given Congressional gridlock, states like New York, California, Massachusetts, and others have stepped up with aggressive goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Using a science-based approach, in 2019 New York State set aggressive goals to attack climate change. The state’s Climate Law says the state must achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The law also sets goals of 70 percent renewable electricity by 2030 and 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2040.

Those goals are laudable and scientifically-based, but there will be significant costs to address the climate crisis for the world, the nation, and New York.

Climate change resulting from burning of fossil fuels has already had adverse effects on New York in the form of extreme weather events that caused billions of dollars in damages. For example, “Super Storm Sandy” caused $19 billion in damages in New York City. Hurricane Irene devastated the state and resulted in ten deaths and in excess of $1.3 billion in damages. Tropical Storm Lee brought drenching rains that caused more than $1 billion more.

Researchers have estimated the potential economic costs of climate change in New York State for key sectors may approach $10 billion annually by mid-century.   

Those costs are staggering, but the question facing policymakers is how to fairly distribute responsibility. One thing we all know, is that the oil, gas, and coal industries are significantly responsible for the dangers we are experiencing and will face.

The record is clear that for the better half of the late 20th Century, oil companies funded industry and university research collaborations broadly in line with the current scientific consensus. According to corporate documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, for example, 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.” 

Nevertheless, starting in the 1980s, the industry championed climate change denial on multiple fronts and opposed regulations to curtail global warming. The industry funded organizations critical of climate change treaties, undermining public opinion about the science that global warming is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Their successes in bamboozling the public have pushed the planet to the brink.

Now governments are facing the costs of responding to this deadly threat. So how do we ensure that those responsible are on the financial hook for the costs and in a way that minimizes – or eliminates – the industries’ ability to pass those costs along to the public?

New York’s state Superfund program offers precedent for a “polluter must pay” model for making the fossil fuels companies bear the costs tied to a looming climate catastrophe. Under the Superfund program, polluters are obligated to pay for remediation without any requirement of a finding that the polluter was negligent or acted intentionally with knowledge of the damage to the environment its activities would cause.

Working off the state Superfund model, lawmakers should embrace a proposal that extends the principle of the “polluter pays” to pollution from carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels, the primary cause of climate change from global warming. 

The world knows that it faces a dire threat and staggering costs. It’s also true that the record shows that the oil, gas, and coal industries did all they could to block adequate responses to this growing threat. As a result, the threats are greater and the costs of responding are higher.

It’s time to make polluters pay for the damage they’ve done. Right now, big polluters get to pollute for free. New York lawmakers must support a plan that ensures that fossil fuel companies pay their fair share of the costs of cleaning up the mess they’ve created. Someone is going to pay for the costs of climate change: if it isn’t the polluters, it’s going to be the public. They’ve known for some 50 years that their pollution was causing the climate crisis, but they put their profits ahead of public welfare. Now it’s time for New York to make them help pay for the mess they’ve made.

Ethics Scandal Hits Albany (Again!)

Posted by NYPIRG on April 18, 2022 at 9:45 am

The arrest and subsequent resignation of Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin sent shockwaves across New York’s political landscape. The charges against Benjamin stem from an alleged misuse of his public office to financially benefit a big campaign contributor. Of course, Benjamin deserves to have his side heard, but his immediate resignation underscores the legal threat he faces and the indictment is fresh evidence that the state fails when it comes to ethics oversight.

According to the federal indictment, Benjamin used his role as then-state senator to obtain a grant for an individual who donated to his Senate campaign and became a significant donor to Benjamin’s failed bid for New York City comptroller. In other words, he secured taxpayer money in direct exchange for someone funneling him campaign cash, including the ability to get public matching funds.

The courts will sort this all out, but misuse of public office for personal (or political) gain is a story that has been told too often in state government. The former Senate majority leader went to prison for misuse of his office; the now deceased former Assembly Speaker did too; and as we know, Gov. Hochul’s predecessor is challenging claims that he misused his public office as well.

And it’s not just elected officials. Top aides to the former governor also were convicted of corruption, along with the campaign contributors who conspired with them.

The larger question is why does this keep happening? The answer is that the state simply does not take ethics enforcement seriously. It’s common knowledge: People behave differently when they know that rules are enforced. Drivers follow speed limits when they see patrol cars. When there are no patrol cars for miles on end, they’ll go as fast as they damn well please.

Albany is a highway with no patrol cars.

It should be lost on no one that many of the state’s major corruption prosecutions — including the Benjamin resignation — were the result of federal investigations, not state ones. If the feds are not watching, or there is no federal legal violation, enforcement is left to state ethics watchdogs.

In Albany, the state has never established an independent ethics watchdog. The most recent iterations — the Joint Commission on Public Ethics, which monitors the executive branch, and the Legislative Ethics Commission, which monitors the Legislature — are controlled by individuals who are directly appointed by the governor and the legislative leaders. Ditto the state inspector general, who reports to the governor’s office.

Having ethics watchdogs hand picked by the individuals that they are supposed to regulate is an obvious problem and at the heart of why scandals occur.

