Blair Horner's Capitol Perspective

The World Faces a Climate “Code Red”: Catastrophic Wildfires, Floods, and Heat, Hammer the Planet

Posted by NYPIRG on July 17, 2023 at 11:02 am

There is no avoiding the cascading bad climate news:  New records in temperature, catastrophic flooding, and ongoing wildfires, all put the world’s rapidly worsening environment in the “Code Red” danger zone.  The flooding in the Northeast was the result of record-breaking rainfall.  If the climate was a person it would be in the ICU.

Weeks of a punishing heat dome have left one third of the nation suffering from incredible heat.  Wildfire smoke from Canada obscured the Chicago skyline, just weeks after triggering a spike in asthma hospital admissions in New York and Washington, D.C.  Last Sunday, eight inches of rain fell in a few hours near West Point, N.Y. – causing significant damage to the area, including at the U.S. military academy – even as another storm buried the Oklahoma City area in floodwaters, too.  Last week, ocean temperatures off the Florida coast passed the 90-degree mark.  

All in all, the planet experienced its hottest seven-day stretch in recorded history.

The toll is increasingly obvious.  A new report found that in Europe last summer more than 61,000 people died because of record-breaking heat.  The summer of 2022 was the hottest period ever recorded on the continent – a record that may well be broken this year.

The economic hit from these storms will be staggering and added to the tens of trillions of dollars worldwide that are expected by the middle of this century.  And those costs will be borne by taxpayers and consumers as well.

The evidence is piling up and the catastrophes are increasing, yet the oil industry is escalating its drilling efforts in order to drive up its already massive profits.  BP scaled back an earlier goal of lowering its emissions by 35% by 2030, saying it will aim for a 20 to 30% cut instead. ExxonMobil cut its funding for a heavily self-promoted effort to use algae to create low-carbon fuel.  Shell announced that it would freeze its investments in renewable energy this year, despite its previous promises to reduce its carbon emissions.

While Shell argues that it remains committed to fighting climate change, its new CEO told the BBC that cutting fossil-fuel production would actually be “dangerous and irresponsible,” because doing so could cause the “cost of living” to start to “shoot up.”  Closer to home his talking points are parroted by the oil industry’s allies as New York tries to take steps to shift from an economy based on fossil fuels to one based on alternative power sources. 

As Governor Hochul crisscrossed the state moving from one climate catastrophe to another, she described the situation as the “new normal.”  But increasingly intense storms, rising sea levels, and a hotter planet are anything but normal:  They are the direct consequences of the burning of oil, gas, and coal, which has triggered a climate catastrophe.

The science is undeniable and the costs are real.  According to an estimate by the think tank Rebuild By Design, 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.  It was recently estimated that Long Island faces $75-$100 billion in climate costs.  And while storms get worse, sea levels are rising and groundwater poses a higher risk of flooding – and we don’t even know how much yet.  The storms from last week alone are estimated to cost New York $50 million.  Clearly, New York is facing staggering – and growing – climate costs. 

The question facing the Governor and the Legislature is: Who should pay?  It will undoubtedly be the case that the ongoing devastation from the worsening climate crisis will cost New York tens of billions of dollars over the coming decades.  As it stands, under the direction of the Governor those costs are being borne – and will continue to be borne – by taxpayers.

Big Oil should pay.  They chose profit over the planet.  Their fossil fuel pollution caused the climate crisis.  They are raking in record profits.  After all, they knew decades ago that the burning of fossil fuels would rapidly heat the planet and with incredible precision predicted exactly the situation we’re in today.  Instead of alerting the world, they undermined science, bamboozled the public, and – to this day – fought tooth and nail to block environmental protections. 

This summer it has become clearer that there are dire environmental and public health implications of relying on fossil fuels to power our economy.  Every year will be worse.  Unless the state, the nation, and the world, acts, the situation will move from bad to worse.  And the costs and challenges will only multiply unless the world aggressively reduces the burning of fossil fuels.

The costs of dealing with this unfolding catastrophe will be enormous.  It’s time to make the oil companies pay and to do it in a way that they cannot pass on those payments to the public.  In passing the Climate Change Superfund Act the New York’s state Senate has shown how it can be done.  Governor Hochul should embrace that plan.  There is no time to waste.

Protecting Consumers From Medical Debts

Posted by NYPIRG on July 10, 2023 at 10:08 am

One of the last-minute deals at the end of the New York legislative session last month was approval of a bill to help protect patients from the repercussions of outstanding medical debts.  The bill, if signed into law by Governor Hochul, would prohibit credit reporting agencies, including Transunion, Experian, and Equifax, from including medical debt in consumer credit reports.

