Archive for August 2023

Big Oil Continues to Rake It in, While the World Burns

Posted by NYPIRG on August 28, 2023 at 6:54 am

For many, August is the traditional time for vacationing.  Vacations are often the week or so before Labor Day.  Yet, while many would like to relax, it’s hard to chill out with the ongoing drumbeat of bad news about the worsening climate.

Interested in going to Hawaii?  Bad news there, as out-of-control wildfires have devastated one of the islands.  America’s central plains?  Heat domes contributing to very hot temperatures.  Planning a trip to the Mediterranean?  Wildfires there too, as well as unprecedented water temperatures, heat domes, and floodingAfrica is facing severe climate disasters.  Asia has more than its share of problems, too.  South America?  Same.  Even Antarctica, which is in its winter season, is breaking up due to unseasonably warm temperatures.

When it comes to the worsening climate, there is nowhere to hide.

Here in New York, Governor Hochul has spent a good chunk of her past year responding to this state’s climate catastrophes.  Since last summer, the governor has unveiled at least $1.8 billion in state money for climate related projects – either responding to disasters or spending to help protect from future ones.  All of those monies came from New Yorkers’ wallets –  and that doesn’t include additional spending that local governments are allocating for climate costs.  A study from NYS Comptroller DiNapoli found that over a ten-year period (the last five and next five years), 55% of New York localities’ municipal spending outside of NYC was or will be related to climate change.

New Yorkers are spending big and that spending is expected to increase to as much as $10 billion annually by the middle of the century. 

The debate in Albany has been on how to shift from an economy that relies on fossil fuels to one that does not.  The state has a goal of “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of the century. A laudable, and scientifically-backed, goal, but it ignores an important question:  Who pays the costs for climate damages that occur in the meantime and who pays for projects to allow the state to adapt to a hotter planet?

The current policy of the Hochul Administration is to pass those enormous costs onto the public, while opposing legislation that would force the biggest oil companies to pay for those costs.

There is good reason to make the oil companies pay. First, they are responsible; the oil industry knew that the burning of fossil fuels would lead to a greenhouse gas effect that would warm the planet. Instead of alerting the world to what was coming, they did all they could to undermine climate action.  Starting in the 1970s, scientists working for Exxon made “remarkably accurate projections of just how much burning fossil fuels would warm the planet.”  Yet for years “the oil giant publicly cast doubt on climate science and cautioned against any drastic move away from burning fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change.”

And it’s not like the oil companies don’t have the money.  In a new review of the oil industry’s profits, it was estimated that over the past two and a half years the largest, publicly-traded oil companies, as well as the Saudi Aramco company, rang up profits of three-quarters of a trillion dollars.  You heard correctly, three-quarters of a trillion dollars in 30 months.  Those profits are expected to continue for quite some time.

Big Oil certainly has the money – their coffers are filled from the actions that have contributed mightily to the catastrophic conditions we are experiencing now, and will continue to endure.

And while Big Oil has the money and continues to rake it in hand over fist, New York does not.  According to the most recent state analysis, New York is facing state budget deficits of $36 billion over the next few years.  Of course, that could look different when lawmakers return to Albany in January, but it’s safe to say that big projected budget deficits will result in stingier spending on services. One area where costs cannot be ignored is the infrastructure costs resulting from climate-caused damages.  Roads, bridges, and other critical infrastructure that we all rely on every day will need to be repaired, rebuilt, and protected.

It is mind-boggling that the governor would review the state’s budget situation and its rising climate costs and ignore the profits of the oil industry.  The legislation that is under consideration has been approved by the state Senate and has the virtue of forcing some of the massive oil industry profits into state spending, and doing it in a way that ensures that any such charges are not borne by the public.

It’s bad enough that New Yorkers are suffering from dangerous air, intense storms, and rising sea levels, they are also on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with the costs from a worsening climate.  At the same time, Big Oil is reporting staggering profits on top of record earnings last year.  Making Big Oil pay is the obvious solution.  If Governor Hochul and the State Assembly want to deal with affordability and the climate crisis, they must join with the Senate and pass the Climate Change Superfund Act and make corporate climate polluters – not hardworking New Yorkers – pay.

Will Governor Hochul Help Protect the Bees?

Posted by NYPIRG on August 21, 2023 at 9:06 am

For most of us, bees are a common insect – we see them around flowers, buzzing by our heads, and sometimes even stinging us. However, bees play a critical role in the natural world: they are responsible for pollinating 80% of flowering plants. In the US, honeybees pollinate $15 billion in agricultural products each year, including more than 130 types of fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

They play a vital role in producing food for wildlife, maintaining soil health, and keeping water clean, in addition to their role in pollinating agricultural products. Bees are one of the most important pollinator species to our food security and ecosystems.

There are more than 1,000 plants grown for food, spices, beverages, medicines, and fibers that require pollination. Without the help of bees, the world would be without such well-loved foods as chocolate, coffee, peaches, almonds, tomatoes, blueberries, strawberries, apples, pumpkins, melons, vanilla and many other fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Yet bees are at risk.  In 2007, honey bees began disappearing. Beekeepers across the United States reported that adult worker bees were leaving their nests, queens, larvae, and resources with no apparent cause. Large, industrial beekeepers suffered dramatic losses.

