New York has some of the strongest climate laws in the country. But when the state Legislature ended its most recent session in early June, some essential bills — ones needed to meet environmental mandates — were left out in the cold.
The starkest example is the All-Electric Buildings Act. Buildings emissions are one of the largest contributors to global warming. New York State consumes more fossil fuels in its residential and commercial structures than any other state. In New York City, nearly 40% of greenhouse gas emissions come from heating, hot water, and cooking gas in buildings.
The All-Electric Buildings Act, sponsored by State Sen. Brian Kavanagh and Assemblymember Emily Gallagher, would prohibit infrastructure, building systems or equipment used for the combustion of fossil fuels in the construction of any new building statewide. But it didn’t even make it to the floor of the State Senate and Assembly this year.
After the monumental passage of the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act three years ago, advocates hoped that it would fast-track other bills into law to save the planet from the worst ravages of climate change. The CLCPA requires that the state of New York cut greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors by at least 85% below 1990 levels by 2050 — and use 100% zero-emission electricity by 2040.
But local environmental groups and even some New York lawmakers feel that they need to legislate faster before the impacts of climate change worsen.
In candid conversations, a dozen Democrat legislators gave reasons for why some measures are stuck. Gothamist also contacted more than a dozen Republican state legislators for this story but received no response.
Industry opposition and misinformation posed big challenges for lawmakers, they said. Many climate bills require a technical background to fully grasp which industries might be affected, and educating the Senate and the Assembly is a big part of a bill sponsor’s job, especially when most members are not scientists.
State Sen. Liz Krueger of Manhattan was a lead sponsor of about 10 environmental bills last session — and co-sponsor for many more. That includes the cryptocurrency mining moratorium that passed the Senate and Assembly this year and is awaiting signature on the governor’s desk. She said moving climate bills is “difficult and challenging.”
“This is not an easy assignment,” said Krueger, who represents parts of Manhattan’s East Side, which has high ozone levels and is vulnerable to flooding. “If this was all an easy assignment, we would not be here in 2022 racing against the clock.”
As the U.N. reported earlier this year, New York can expect flooding, extreme weather, and heat waves to increase exponentially if greenhouse gas emissions aren’t drastically reduced to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius.
Krueger describes the tug of war that happens over climate bills as citizens versus industry. Large numbers of grassroots organizations driven by New Yorkers support climate legislation, but there are also “powerful forces from energy and manufacturing industries,” including labor unions.
Gothamist reached out to industry representatives in manufacturing, building construction, and real estate for comment — but did not receive an immediate reply.
John Olsen, the New York lead for the Blockchain Association, said his group is not opposed to addressing the issues with hefty fossil fuel usage for cryptomining, but he believes the state’s moratorium is “heavy-handed,” sends a “negative message” and singles out cryptomining.
“[The moratorium] will make New York less competitive with other states who are taking a more proactive approach to mining or studying the blockchain industry’s impact to the states before advancing on regulations,” Olsen wrote in an emailed statement to Gothamist.
Yet environmental advocates fear that with each legislative session that passes, the CLCPA's goals move further out of reach.
The biggest climate bills hitting a wall
The All-Electric Buildings Act is at the top of nearly every climate group’s wish list, including the New York League of Conservation Voters. President Julie Tighe said this was where lawmakers could have done more this session.
“We obviously fell short in that the all-electric buildings bill did not pass,” Tighe said. “And that is something that we will be pushing for in 2023, especially because New York City has already passed that.”
New York City passed a similar law last year, which has the potential to prevent more than 2 million tons of carbon emissions by 2040 in the city. That’s comparable to taking 450,000 cars off the road for a full year.
Pete Sikora, climate & inequality campaigns director at New York Communities for Change, added that banning gas hookups from new building construction and going all-electric is the first big step to wean buildings off fossil fuels.
But the state-level bill has been stalled in the Senate and Assembly for more than a year. In May, a special hearing was called for this legislation, and since then there has been no movement. Its status is still “in committee” despite the hearing.
“Every lost moment is another step closer toward a rapid descent into catastrophe worldwide,” Sikora said. “It's hard to convey the magnitude of the items that need to pass right now.”
You still want to be able to figure out how to pay for these things and understand the impact on the people.
Many environmental groups worry that the same fate awaits other big climate bills such as the Build Public Renewals Act, which had a public hearing in July. This bill would authorize the New York Power Authority to build, own, and operate more renewable energy projects. It would essentially provide the state with a way to significantly accelerate the building of zero-emission power sources and ensure that climate goals are met.
Annie Carforo, climate justice campaigns manager at WE ACT, said while she doesn’t want to be a pessimist, she thinks the Build Public Renewables Act “is a little bit stuck.”
“We saw with the All-Electric Buildings Act, you can have a hearing on the legislation, and it doesn't really move the needle,” Carforo said.
In June of this year, the Build Public Renewables Act passed the State Senate, but it did not come to a vote in the Assembly. Speaker Carl Heastie said there was not enough time and information to make a decision. He said there were still unknowns like the cost, and whether NYPA has the capacity to carry out the task. He represents parts of the Bronx where residents are plagued with high ozone levels, heat waves, and flooding.