Credit reports and their accompanying credit scores have become a crucial gateway to participating in many standard economic activities. Credit scores might be checked when applying for a loan, getting a credit card, renting an apartment, or even applying for a job.

One of the biggest impediments to Americans having a healthy credit score is medical debt.  Approximately 60% of consumer debt that appears on credit reports is medical debt.  It is therefore one of the main factors that can contribute to a person’s low credit score, which can sabotage them from successfully engaging in simple wealth-building activities like applying for a job or a mortgage.

The three credit reporting agencies have already voluntarily agreed to stop reporting medical debts under $500.  However, in an effort to reduce even further the reporting of certain debt, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued an interpretive rule inviting states to further restrict what can be reported than is required under the Fair Credit Reporting Act.  This ruling reflects the finding by federal agencies that approximately 1 in 5 Americans have some false or erroneous information on their credit report that is harming their credit score.

The New York legislation approved in June would build on the ruling issued by the CFPB to prohibit credit reporting agencies from reporting all medical debt on the credit reports of New Yorkers.  Medical debt differs from other types of consumer debt:  It is not taken on voluntarily, but accumulates due to emergencies, and therefore it is not indicative of a person’s ability to pay back their financial obligations.  Medical debt should not be taken into account when determining a person’s credit score and should not prevent a person from being able to get a job, rent an apartment, or open a bank account.

Important to note that the legislation would not absolve patients from paying their outstanding bills, just prohibit those outstanding charges from appearing on the individual’s credit report.

Of course, the whole situation is ridiculous.  Why should anyone have their finances damaged because of medical bills in the first place?

Health care is too often unaffordable for New Yorkers.  As a result, many patients suffered serious financial harm because they needed medical care.  Over 53,000 New York patients were sued by hospitals between 2015 and 2020, and thousands had liens placed on their homes or had their wages garnished.  Last year, New York recognized this problem and placed a prohibition on the placement of medical liens and wage garnishments.  These are laudable changes, but they failed to provide help to the 38 percent of New Yorkers who say they avoid necessary medical care because of costs or the 34 percent who say they have experienced serious financial harm due to medical bills (such as being unable to afford basic necessities or using up all of their savings).

Even those with coverage face uncertainties: “roughly 20 percent of people under age 65 with health insurance nonetheless reported having problems paying their medical bills over the last year. By comparison, 53 percent of people without insurance said the same.”

Health care in America is based on a system of insurance that is expensive yet fails to provide the benefits we expect.  The United States spends nearly 17 percent of its Gross National Product on health care (pre-pandemic), yet ranks 29th of the 37 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations in life expectancy.  It is clear that American health care is expensive and doesn’t deliver on its most basic mission: providing coverage to all those who need it. Public policy must ensure coverage for all residents. 

And while the nation continues its decades-long debates over how best to ensure universal coverage, it’s up to the states to stanch the financial bleeding.  New York has recently taken steps to protect patients from some of the worst hospitals’ aggressive bill-collecting practices, but keeping medical debt out of credit reports helps, too.  While outstanding hospital bills will still have to be paid, those charges will not further harm patients’ creditworthiness.  Illness and injury are difficult enough without having to tackle credit reports.  Governor Hochul should see it the same way.

Big Oil’s Summer of Deception

Posted by NYPIRG on July 3, 2023 at 8:32 am

Halfway through 2023 and it’s clear that climate changes are triggering catastrophes across the globe.  Incredible storms, wildfires, and floods are hammering people everywhere.  There has been a record-breaking cyclone in southeastern Africa, an unusually intense typhoon in the Pacific, wildfires in Chile and Canada, unbearable heatwaves across Asia, the southern areas of the United States, as well as parts of Europe, and flooding from extreme rainfalls in Europe and Africa

And things are expected to get worse.  In the most recent report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in March, environmental experts predict that at the world’s current rate of collective inaction against the climate crisis, we could be facing 1.5°C temperature rise by the beginning of the 2030s.  As such, extreme weather events would increase in frequency and strength. 

Unless the world acts far more rapidly, the head of the United Nations has bluntly stated,  “Half of humanity is in the danger zone, from floods, droughts, extreme storms and wildfires.  No nation is immune.  Yet we continue to feed our fossil fuel addiction.  We have a choice.  Collective action or collective suicide.  It is in our hands.”