Governor Hochul understood this and advanced a plan in January that she said would ensure that state officials were not directly choosing their own watchdogs. Yet the final agreement she negotiated in the state budget earlier this month fell far short of that.

Under that new law, cobbled together in secret negotiations between the governor and the legislative leaders, the new agency won’t be independent. Its commission will have an 11-member board: three members appointed by the governor, two by the Senate majority leader, two by the Assembly speaker, one by the Assembly minority leader, one by the Senate minority leader, one by the attorney general and one by the comptroller.

Why should the governor and the leaders of the legislative majorities be entitled to more than one appointment? There is no reason, but it does smack of a classic deal to allow the three leaders to dominate the new agency. Quick math shows that those seven appointees would dominate the new ethics agency.

There is an added wrinkle:  The Deans of New York law schools would vet those applicants to determine qualifications, using criteria ranging from their professional backgrounds to their geographic diversity. It’s worth noting that law schools are involved in lobbying the state government, and in any event, the Deans’ role won’t make the ethics agency independent.

Of course, that’s not to say that the plan does not offer improvements over the awful ethics system now in place. But the cornerstone of effective ethics oversight is independence, and on that basis alone, this proposal fails, and fails miserably.

New York has had too many ethical scandals, resulting in a crisis in public confidence in state government. History shows that whatever ethics agency is put in place will be around for years. Scandals can drive real reforms, but unfortunately New York’s leaders have so far squandered this reform opportunity.

Of course, the vast majority of elected officials are honest, professional and reasonable.  But having a weak state ethics law enforced by individuals who are directly tied to the political establishment creates a culture where individuals can game the system to benefit themselves. That appears to be what led to Lt. Governor Benjamin’s arrest.

This latest scandal underscores the need for independent ethics oversight. The governor and the leaders still have time this session. They must go back to the drawing board and fix their latest deal.

Governor Hochul and State Lawmakers Wrap up the Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on April 11, 2022 at 9:54 am

Early Saturday morning, the Legislature approved the state’s $220 billion budget.  The budget agreement was eased by billions in federal governmental financial support, as well as swelling state tax revenues.  The state’s huge budget surplus made the budget negotiation process easier to manage, but it was still late – and Albany had to resort to its bag of tricks to get it done.

Governor Hochul’s first budget agreement mimicked the worst legislative processes: While meeting the state’s minimum legal requirements, the budget was negotiated in secret.  Rank and file lawmakers were largely cut out of the discussions, with the major decisions hammered out by the governor and the legislative leaders and their top staffs.  Once the agreements were finalized, the governor granted the leaders “messages of necessity,” which suspend the normal review period allowing them to force votes on the budget bills with little or no time for lawmakers – or the public – to review the details.  And the final votes were cast in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Yet, with so much available money, the final budget added billions in spending that made many groups successful in getting some of what they wanted in state support.  Despite that, the budget fell short in at least two critically important areas: climate change and ethics.

On the climate change front, lawmakers were debating the budget at the same time the world’s experts issued their most alarming call to date.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report saying that the world has very little time to act to avoid climate catastrophe.  As one author put it, “This report finds that the impacts of climate change are here. In many cases they are worse than expected, and they’ve been hitting every area of the world.”  The IPCC called on the world to act, and to act now.

Yet in Albany, the most significant actions to tackle climate change were kicked out of the budget.  The most positive aspect of the budget agreement was approval of a $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act, the fate of which will be decided by voters in November.  If approved, the Bond Act would provide $1.1 billion for flood risk reduction, $650 million for open space land conservation, and $1.5 billion for climate mitigation.  While those would be significant investments, they fall far short of what’s needed – some estimates state that New York will need to spend upwards of $10 billion annually to deal with the impacts of global warming. 

On a more concrete level, the budget requires that all new school bus purchases be zero-emissions by 2027 and all school buses on the road be zero-emissions by 2035.  If approved by the voters, the Environmental Bond Act will provide $500 million to support school districts in purchases of zero-emission buses and related charging infrastructure, including charging stations. The budget appropriated $500 million to develop the state’s offshore wind supply chains and port infrastructure.  The budget also creates a geothermal tax credit to help homeowners shift away from reliance on fossil fuel heating.

But despite the alarms being sounded by the IPCC, the most dramatic moves to shift the state from reliance on fossil fuels – such as the proposal to require that all new building construction rely on electricity for power – were removed.

Another big failure was in the area of ethics. 

Relying on the old Albany tactic of “applying a fresh coat of paint to a rotten building,” Governor Hochul and state lawmakers agreed to get rid of the much-derided Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE) and replace it with something that is essentially the same thing

The fundamental flaw in the new ethics watchdog is that the new commission – like the old one – is not independent from the elected officials who it is supposed to oversee.  The leaders still directly choose the commissioners, but they added a new wrinkle: requiring that the state’s law school deans review these direct appointments prior to final selection.

The vetting process involving law school deans or designees does not add any independence to the selection process, nor does it even create the appearance of independence.  The new law says the deans will not nominate or select candidates; they will simply screen their eligibility.  Just like in the current, broken system, elected officials will directly select and appoint the ethics commissioners who will pass judgment on their actions.