In North America, four species of bumblebees are in decline, and one is already extinct. Far less is known about the situation with solitary species. Recent evidence suggests that as many as 700 of the 4,000 bee species in the United States are facing devastation.

There are multiple reasons for the devastation of the bees: diseases, parasites, pesticides, loss of habitats, are among the top reasons. Of those, the use of pesticides is the one we can control the most.

Neonicotinoids (or neonics for short) are a class of pesticides that have been linked to bee die-offs. Neonics are a relatively new class of pesticides that hit the market in the 1990s, billed as being less harmful to mammals and other vertebrates. They’re a synthetic, neurotoxic pesticide applied directly to the soil or as a seed coating and used widely in agriculture, residential use, golf course maintenance, and in pet flea and tick treatments. As their use has climbed, so too have studies revealing that they threaten birdsbeesaquatic creatures. Potential human health risks remain under investigation

Wild bees living and foraging near crops grown from neonic-treated seeds showed large population die-offs in a study funded by pesticide manufacturers.

Honey bees are reared and managed for their honey production and ability to pollinate crops, among other services. Research shows the insecticides kill worker bees, reduce immunity of the hive and leave colonies without their queens. Neonics attack bees’ brains, impacting their ability to sleep, forage, fly and even find their way home.

As researchers uncovered more about the threat neonics pose to bees, policymakers began to act. The European Union placed restrictions (including bans) on several neonics for outdoor uses because of the risks to bees. And some states in the U.S. already have some restrictions (or bans) on the use of neonics.

New York has taken steps to limit the use of neonics. Earlier this year, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), citing the dangers to pollinators, restricted the use of neonics.  

New York State lawmakers went one step further during the 2023 legislative session and approved the Birds and Bees Protection Act. This legislation would ban the sale or use of corn, soybean, and wheat seeds coated with neonics beginning in 2026. In addition, the bill commissions a study on the feasible alternatives to toxic pesticide use to be submitted to the Governor and Legislature no later than January 1, 2025. The bill also provides the commissioner of the DEC the authority to temporarily suspend the ban if there’s a lack of a commercially available alternative for a specific seed; and allows the DEC to provide a use exemption if there is an environmental emergency that no other less harmful pesticide could effectively address.

The use of neonics in seed treatments pose risks to bees (and other pollinators) since they can move from the targeted pest areas. For example, planter dust, which is generated during and shortly after planting treated seeds, contains high concentrations of neonic insecticides. Dust can move beyond field margins and land on flowers and other vegetation and potentially expose non-target insects (including bees and other pollinators). Neonics are highly soluble in water, which facilitates movement beyond field borders via drainage and runoff. Studies also show that neonic contamination in water bodies has a negative effect on arthropod communities, which are the bases of local food webs.

A report by researchers at Cornell University concluded that the most common uses of neonics in New York, which pose substantial risks to pollinators, provide little to no benefits to users and can be replaced by safer alternatives. Supporters of the Birds and Bees Act argue that the bill will help stop approximately 80-90% of the total outdoor neonic use from entering the environment.

The bill will land on the governor’s desk sometime this year. How she acts on the bill may well determine the future of bees in New York.  Let’s hope she protects the bees.

Congress Must Help Lower Prescription Drug Costs

Posted by NYPIRG on August 14, 2023 at 8:26 am

In his State of the Union address, President Biden focused part of his comments on the skyrocketing costs of prescription drugs.  In his remarks he noted that the drug companies are  “unfairly charging people hundreds of dollars.”  The President was drawing a line in the sand that he would veto any measure that weakened the ability of the federal government to negotiate drug prices for Medicare recipients.

American drug prices are the result of myriad factors, one of which is the nation’s system for allowing patents for medicines.  Granting a “patent” bestows an exclusive right “for an invention, which is a product or a process that provides, in general, a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem.”  In the area of drugs, it allows a company the exclusive right to sell a medicine approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for 20 years from the date on which the application for the patent was filed in the United States.

During this patent-protected period, drugs are exempt from normal price competition – usually from “generic” drug companies.  Thus, the manufacturers can charge whatever prices they want in order to maximize profits and reap the rewards of their investment.

The rationale for the patent system was to encourage and incentivize innovation.  Companies that successfully bring new therapies to the market can be rewarded handsomely. 

Yet, nowadays most companies are no longer innovating new medications.  Instead, they’re monopolizing existing ones.  For example, it is estimated that as much as 80% of new patent applications are not for new medicines but are for minor changes that allow companies to argue that the drugs are “new.”

Allowing new patents for essentially old drugs extends the period in which price competition is prohibited, resulting in higher costs for patients.

These increased costs impact many Americans.  Two-thirds of U.S. adults rely on prescription drugs.  And one in four people struggle to pay for them.

When people can’t afford their medicines, they often have to decide whether to skip doses or not fill their prescriptions.  High prices impact all insured people, not just those taking medications. Because drug expenses make up 20 percent of health insurance costs, when drug prices go up, so do premiums.