No nation, no location will be immune.  As Americans in the northeast and eastern coastline choke their way through a second round of smoke from out-of-control Canadian wildfires (triggered by climate change), it’s important to note that this is just another environmental “hit” resulting from a rapidly heating planet – heating that is primarily the result of human activities.

According to a recent analysis by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. has sustained 357 weather and climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion.  The total cost exceeded $2.54 trillion.  So far in 2023 (as of June 8th), there have been nine confirmed weather/climate disaster events to affect the United States, with each loss exceeding $1 billion.

The Canadian wildfires are the most incredible seen in North America.  In just one day this past June, it was reported that more forest acreage burned in Canada than burned in all of California last year

Yet here in New York, the oil lobby and their allies continue to do all they can to erode public support for action. 

Big Oil has known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels would trigger the climate changes we are experiencing today.  Yet instead of doing the responsible thing and alerting the public, they spent millions on public relations consultants, law firms, lobbyists, and campaign contributions in a successful effort to block actions that could have minimized the global warming threat.  They laughed all the way to the bank while the planet continued to heat up as their scientists had predicted.

Now, their allies are arguing that it’s too expensive to tackle the problem and that measures to act are too “radical.”

Let’s look at that assertion.  New York State approved a law in 2019 that pledged to achieve “net zero” greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050.  That pledge is consistent with what the world’s experts have called for.  The law set some interim goals to meet that pledge and established a task force to figure out the details. 

That group met and issued its 400+ page report late last year and it is that document that offers the blueprint for legislative and regulatory actions in New York.  Due to a lack of political will, much of what the plan called for has not been acted upon by state leaders.  One might argue that Albany has been too timid, but it is hardly radical.

What is radical, however, is to undermine science in order to sell products that can push the world to the environmental brink and to advocate for policies that slow down the efforts to save civilization and the environment.  Now that’s radical.  Dangerously radical.

When you hear that Albany has embraced a “radical” agenda to address climate change, remember that it originates from the oil industry and is advanced by witting or unwitting allies in the service of efforts to maximize oil companies’ riches at the expense of billions of people. 

Know that it is they – the oil companies and their allies – that are the real radicals.  Radicals who are pushing the world to the brink.  Instead, ignore the propaganda and support efforts to eliminate fossil fuels from our economy.  That’s not radical, it is simply commonsense.  In fact, it’s survival.

The New York State Assembly Wraps up Its Overtime

Posted by NYPIRG on June 26, 2023 at 8:15 am

The state Assembly convened an “overtime” session in Albany last week to take care of some leftover business from the scheduled session.  

Both the state Senate and the state Assembly had agreed in January to finish up the 2023 legislative session in the first week of June.  The state Senate worked into the wee hours of June 10th.  The state Assembly decided to stop its work on that day, too.  But in doing so, it left important parts of its work unfinished and Assemblymembers returned last week for a special two-day session to knock off its to-do list.

During those two days last week, the Assembly approved 62 bills that had already passed the Senate and will ultimately be sent to the governor for her approval.

Many of those bills were limited in scope, they addressed narrow local issues like increasing the number of members on the board of the Volunteer and Exempt Firemen’s Benevolent Association of Williston Park and changing its authority.  Other bills will – if approved – be consequential to New Yorkers.

For example, one bill prohibits the discharging of any radiological substance into the Hudson River in connection with the decommissioning of the Indian Point nuclear power plant.  The plant is in the process of decommissioning and the company handling the plant is considering the release of 310,000 gallons of radioactive wastewater into the Hudson River starting in September and 1.3 million gallons total over two years.

If the water cannot be released into the Hudson, the leading alternative would involve storing it on-site during the decommissioning, which is expected to take another 12 to 15 years.

The bill was approved with overwhelming support – in the Assembly the vote was 101-44; in the Senate every member voted in support of the legislation.

Another bill would prohibit New York State agencies from purchasing wood products that originated in tropical rain forests.

Trees and other forms of vegetation are critical tools in fighting the climate crisis – they serve as natural carbon sinks, pulling in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and help keep the planet cool.  However, deforestation of tropical forests is worsening the global climate crisis.  It has been estimated that global loss of tropical forests contributes approximately 20% of global carbon emissions annually.

An area of 18 million acres, more than half the size of New York State, is lost every year due to deforestation.  Not only is this contributing to global warming, but it also contributes to violations of indigenous land rights in many countries and loss of habitat for hundreds of animal species.

