Archive for April 2023

How Will – and Who Will – Pay for the Mounting Cost of Climate Change?

Posted by NYPIRG on April 24, 2023 at 8:00 am

Last week, state Comptroller DiNapoli issued a new report identifying a growing cost facing local governments. 

According to the report, a sample of local governments across New York reported $1.34 billion in actual and anticipated spending on capital projects over a 10-year period, with about 55% of the total in response to climate-related hazards, such as increased flooding and storm damage.

The report represented only a tiny sample of localities and did not include New York City’s costs.  Only 95 communities out of 353 surveyed (roughly 25%) responded.  Those entities estimated that a combined $737 million would be spent over the 10-year period from 2017 to 2026 in response to climate change, with flooding and increased storm activity far outweighing other issues.  Respondents reported that they funded or anticipate shouldering a majority of these costs locally (about 52%), with grants or other aid from state and federal sources accounting for the remainder.

In other words, local residents will have to pony up more tax dollars to cover the anticipated damages caused by a worsening climate. 

A large chunk of that spending will involve big-ticket items like retrofitting or rebuilding infrastructure, such as wastewater or drinking water facilities.  The estimated total cost of all such projects totaled $632 million, $401 million (64%) of which was attributed to climate change adaptation.  The local cost of these totaled $368 million, with $235 million attributed to climate change.

DiNapoli’s office conducted a separate analysis of the costs to New York City.  The report found that the City would this year spend $829 million for projects that could be considered full adaptation and resilience and another $1.3 billion that were partially for these purposes.  Looking ahead, bigger financial hits were expected with the biggest costs including sewer projects ($2.3 billion over the four years), water pollution control ($1.8 billion) and the broad category of resiliency, technology and equipment ($1.6 billion).

Of course, all localities will spend more as the years progress since climate change will only be getting worse in the short term.  If the world acts, eventually things could improve.

The findings of the DiNapoli report came on top of another analysis showing the looming costs New York faces from an aging and decaying infrastructure.  The Reason Foundation released its 27th annual highway ranking, a national report on states’ spending and performance on roadway quality.  That report had New York near the bottom of the survey, which underscores the need for additional spending on the state’s roadways.

Bottom line – New York taxpayers are, and will be, on the hook for significant infrastructure costs – much of the spending is driven by climate change.

These reports are consistent with others.  A report released by the think tank Rebuild by Design estimated that the climate costs to New York could be $55 billion by the end of this decade.  Furthermore, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that it would cost $52 billion to protect NY Harbor alone.  And while storms get worse, sea levels and groundwater tables are rising posing higher risks of flooding – and we don’t know how much.  Clearly, New York is facing staggering – and growing – climate threats and costs.

While we may not know the ultimate climate costs, what we do know is that unless something changes you and I will be paying those bills. 

Shouldn’t the biggest oil companies pick up the tab?  After all it was the world’s largest oil companies that had conducted the cutting-edge research in the 1970s that concluded with precise accuracy what would happen if fossil fuels continued to be combusted.  And wasn’t it the oil lobby that spent big bucks on public relations and lobbying campaigns to undermine independent science and block public health initiatives?  Had those reforms been embraced years ago, the world would not be facing the climate crisis it is today.

Unlike most New Yorkers, the oil industry has the money.  They’ve been raking in record-setting profits over the past few years. 

Yet around the state Capitol, little has been said about these looming costs.  It appears that Albany prefers to stick its head in the sand and hope that New Yorkers won’t notice the increasing costs – or worsening infrastructure – resulting from climate change.  The state Senate did advance in its one-house budget a plan to make the largest oil companies pay $3 billion annually to cover these costs.  Unfortunately, the Assembly did nothing and the governor is reportedly resisting the Senate plan.

How the state assesses the costs of climate change will be decided one way or the other in the state budget.  Right now, the default plan is to make average New Yorkers pay more.  Hopefully, the real culprits in the climate change catastrophe will be forced to pick up their share.  We’ll soon know what Albany decides.

New York Can Help to Make the World a “Greener” Place

Posted by NYPIRG on April 17, 2023 at 8:16 am

April 22nd is “Earth Day,” the global celebration of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970.

History shows that Earth Day was not intended to be about personal actions – planting a tree or recycling one’s garbage, although both are good ideas.  Instead, the original Earth Day was a reaction to the enormous environmental damage done by the essentially unregulated discharging of pollution into the nation’s airways and waterways. 

At that time, Americans were consuming vast amounts of leaded gasoline emitted from inefficient automobiles.  Industries pumped out smoke and sludge and considered those wastes the price of progress.  Chemical waste and garbage were dumped into waterways on a scale never seen, air pollution was at staggering levels.  Much of the American public was largely oblivious to the fact that a polluted environment posed a substantial health risk.

Earth Day 1970 was a watershed moment that galvanized public awareness of the growing threat of pollution and its impact on the nation’s environment and public health.  A nationwide organizing effort hinged on college campuses.  Students held teach-ins to focus public attention on growing environmental threats.  April 22nd was chosen as the date, since it landed between college Spring breaks and academic finals. 

Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment and there were massive coast-to-coast rallies in cities and towns. Millions of Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate against the impacts of decades of industrial development and the resulting legacy of serious human health problems.

Those actions, as well as the work of community groups all across the nation, resulted in monumental improvements including the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, and passage of laws, including the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act. 

Today, we are all facing threats that equal – if not exceed – those of the 1960s.  Like that time, Americans need to get involved without becoming cynical or depressed about the possibilities for improving the world.  Closer to home, actions in New York can set the tone for the nation – and the world. 

New York State’s population, while only the fourth largest in the nation, has an outsized impact since it is the 11th largest economy in the world.  What New York does not only impacts its own residents, it can also influence the nation, and the world.

As we celebrate the 53rd Earth Day anniversary, here are five things New Yorkers can do to improve the environment and reduce health risks.

One.  Make New York the leader on the shift to renewable energy – such as solar, wind, and geothermal.  In the weeks ahead, state lawmakers will consider a proposal to require that all new buildings rely on electricity, not oil and gas, for power and heat.  An increasingly green electric grid will drive down greenhouse gas emissions. As climate scientists have urged, now is the time to act to address the climate crisis.

Two.  New Yorkers will foot the bill for tens of billions of dollars in expenses to deal with rising sea levels, more extreme storms, and increasing heat.  It is time to make the biggest oil companies pay for their past greenhouse gas emissions which caused global warming– and do it in a way that prohibits them from passing those costs onto the public.  Legislation is under consideration right now that would do just that.

Three.  Require packaging manufacturers to reduce and detoxify its packaging wastes and to expand the state’s highly successful bottle deposit law so that more beverage containers are collected and recycled. 

Four.  The EPA recently released guidance on “safe” levels for PFAS chemicals in drinking water supplies.  But the Department of Health is still considering allowing PFAS levels that are higher than the EPA guidance.  The state’s responsibility is to protect the public from these “forever” chemicals; it must follow the science to develop safe standards.

Five.  Deforestation of tropical forests is worsening the global climate crisis. If it continues at its current pace, the entirety of the world’s tropical rainforests could be degraded or destroyed in the next 100 years.  Deforestation contributes to global warming, can violate the land rights of indigenous peoples, and results in the loss of habitat for hundreds of animal species.  New York should ban state government purchases of these wood products.

If Governor Hochul and state lawmakers embraced these five steps, it would go a long way to showing the world a clear path forward to a brighter and safer future.  Policy action is what Earth Day is all about.  Let’s all roll up our sleeves and get to work.  Happy Earth Day.

The Consequences of Late Budgets Negotiated in Secret

Posted by NYPIRG on April 10, 2023 at 9:08 am

Groundhog’s Day of New York politics comes in early April when the governor and state lawmakers are at loggerheads on the budget and need to do a short-term “extender.”  That’s where we are this week.  The state budget was supposed to be approved by April 1, but like recent ones, it’s late.  The extender allows negotiators to keep working on a deal while ensuring that the state’s workers continue to be paid.

Despite the fact that some $230 billion in taxpayer monies are in play, these negotiations are conducted in secret.  Secrecy allows the governor and state legislative leaders to horse trade items – some of which may have no relevance to the budget – as part of an overall budget deal.  Last year’s surprise was the deal for New York taxpayers to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a new stadium for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. 

This year’s budget is moving along more slowly than last year’s, which was put to bed on April 9th.  And while the consequences for New Yorkers tend to be minor when the budget isn’t too late, the deals can have far-reaching consequences.

By definition it’s hard to know what’s going on in secret negotiations, but a fight over one deal spilled out into the public last week: Governor Hochul’s plan to weaken the state’s climate law.

First some background.  In 2019, New York approved a new law that set aggressive goals to tackle the worsening climate crisis.  That legislation was based on the recommendations of the world’s climate experts, most notably that the state achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.  The 2019 law requires New York to reduce economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and no less than 85 percent by 2050 over 1990 levels.  The remaining 15% of emissions will be offset by things like planting trees, which take carbon dioxide out of the air, to reach net-zero emissions.

The Hochul Administration proposal would change the way the law measures greenhouse gas emissions from the current law’s 20-year accounting method to a 100-year standard.  The current law smartly focuses on methane, the main component of natural gas, which is a far more potent greenhouse gas in the near term than carbon dioxide.  Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere.  Even though CO2 has a longer-lasting effect, methane sets the pace for warming for two decades after release.  Thus, the lawmakers who crafted the 2019 law set a 20-year time horizon – also the timeframe climate scientists predict the world has to avoid the most devastating consequences of a heating planet.

The 2019 law also established a Climate Action Council tasked with developing a blueprint for the state to follow in meeting its climate goals.  That Council didn’t recommend a change to current law – and in fact incorporated the 20-year standard into the climate plan it developed over 2½ years.  And no such recommendation was included in the budget plans of the governor, Senate or Assembly.

But thanks to secret negotiations, the governor tried to make that fundamental change – one that is supported by the fossil fuel industry, since it would be free to sell gas for a longer period. 