But policymakers can change that by doing more to allow generic competitors to come to market.  Savings from new generic drug approvals are dramatic – $10-20 billion annually.  That’s the power of a competitive marketplace.  Unfortunately, abuse of the patent laws by pharmaceutical companies undermines price competition.

Patents are meant to spur innovation.  But the monopoly-pricing granted by a patent isn’t meant to last forever.  Too often drug makers spend significant time and money obtaining new patents to gain protections for medications already available – thus blocking access to generics and biosimilars.  And while a wrongly-granted patent can be challenged in federal courts, these challenges take years and come with a median cost of $3.5 million per case.

So, what should be done?  Clearly, the Congress must push both the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and the FDA to more closely examine what gets patented and eliminate incentives for drugmakers to game the system by obtaining frivolous patents.  More vigorous regulatory oversight – and whatever needed additional resources – is a critical step that must be taken.

Also, there needs to be a public database combining both agencies’ information on new and pending patents and their related drugs.  Regulators and academics need a one-stop shop for reliable information on FDA and USPTO applications and decisions.  A more robust database could inform solutions to barriers that keep drug competitors off the market.

There is growing bipartisan support for tackling this problem.  Republican and Democratic Senators have called on the patent office to crack down on the practice of granting multiple patents for minor variations on a single invention, which they said drug companies have sometimes used to stave off generic competition for decades.  According to the Senators, “The Patent Act envisions a single patent per invention, not a large portfolio based on one creation.”

Regulators must heed their call.  Unless action is taken, too many Americans will be stuck with making the cruel choice between paying for needed medicine or food.  No one should have to be forced to make that choice.

The State Comptroller Warns NY May Fail to Meet Its Climate Goals

Posted by NYPIRG on August 7, 2023 at 7:52 am

While lawmakers, public officials, lobbyists, and reporters have a reasonably good sense of how much and where New York State government spends money, there is very little publicly available about how well Albany delivers services.  When it comes to spending money, legislation is introduced, hearings are held, financial plan updates are issued.

New York State government does not issue a publicly available, comprehensive report on whether that money is being well spent.  The concept of such a government compiled report is not hypothetical.  New York City government does it.

That report is called the “Mayor’s Management Report (MMR).”  Compiling the data and the public reporting of the MMR is mandated by the New York City Charter.  The MMR serves as a public account of the performance of City agencies, measuring whether they are delivering services efficiently, effectively and expeditiously.

The report is a way to hold government publicly accountable for its performance in using taxpayers’ dollars for services and programs.

New York State government needs just such a report for all of its services and programs, but perhaps nowhere is it more important than when it comes to measuring progress toward the state’s climate goals.

In 2019, Governor Cuomo and former Vice President Al Gore held an event to commit the state to ambitious climate goals as part of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).  The goals set were; to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 40% by 2030 and 85% by 2050; and require 70% renewable electricity by 2030 and 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040.

Elected officials agreeing to goals that are years away is not new. 

In 2004, then-Governor Pataki had the state’s Public Service Commission adopt a goal to achieve 25% renewable energy for electricity by 2013.  That goal was increased to 30% by 2015 and then to 45% under then-Governor Paterson.  In 2015, the state met the goal to achieve 30% renewable energy, but not the revised goal of 45%, which New York has yet to achieve eight years later.  And the lion’s share of renewable energy produced in New York today is the result of hydroelectric power generated from plants built decades ago.

A report released last week by the state Comptroller showed that the state is not moving at the pace necessary to meet the CLCPA goals.  While the Hochul Administration – and its predecessor – ballyhooed its approval for new solar and wind projects, the Comptroller’s report found that due to the nation’s longest timetable for project completion, “Since 2015, only approximately .294 gigawatts, or 3.1%, of the total renewable electricity generation capacity under contract awards have become operational.”

In addition to long timetables from approval to operation, the report found about 11% of renewable energy projects between 2005-2023 have been cancelled.   Thus, announcements of projects are no guarantee that they will actually happen.

The result?  In 2021, 3% of New York’s energy was generated by wind and another 3% by solar.  Both well short of the pace needed to meet the goals of the CLCPA.

The state’s pace toward achieving its goals is not because the goals are too ambitious.  The goals were based on science.  The world’s experts have made it clear that in order to avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change, each nation must commit to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by the middle of this century – which is exactly what the CLCPA did.

The problem is with government processes and lobbying by the oil industry and its allies who throw up roadblocks, advance disinformation campaigns, and supply sympathetic lawmakers with talking points to undermine the momentum to achieve the necessary climate goals.

Which brings us back to the report card mentioned earlier.  The public needs to weigh in and it can’t cut through the smog of oil industry public relations efforts if the government is unwilling to honestly, objectively report on what it’s accomplished.  In the face of stiff industry opposition, climate progress will only come about from determined public pressure — and that pressure requires a motivated public armed with accurate information.

A government that is more concerned about controlling the narrative and obscuring its slow progress is not the leadership New Yorkers deserve – and need.  While the Comptroller has done an important public service by reviewing the state’s recent work on renewable energy, it’s no substitute for an annual comprehensive Climate Report Card.