By: Marie J. French | POLITICO
ALBANY — Environmental groups are gearing up for a highly unusual session during which many will seek to protect their funding priorities while also eking out some no-cost policy wins.
Activists won’t be a presence in the Capitol this year because of Covid-19 restrictions, but they hope to have success with virtual events and online shows of support.
Environmental groups and allies are particularly focused on making sure funding for the Environmental Protection Fund, water infrastructure and other key programs continues at expected levels.
“This is funding that we need in a crisis — and it creates jobs and people are getting outside to recreate safely,” said The Nature Conservancy’s Jessica Ottney Mahar. “There have been really huge upticks in reliance on natural resources in the pandemic.”
While many environmental advocates plan to press for a revival of the $3 billion bond act Gov. Andrew Cuomo canceled due to budget constraints, they acknowledge that there may still be fiscal concerns. A coalition that had initially sought to push for passage of the bond act has rebranded as “New Yorkers for Clean Water and Jobs” and is focused on protecting funding as well.
Environmentalists still have hopes for policies that won’t break the bank, although federal funding, including for energy or environmental programs, could change the landscape. Advocates are pushing for progress on waste, the second passage of a constitutional amendment to protect clean air and water, and allowing direct sales of electric cars.
A broad coalition is pressing to eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels. Sen. Liz Kreuger (D-Manhattan) sponsors a measure to do that and a new version is in the works.
The NY Renews coalition, which crafted the campaign leading to passage of the state’s landmark climate law in 2019, is still finalizing its new version of a bill dealing with ways to raise and distribute funds from polluter penalties.
That could provide new money to achieve the state’s climate goals but may run into opposition because of potential costs to consumers and businesses in a fragile economy. Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, pointed to the robust Democratic majority in the Senate and the growing membership of NY Renews as positive signs for the campaign.
“The idea that climate change is one of those few crises you can build your way out … all of that is trending in our direction,” Bautista said. “I’m not so naive to think that the conversation about a polluter penalty fee is not going to be a difficult.”
Another coalition — anchored by the New York League of Conservation Voters — has rallied behind a different approach to begin reducing emissions: the low-carbon fuel standard, which would target transportation fuels. Bautista and other environmental justice leaders are skeptical of the policy.
Some supporters of the fuel standard are hopeful that Cuomo could push for it in his State of the State message. The policy would not involve money flowing through state coffers but electricity providers and biofuel sellers would likely benefit, and some money could get re-invested in electrification of buses, charging infrastructure and other priorities.
Another potential policy change involves manufacturers of electric cars with different business models than traditional car companies. Tesla, Rivian and Lucid Motors are hoping to see a removal of restrictions on direct sales to customers in New York. The issue could be another edition of a tough fight against traditional car dealers.
Other proposals, like a green transit policy to require electrification of buses, have also been floated. Looming over all these discussions is the ongoing work of the Climate Action Council, which is supposed to have a draft plan done by the end of the year for achieving net zero emissions by 2050.
Proposals to expand the state’s bottle deposit law to cover more containers fell off the table in 2019 as lawmakers saw it as too complex to tackle. And it never gained momentum as the pandemic upended regular business last year.
Environmental groups still are planning to push an expansion of that law as well as more extensive extended producer responsibility requirements this session. But it’s unclear if lawmakers are ready to take action this year.
Liz Moran of the New York Public Interest Research Group said there appears to be “extreme hesitancy to do anything that could be perceived as a strain on businesses, consumers or local governments.”
Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Nassau), chair of the environmental conservation committee, sponsors a bill to implement new producer requirements for paper and packaging materials. He said in a written response to questions that he wants to make progress this session.
“We are facing a recycling crisis in our country, and it is essential for government to encourage businesses to mitigate waste, thereby saving taxpayers money,” he said. “By setting up a ‘polluters pay’ model, producers will finally have to be responsible for the end-of-life costs for their products.”