The governor’s rationale was that keeping to current law would have a big negative impact on New Yorkers’ wallets.  Of course, that issue had been raised in the Climate Action Council proceedings and until a week or so ago, all – including the governor – argued that those costs would be less than the impacts if New York did nothing.

But a week after the budget was due, the Hochul Administration advanced a near total repudiation of its earlier arguments.  Now the governor argued the costs were significant and the state needed a plan to weaken the methane standard.  There have been no public hearings, no public discussion in legislative committees, no public debate at all.  It was put on the table in secrecy as part of the Hochul Administration’s horse-trading plan.

Unfortunately for the governor, the scheme made its way into the public domain and resulted in a firestorm of opposition.  Environmental groups, frontline communities and climate scientists protested the plan and last week the governor pulled back her proposal from the budget negotiations. 

The governor’s arguments that the costs of acting to deal with the climate crisis is, however, an important issue to consider.  The state Senate did in its budget plan.  The Senate, after public hearings and committee consideration, approved a proposal to charge the biggest oil companies for the costs of the state’s climate damages.  Their ingenious plan also makes it impossible for Big Oil to pass those costs onto the public.  Great idea: protect ratepayers and taxpayers and place the financial burden on those responsible for the mess and those benefiting from record profits.

Yet in the secret budget negotiations, it appears that opposition from the governor’s office has stopped the plan to hold the oil industry, not ratepayers and taxpayers, accountable.

If true, that’s a big mistake.  Weakening the state climate law isn’t the solution to the cost problem, charging Big Oil is.  Hopefully the final budget protects New Yorkers and with no special interest giveaways on big policy issues.

Another Late Budget

Posted by NYPIRG on April 3, 2023 at 8:46 am

April 1st, the first day of New York State’s fiscal year, came and went this weekend with no state budget agreement.  It has been a few years since the state budget was approved on-time, with all recent ones enacted in the first half of April.

Getting the budget done by April 1st is what Governor Hochul and state lawmakers are supposed to do.  Failure to do so just feeds an increasingly cynical electorate’s assessment that Albany can’t get its work done like it’s supposed to.  In the real world, however, the impacts of a late budget – as long as it’s done within a week or so – are not significant.

In a sense, the real deadlines are tied to when public employees are supposed to be paid.  If the budget is not signed into law this Monday, the state is prohibited from distributing paychecks to state workers, other than those agencies with different fiscal years or for those public employees who are not scheduled to be paid until later in the month.

There can be other impacts.  For example, late budgets can delay payments to those vendors who have contracts with the state.  In addition, legislators will have their paychecks withheld too.

New York’s history of getting budgets done on time has been lousy.  From 1984 up until 2004, the governors and state lawmakers blew through budget deadlines.  Some of those budgets were approved very late – sometimes months late. 

Since then, things have improved.  Due to court decisions that strengthened the hand of the governor, since around 2010, budgets have been approved on time or within a week or so of the April 1st deadline.  

Ironically, late budgets are often the result of legislative fights over issues that have little to do with the budget.  This year’s budget fight is no exception, with a key sticking point the governor’s demand for changes to the state’s recently enacted bail reforms as part of any budget agreement.  The governor wants to give judges more discretion in setting bail for certain offenses.  If lawmakers agreed to the governor’s plan, judges would be explicitly allowed to assess the threat they believe a defendant poses to the community and set bail on those grounds.

Whether that’s a good or bad idea, the governor’s proposal is not central to the finances of the state budget.  Yet this year, like many, the entire budget is being held up over what is essentially a non-budget policy dispute.

And there are big budget items that are festering while this debate plays out.  For example, how will state leaders pull together enough money to plug the M.T.A.’s expected budget gap of nearly $3 billion by 2025?  Lawmakers have so far rejected the governor’s plan to raise transit costs for suburban areas and the New York City Mayor is opposing the governor’s proposal to take $500 million out of the city’s budget to support the M.T.A. 

Another is the Legislature’s rejection of hiking tuition at the State University and City University of New York, as well as her proposed cuts to financial aid for college students. 

Neither of these plans have been able to get resolved as long as the bail measure is still undecided.  As the Albany saying goes, nothing gets done until everything gets done.

But when it comes to state budgets, things can change very, very quickly.  When a budget plan may seem stalled, an hour later it accelerates toward conclusion. 

Unless things change quickly, when a budget is late the governor and state lawmakers typically approve a short-term budget in order to keep government open; pass stopgap legislation to ensure that state employees are paid since the budget was not approved in time.

Meanwhile, all sorts of schemes can be hatched and deals can be cut.  Governor Hochul, for example, reportedly is advancing a plan to weaken the state’s climate law.  Individual lawmakers will be angling for more benefits to their communities. 

And all of those deals will be cut in secret.  By the time the public finds out what the final product is, votes will have been taken and the new budget will be in the books.

No April Fool’s Joke:  It shouldn’t be this way. After all, it’s your money.  Until Albany changes its ways, New Yorkers should be on guard.