Gov. Andrew Cuomo has done plenty to please environmentalists over the past few months.
In his State of the State address Cuomo called for stricter caps on greenhouse gases, unveiled a new “energy czar” and announced plans for a $1 billion “green bank” and a statewide network of charging stations for electric cars. Environmental groups praised the budget he signed this year, which boosts funding for mass transit, increases capital spending for parks and diverts more money to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. And in late March, the governor awarded tens of millions of dollars for solar power investment through his NY-SUN initiative, a program he launched last year.
Now environmentalists are waiting to see whether he’ll follow through on the most ambitious elements of the agenda he has laid out, which they say could set him apart not just from his predecessors in Albany but as a national leader on sustainability issues.
“Is he going to be a transformative environmental governor?” asked Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters. “Right now he’s doing a fine job, certainly on the budget, and he’s moved things ahead, sort of in an incremental fashion, which isn’t a bad thing. But we look to see whether there’s going to be more.”
Of course, for many environmental groups the most pressing issue is the potential permitting of hydraulic fracturing, a form of natural gas drilling that is under regulatory review by the state. Cuomo has pledged to make a decision on hydrofracking based on the science, though a decision has been delayed for months as industry supporters square off against thousands of antifracking activists.
Meanwhile, while hydrofracking is on hold, the governor has moved forward on other fronts.
The Environmental Protection Fund, which pays for recycling programs, land conservation and other major environmental initiatives, was increased by $19 million this year to a total of $152 million. The budget also designated $90 million for capital projects in New York State parks. An extra $40 million will go to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and suburban bus systems will see an uptick in funding as well.
But perhaps the area where the governor has been the most aggressive is clean energy.
Aiming to build on his NY-SUN initiative, which will invest $800 million in solar power development through 2015, the governor called on lawmakers this year to pass legislation to extend the program through 2023. Advocates say that long-term government investment is needed to spur significant growth in the sector.
“We’re delighted the governor has put a solar program in place,” Bystryn said. “But still, if something were to happen to Gov. Cuomo, it would be gone. So we think it’s critical there’s legislation. Legislation would ensure that it would be in place for the next 10 years, and that’s critical for the private sector that’s doing any kind of investing in [solar power].”
The governor also recruited Richard Kauffman, a former top aide in the federal Energy Department, to join his administration as chairman of a new energy finance subcabinet. As “energy czar,” one of Kauffman’s tasks will be to set up the $1 billion green bank, which will offer loans for clean energy projects and look for ways to streamline them.
Cuomo’s call earlier this year to strengthen the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state initiative to reduce emissions from power plants, also came at a pivotal point in negotiations over the program’s future. His public commitment to lower the cap in New York, which makes up about 40 percent of the energy market in the region, was a strong signal, and reassured environmentalists that the RGGI would continue to have an impact.
“I think this platform, there’s no other way to frame it than national in scope and scale,” said Jackson Morris, director of strategic engagement at the Pace Energy and Climate Center. “The sweep of initiatives, especially including RGGI, the electric vehicles, the green bank, with Richard Kauffman at point as energy czar, and you add those up—New York has a strong history in this space, but that portfolio that he threw out there, if achieved and delivered on, would really make New York a national leader on climate change policy and clean energy.”
On transportation, which has a major impact on pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, Cuomo has more of a mixed record, said Veronica Vanterpool, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
“On one hand he supported increased funding to the MTA, which is a good thing. He’s also kept his promise to fill the gap created from the restructuring of the payroll mobility tax that happened in 2011,” she said. “That has been really good, obviously. On the other hand he has not advanced concrete plans for transit in the I-287 corridor, nor along the Tappan Zee Bridge, and given transit’s ability to reduce emissions and address traffic congestion, which is a big problem in that particular corridor, that’s a very shortsighted goal for environmental sustainability moving forward.”
Bystryn said she was also waiting to see what long-term steps the governor would ultimately take in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The governor’s 2100 Commission sent him a long list of recommendations on how to protect coastal communities, and Bystryn said it would be an opportunity for the governor to put more of an emphasis on green infrastructure and think differently about restoring and maintaining wetlands.
“That’s a big issue, and we haven’t seen anything, and I’d love to see something,” she said.
Travis Proulx, a spokesman for Environmental Advocates, said that Cuomo already stands out when compared with his immediate predecessors. Even Gov. George Pataki, who had a strong record in land conservation and helped get the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative started, has been less effective than the current governor, Proulx said.
“George Pataki’s approach was to hold press conferences and make big speeches, but then he left it for his successors to really follow through on all these promises that he made,” Proulx said. “Spitzer wasn’t really there long enough to have a real impact on environmental issues. And Gov. Paterson made a number of really bad environmental decisions.”
As for Cuomo, the only question now is whether he will follow through on the bold, forward-thinking promises he has already made, Proulx said.
“Fracking is one example, where he’s made the promise that he’s going to let the science bear this process out,” he said. “So now everybody is taking a wait-and-see approach, to make sure that he’s keeping his promises on all these fronts.”
Tags: Andrew Cuomo, Environmental Protection Fund, George Pataki, Hydrofracking, Jackson Morris, Marcia Bystryn, New York League of Conservation Voters, NY-Sun, Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, RGGI, Richard Kauffman, Superstorm Sandy, Tappan Zee Bridge, Travis Proulx, Veronica Vanterpool