Under this flawed structure no member of the public can put forward a person whom they think should be considered among the pool of candidates, which other states do for independent commissions.  The regulated have monopolized the identification of the persons who should regulate them.  

While the law includes measures that allow the new agency to perform more efficiently and, in most instances more openly, what matters most is the agency’s leadership.  The ethics commissioners will make the ultimate decisions about whether or not to enforce the state’s ethics laws and whether lawmakers, agency personnel and lobbyists have passed an ethical line.

Lawmakers have until June 2nd to finish up their work.  All New Yorkers should hope these two big issues – and others – are substantially addressed before lawmakers go home to face the voters.

New York’s Budget Deal Runs Late

Posted by NYPIRG on April 4, 2022 at 1:28 pm

Like many of New York State’s budget deals, this year’s is late.  How late is anyone’s guess, but if recent history is any guide, an agreement will come soon.  Among the major contributing factors to the missed budget deadline are the governor’s last minute demands for changes to the state’s criminal justice law and her agreement to use hundreds of millions of tax dollars to pick up the lion’s share of costs for a new stadium for the Buffalo Bills NFL franchise.

Assuming that the state’s political leaders come to an agreement within the next few days, it looks like the deal will end up spending more than Governor Hochul’s proposed $216 billion, maybe even a lot more.  Yet, given that the state is flush with cash – thanks to federal bailouts and better-than-expected state tax revenues – it’s not surprising that a lot will get spent. 

A bigger question is what policies will go along with the budget agreement?

Usually a state budget is a mix of spending plans and policy changes that often go along with those plans.  Often the budget agreement includes policies that have little to do with the state spending, but are included as another piece of the budget puzzle that the governor and legislative leaders piece together to forge an agreement.

One example of such an issue is the state’s climate change plans.  Of course, the state has spent – and will continue to do so for decades to come – monies for the mitigation and adaptation costs of reacting to a rapidly heating planet.  Under the best of circumstances, the state will spend billions annually to confront climate change.

So addressing the worsening climate catastrophe has budget implications, but not all climate plans are directly attributable to state spending.  For example, in her budget the governor proposes that the state’s housing code drastically restrict the use of gas (or other fossil fuels) in new building construction.  Her plan is modeled on a new law in New York City – likely the building capital of the world – which bans the use of gas power for cooking and heating in new buildings as of 2024.

Hochul’s plan is similar, but goes into effect in 2027.  Environmentalists are pushing back, arguing for a 2024 deadline that tracked New York City.

Opponents, led by the American Petroleum Institute, have launched a campaign of misinformation to confuse lawmakers.  As we all know, the oil, coal, and gas companies have been very successful in undermining environmental legislation that would have reduced the likelihood of climate catastrophe.  The fossil fuel industry also worked to install political toadies in federal, state, and local elected offices to stop climate protection legislation.

As a result, sea levels are rising, ice caps are melting, famine is spreading, wildfires are huge, and storms are staggeringly – and unprecedentedly – dangerous.

The oil lobby and their allies are using the same playbook in New York.  One argument that they have been using to great effect is to attack the science behind “heat pumps.”  Heat pumps offer an energy-efficient alternative to furnaces and air conditioners for all climates.  Like your refrigerator, heat pumps use electricity to transfer heat from a cool space to a warm space, making the cool space cooler and the warm space warmer.  During the heating season, heat pumps move heat from the cool outdoors into your warm house.  During the cooling season, heat pumps move heat from your house into the outdoors.

You would think that on its face, lawmakers would understand that “heat pumps” have that name for a reason – they heat homes.  But the smokescreen that the oil industry and their pals are arguing is that heat pumps don’t work in really cold places, like upstate New York. 

You’d understand why opponents would ignore the facts, but why would lawmakers ignore the fact that heat pumps operate at more than double the efficiency of gas systems below zero and have been successfully field tested in Minnesota and the Arctic Circle.  More than 60% of Norwegian households use heat pumps as their primary source of heat.  Heat pumps now dominate the market in Europe for both new and existing buildings.  They’re also working well in cold places in the U.S. like Minnesota and Maine – and yes – New York.

Another of the opponents’ arguments has been that New York doesn’t have the electrical capacity to produce the power needed if new construction (and cars) rely on electricity.  The legislation doesn’t go into effect right away, so the additional power needed in the short-term is small. 

The New York Independent System Operator recently concluded that the state “will meet all currently applicable reliability criteria from 2021 through 2030 for forecasted system demand,” which means that they believe that the state has sufficient power to cover its energy needs through the end of the decade.   

We all know that the world has to kick the fossil fuel “habit” and that power will come to our homes from either the electrical grid or personal alternative energy sources.  Requiring that all future building construction rely on electricity for power makes sense and over the long haul will save money.  Constructing buildings in that manner is far cheaper than retrofitting them later.

Inaction has its own costs beyond the cost of housing.  Failure to aggressively respond to the ongoing and growing threat of global warming will have far worse costs than anything imagined for New York’s housing stock. 

The oil companies have bamboozled lawmakers before, this budget (and this session) will reveal if they have done it again.