The man tasked with saving the world – or at least New York

DEC chief Basil Seggos has a lot on his agenda, from plastic bags to climate change.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos in his office in Albany.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos in his office in Albany. Zach Williams

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is tasked with what is arguably the most important work overseen by a state agency, in the grand scheme of things: protecting the environment that provides the water we drink and the air we breath. With the state budget process underway, it also falls to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos to explain many of the environmental initiatives that Gov. Andrew Cuomo included in his State of the State proposals as state budget negotiations get underway.

There is a $3 billion state bond act on the table that aims to fund environmental restoration efforts, as well as numerous proposals aiming to aid the state’s efforts to confront climate change. Meanwhile, a state ban on most types of plastic bags is set to go into effect on March 1, and a state commission on climate change is about to start its work determining a plan for meeting the ambitious climate goals set by the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act.

City & State recently caught up with Seggos at his Albany office, where the onetime Colorado ranchhand discussed the latest in state environmental policy. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve said that this year’s budget proposal is all about climate change. What did you mean by that?

The environment and the economy are inextricably linked. You can't separate the two if you're planning for the future of New York state. The governor is putting down a $3 billion proposal for an environmental bond act. Over a hundred years we’ve really built the state to a different normal. Our valleys are narrow. The villages are built at low levels next to streams. We've wiped out thousands of acres of wetlands around the state and eliminated green spaces in urban areas. The bond act would seek to address that problem by controlling the amount of water that flows off of the landscape. There would be the planting of wetlands all across the state, reconnecting rivers and streams that have been cut off because of dams or culverts. The dual benefit would be preparing the state for all that incredible runoff we expect to come during the climate-induced storms over the coming years.

The bond act is part of a $33 billion commitment over the next five years to spend money on shifting the state away from fossil fuels and into renewables. We're fast tracking offshore wind, onshore wind, installing solar around the state, electric vehicle charging stations and shifting us away from gasoline-based driving transportation systems into something more more sustainable.

The governor recently made his appointments to the 22-member Climate Action Council that will determine the state’s plan for confronting climate change. You have a leading role on that council. When will it start meeting?

Monday, this week, we started making phone calls to gauge the availability of all the members. We're looking at a range as early as next week to four weeks from now. The first meeting is going to be a largely “get to know you” while outlining the roles and responsibilities of the CAC. There's the CAC and then there's half a dozen groups underneath the CAC that we then have to empanel dealing with transportation, environmental justice, agriculture and land. So I mean, we have to establish expertise within all of these various work groups. That will be one of the early tasks. We ultimately will need to draw from those working groups for the recommendations that we make as part of the council.

The upcoming plastic bag ban will affect the lives of people across the state, but it has been criticized as allowing bags that are thicker than 10 mil. How do you respond to that criticism?

There's there's really no basis to the criticism. The 10 mil thickness is an extraordinarily thick plastic bag. What you probably are used to seeing over the years from various grocery stores, that's like a .8 mil thickness. The 10 mil thickness bag doesn't actually exist. There is 10 mil thick plastic, but it doesn't exist right now in the bag world. 

How thick is that compared to, say, a bag you get from Macy's?

It’s twice or three times as thick as a Macy's bag. 

Nonetheless, some plastic bags would be allowed for meat or takeout food, for example. How do you judge the success and failure of the ban that goes into effect March 1?

The purpose of the band is to get plastic bags out – 23 billion of them – out of our landfills. People are sick and tired of seeing bags floating around the landscape and littering the streets. Others are making a connection between the plastic bags they have and and the larger global climate issues.

It's like clicking in your seatbelt when you drive. It's habit forming. Everyone was jumping up and down about having to put on seatbelts years and years ago. Now they don't even think about it.

Yes, there will be exemptions for takeout, goldfish, meats and whatnot. But we will know that we have shrunk the usage and we can quantify what that means for all sectors where we’ve had problems. Plastic bags have been fouling up recycling machines and those would go offline. What's the reduction in the number of errors at recycling plants? Do our waterways look cleaner? Anecdotally, are we experiencing just less plastic bags in the landscape? For people that are in counties where there's a 5-cent fee for paper bags, are they still buying paper bags? I think the majority of people will just move over to reusable bags.

President Donald Trump has been making moves to weaken regulations governing fossil fuel projects. What is the state doing about it?

When it comes to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, his proposal is to weaken states’ rights. That isn't yet fully in effect. It's a pronouncement of the administration and they ultimately have to go through a regulatory process. We’re going to challenge that with many other states. 

When it comes to pipelines, we have authority to regulate the placement of the pipeline in a particular spot, and the impacts associated with the water quality surrounding that spot. So we're preempted from getting involved in much larger issues like climate change, air issues and so forth. But with that tool, we have wielded aggressively, not just on pipelines, but on many big projects.

Environmentalists have said that because pipelines transport fossil fuels and that contributes to climate change, which in turn affects water quality, that should be a basic rationale for blocking such projects. Do you agree?

I think it is a legitimate argument. The question is whether or not it would pass legal muster. We have to think through is the precedent to support what we're saying? Do we have an opportunity to create new precedent, either good precedent or bad precedent? We did make that argument actually with the denial of the of the Williams Pipeline, which is now in its third go around. We did make a primarily water quality argument but we also included a placeholder in there for that very recognition that this is a pipeline going through a relatively narrow section of New York harbor, is there are downstream effects to creating a pipeline in New York and ultimately burning natural gas, which then leads to the things you raised. 

You are commissioner of a department that oversees all sorts of public lands, from the waters off Long Island to wilderness areas in the Adirondacks. Where’s your ideal hangout?

I'd be up in the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. I'd be on the water up there on my boat. Probably fishing or just puttering around with my kids. That's what I'd be doing. Or if there is lots of snow, I'd be skiing at Gore Mountain.