“Now some people say the cost is worth the planet, and that is absolutely true,” Heastie said. “But you still want to be able to figure out how to pay for these things and understand the impact on the people.”
The purpose of the hearing for the Build Public Renewables Act is to get some of these answers that legislators couldn’t before the end of session, according to Heastie, which was shortened by about two weeks because of this year’s early primaries.
“I don't really think it's a good idea to ram through bills without a chance for the public to be a part of, or at least understanding and consenting at some level,” said Assemblymember Steve Englebright of Suffolk County, a geologist and the sponsor of many climate bills. His constituents are also dealing with high levels of ozone as well as flooding after major storms.
Due diligence does slow down the process, which Englebright called “intentionally deliberative.” State Assemblymember Anna Kelles, who is also a scientist, said that most lawmakers do not have the technical backgrounds to easily understand climate change and environmental bills. Her district of Tompkins County has already committed to going all-electric by the end of the decade, with government buildings set to be gas-free by 2025.
Assemblymember Michaelle Solages said a new bill really requires an education. Her district encompasses Nassau County, which also deals with flooding problems. Despite saying that the Assembly is behind on some climate initiatives, Solages said they are passing bills at a faster pace.
She said the average bill took seven years to become a law. As a co-sponsor of the Build Public Renewables Act, Solages said she had to inform members about what the bill does and its intentions, but she also spent most of her energy combating a lot of misinformation. Kelles, another co-sponsor, said lawmakers had to convince colleagues that the law was not an attempt to allow the state to take over the industry and negatively affect jobs.
“It's always a struggle to not only convince colleagues, but also outside entities that the environment is a priority,” Solages said. “We are actually behind the eight ball when it comes to addressing many of these systematic environmentally racist initiatives that are happening to our communities.”
What’s keeping the climate bill sausages from being made?
Climate bills face a lot of hurdles to becoming laws, but the most consuming task for legislators is battling misinformation from opposing interests.
“The cryptocurrency industry put out just blatantly false letters to all of us on how this would end the cryptocurrency development in New York state,” Krueger said. "They would all get up and leave. This was ridiculous and untrue.”
Something similar happened on a bill that would require charging stations and parking for electric vehicles. Krueger said the real estate industry fought against the bill, which has passed the Senate but is now stuck in the Assembly.
The real estate sector claimed that it would be “enormously expensive” and decrease the number of affordable housing units it would be able to build, according to Krueger. She called a timeout during the session to reread the bill, so lawmakers and stakeholders would understand that all it required was electric capacity for a certain number of parking spaces, which could just be an electric outlet. Gothamist sent an inquiry to real estate industry leaders, but did not receive an immediate response.
“Everybody is intentionally reading the bill wrong,” Krueger said. “The $200 that an electrician might charge you per electric outlet, it’s not going to blow your budget, so it’s not going to limit funds available for affordable housing, and you people have to just stop saying that.”
Advocates who have participated in crafting legislation and testifying before the Senate and Assembly said they have seen the challenge of misinformation and industry opposition in other bills like the All-Electric Buildings Act. Carforo said the interference from industry opposition was very significant this year in shutting down grassroots campaigns in the final hours.
“I don't think we can avoid the fact that there are really powerful interests that don't want to see these bills pass,” Carforo said.
But legislators don’t see this recent session as a failure. In fact, Kelles believes that the closer they get to state climate deadlines, the faster they will legislate.
“Each monumental bill that passes will help the next one,” Kelles said. “Sadly, as we experience more and more effects of climate change, I think that will influence [lawmaking].”
The last session wasn’t a complete loss for climate legislation. Smaller bills were passed, including funding for electric buses. And a $4.2 billion Environmental Bond Act passed the state budget process and is now on the ballot this year for voters to decide. Essentially, it would provide funds for climate change mitigation and adaptation.
But this initial investment is a drop in the bucket, according to Kelles, who said a minimum of $10 billion is needed annually to start, and then increase each year, in order to reach the CLCPA's goals.
If New Yorkers want to see faster lawmaking, legislators and advocates said the public is going to have to get involved. More than half-dozen state legislators said the easiest way to move a bill is through public action and outcry. Advocates said joining rallies, protests, making calls, and writing letters to legislators is another way citizens can be involved in moving the process along.
It’s also an election year, which is an opportunity to elect climate-conscious politicians. Englebright said the summer is a good time for voters to educate themselves by looking at voting records. He said it’s not enough to list climate change as a priority, or just talk casually about it. Lawmakers should be supporting and sponsoring climate and environmental bills, he said, or they’re not going to be taking serious action.
“We're all in this together,” Englebright said. “Make sure that you use your vote wisely, elect and re-elect people who are working to mitigate climate change.”
We're all in this together.
The primary for State Assembly races was held on June 28th, while the primary for State Senate races is on August 23rd. Virtually all members of the state Legislature and statewide races will be on the ballot for the November 8th general election, and the next legislative session begins January 2023.
It’s likely Democrats will retain a supermajority in the state Legislature as Democratic voters outnumber Republicans.
“What it will take is a not-so-quiet revolution in how we create our energy, how we utilize our energy, how it's paid for, and what we won't be able to do anymore,” Krueger said.
This story has been updated with a comment from the Blockchain Association.