The loss of trees and other vegetation can cause climate change, desertification, soil erosion, reduction in crops, flooding, increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and a host of problems for Indigenous people.

The legislation was approved by the state Assembly and, like the Senate’s passage before it, enjoyed overwhelming bipartisan support.  115 of the 141 Assemblymembers that voted supported the bill.  In the Senate the margin was 42-19.

These two bills – like the other 60 passed by the Assembly last week – must still be approved by the governor before they can become law.  These two bills are among the most controversial and thus there will be significant pressure on the governor both in support and in opposition.

But the governor must tread carefully: both bills have both broad-based public support, as well as significant bipartisan support within the Legislature.

New Yorkers should hope that the governor does the right thing – by approving legislation to protect the Hudson River as well as tropical rainforests.

It Ain’t Over ‘til It’s Over: The Legislative Session Isn’t Quite Done

Posted by NYPIRG on June 19, 2023 at 10:03 am

A week ago Saturday, both houses of the Legislature seemed to have wrapped up their sessions.  In many ways the session was like pre-pandemic versions.  The Capitol and the Legislative Office building were open to the public; committees were held in public and in-person; hearings were held; lobbyists wandered the halls, buttonholing lawmakers and pleading their cases. 

Yet as lawmakers cast their final votes on June 10th, the first evidence emerged of a changing dynamic:  the state Assembly approved far fewer bills than they did the previous year, while the state Senate increased theirs. 

Both houses agreed on 839 identical bills that passed both chambers.  That is the lowest number (other than the pandemic-truncated session of 2020) since 2018, when the Democrats took over control of both houses.  The reason for the numerical decline was directly the result of far fewer bills passing the Assembly – 964 – the smallest amount that that house had approved (other than 2020) in nearly three decades

When the Assembly left the Capitol on June 10th, immediately there were rumors that the members would have to return.  Last week the Assembly Speaker made it official: the house’s members would return for two days this week.  The reason?  While no justification for return was clearly articulated, it had to be said that too many members were frustrated that their bills had been stopped short of passage during the regularly-scheduled session.

The upshot it seems is that the numbers were borne out and the Assembly majority chose to reconsider more bills.

There were a number of bills that had been under active consideration when the Assembly turned out the lights on June 10th.  But will they return to tackle issues other than those “teed up” for action?

Here are a few of the active issues expected to be considered this week:

  • Legislation to allow a group of individuals or nonprofit organizations to represent the interests of residential and/or small business utility ratepayers in Public Service Commission (“PSC”) ratemaking and other regulatory proceedings.  The legislation allows those groups to obtain funding for their work as intervenors. With spiraling electric, gas and water rates, this legislation will help raise consumer voices in regulatory proceedings.
  • Legislation to prohibit credit reporting agencies, including Transunion, Experian, and Equifax, from including medical debt in consumer credit reports.
  • Legislation that would essentially prohibit the state from purchasing wood products harvested from tropical rain forests. 
  • Legislation that ends the practice of anonymous ownership of Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) and requires the disclosure of the identities of owners and publishing their names in the state’s publicly searchable business entity database.

While those issues – and presumably others – have merit and are important to lawmakers and their constituents, big issues that have been festering, or are emerging, seem likely to be ignored.

One example is the rapidly eroding financial situation of the state.  Last week, the Hochul Administration released its financial plan for the state.  According to the Administration, shrinking tax revenues have forced it to project greater budget deficits in the upcoming years beyond those anticipated just two months ago.

The Administration expects that the projected budget gap for the fiscal year starting on April 1, 2024 has grown from $5.1 billion to $9.1 billion.  Moreover, the Administration expects the deficit for the following fiscal year (starting on April 1, 2025) to be $13.9 billion and $13.4 billion in FY 2027.  Those massive deficits may, of course, shrink or grow over the upcoming months, but don’t expect action this week on how to handle that issue.

Also, another dark cloud over the state’s finances is the result of the worsening climate.  It is expected to cost tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to deal with the rising sea levels, more dangerous storms, hotter temperatures, and – most noticeably as of late – the rising pollution levels, including those from smoke resulting from unprecedented Canadian wildfires.

The state Senate did act on that one, by approving legislation to require the oil companies to earmark $3 billion annually to cover New York’s rising climate costs.  Despite significant support for the Assembly version of the legislation, the Assembly leadership blocked the measure in its house.  Whether they are willing to send a climate invoice to Big Oil will be one of the questions facing the Assembly this week.

With the Assembly returning to finish up its work, will lawmakers tackle the big issues facing the state?  Time will tell.