One of the top priorities for climate activists was the Climate and Community Investment Act which would have placed a carbon tax on all carbon emitters. The idea was to provide disincentives to the continued use of carbon-producing fossil fuels like oil and gas in favor or renewables like wind and solar. But predictions that this could lead to a de facto 55-cent tax on gasoline killed the bill with lawmakers, especially suburban legislators whose commuters rely heavily on their automobiles.
ALBANY – The COVID-19 pandemic that kept state lawmakers at home for much of the year may be easing. But environmentalists in New York weren’t satisfied as the legislative session drew to a quiet and uneventful close last Friday.
With some exceptions, many environmentalists say the 2020-21 session ended with scant progress on what they described as the key issue: Their stated need to urgently and aggressively address climate change by enacting laws that would promote energy efficiency and carbon reductions.
“In terms of climate it was a big zero,” said Lisa Marshall, of the climate group Mothers Out Front.
One of the top priorities for climate activists was the Climate and Community Investment Act which would have placed a carbon tax on all carbon emitters. The idea was to provide disincentives to the continued use of carbon-producing fossil fuels like oil and gas in favor or renewables like wind and solar.
But predictions that this could lead to a de facto 55-cent tax on gasoline killed the bill with lawmakers, especially suburban legislators whose commuters rely heavily on their automobiles.
“Both houses whiffed on the big climate financing bill,” remarked Judith Enck, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator and current climate activist and lecturer at Bennington College.
Also failing was a measure, which came from the state Energy Research and Development Agency, whose leaders are appointed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, that would have mandated higher energy efficiency standards in items like home appliances. Marshall described the measure as a “no brainer.” It passed in the Senate but not the Assembly – a pattern that repeated itself with several environmental initiatives.
In past years, a bill like that starting in the governor’s office would likely pass; but with Cuomo under investigation for alleged sexual harassment, as well as possibly misusing staff or manipulating nursing home death data, the governor has lost a measure of clout, Marshall said.
“Because the governor was having such a politically challenging time nobody took it up,” she said.
In past years, the Assembly would often pass the more progressive bills on a number of fronts, knowing they would stall in the closely divided Senate. But the Senate since 2018 has been safely Democratic and there is an active contingent of progressive senators there. That means the Assembly has become a moderating influence on some issues, including the environment.
One example of that was a proposal for a three-year moratorium on certain new cryptocurrency mining operations. That measure passed in the Senate, but amid opposition from labor unions that represent power plant workers, and facing headwinds from the deep-pocketed hedge funds that are getting into cryptomining, it died in the Assembly.
In cryptomining “miners” use purpose-build computers to decode the exotic algorithms used to track cryptocurrency or virtual money like Bitcoin. By doing so, they earn cryptocurrency themselves. The mining can be highly profitable but the computers, which run 24 hours a day, consume enormous amounts of energy – so much that companies are repurposing entire power plants toward this pursuit. That’s what has environmentalists and climate activists upset and looking for a moratorium.
Also failing was a bill that would have expanded the state’s authority over development in wetlands, especially those under 12.4 acres.
There were some victories, though. Lawmakers passed a bill to create a list of emerging contaminants in municipal water systems.
And legislators in their budget earmarked $1.5 million to fund visitor safety, wilderness protection, and to address overuse in the Catskill Park – similar to the attention that has long been given to the Adirondack Park.
Others noted that some major carbon-reduction initiatives will be back next year and may gain traction as the state’s Climate Action Council, which is charged with mapping out how New York will meet future pollution reduction, moves forward.
One of biggest victories for environmentalists may be the Legislature’s approval of a ballot item for a constitutional amendment creating a Green Bill of Rights. That proposed amendment will go before voters in November.
At that time voters will decide if the state’s Constitution should include a clause that if passed would say that “each person shall have the right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
Such a constitutional amendment would likely take time to play out in the courts and other avenues where it would be interpreted. But it could have a lasting effect on environmental policy.
“This amendment will now appear on the 2021 general election ballot and if passed will help ensure that all New Yorkers have clean air and water, so no one gets sick just because of where they live or work,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates NY.
He added that his and other organizations moving forward will be working to get the amendment passed by voters.
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