Despite national shakeup, water quality and clean energy remain priorities in New York

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Despite national shakeup, water quality and clean energy remain priorities in New York

Despite national shakeup, water quality and clean energy remain priorities in New York
December 5, 2016

In the last few years Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made energy and environmental policy a priority, largely through executive actions, setting in place some of the most aggressive, if controversial, policies in the country.

The governor has given teeth to what was previously only a goal of his administration: to derive half of the energy used in the state from renewable sources by 2030 as a main thrust of his Clean Energy Standard, adopted this summer by the state’s Public Service Commission. Many of his largest upstate economic development investments – the RiverBend solar panel plant in Buffalo, the photonics center in Rochester – are centered around green technology. And he has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to prop up financially struggling nuclear power plants to avoid using more energy made from burning fossil fuels.

Now, with a president-elect in Donald Trump who has vowed to roll back regulations and to push policies that are hospitable to fossil fuel producers, it remains to be seen how those goals will be affected. SolarCity, the company set to operate out of the state-owned Buffalo facility, has gone through a period of volatility as it has moved toward a profitable business model. While the approval of its merger with Tesla last month puts it in a better position to succeed going forward, its outlook is still far from certain.

U.S. Rep. Chris Collins, a Buffalo-area congressman with close ties to Trump, has worked to temper fears, telling State of Politics that renewables will not be a main source of energy under a Trump plan, but that they will continue to play a role in the energy landscape.

“I think there will be a continued role for solar and wind,” Collins told the news outlet. “We have to be fiscally responsible at the same time, so I think the solar credits and the wind credits are something we’re going to have to talk through.”

Additionally, the legislature will likely take up water quality issues that arose last year after it was reported that elevated levels of cancer-causing chemicals were found in the water supplies of several municipalities north of Albany and concerns over the amount of lead in drinking water began to take hold.

State Sen. Tom O’Mara leads the upper chamber’s environmental conservation committee. In an emailed response to questions from City & State, the Republican said that a main focus for his committee will be to build on some of the success of recent years, including restoring full funding to the Environmental Protection Fund.

O’Mara would like to see the broadening of a law he sponsored with Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, which was recently signed into law by Cuomo, that requires schools to test drinking water for lead.

“We will be looking at the need to expand this year's legislation to include preschools, child care centers and possibly colleges and other institutions and facilities where the public is likely to consume water or utilize water for food preparation” O’Mara said. “These expansions would have to be accomplished as part of the state budget in order to establish an appropriate funding stream since these types of facilities do not have a funding mechanism in place like school building aid to cover the expenses of testing and remediation.”

Assemblyman Steve Englebright, a Long Island Democrat who is chairman of the chamber’s Environmental Committee, agreed that despite some progress last year, water quality remains a top priority.

In addition, he said issues related to climate change also should take precedence, especially given the damage that storms like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene have caused in recent years.

“These are storms that are supposed to be once every 100 years,” Englebright said. “They’re coming once every two years.”

And while Sandy was particularly bad for his district, the problems caused by Irene just a few years earlier across large sections of upstate show that these issues resonate with people across the state.

“Climate change is not just a coastal issue, it’s a statewide issue,” Englebright said.

While the balance of power remains uncertain in the Senate, Englebright said he is hopeful that his conference can work with whoever is in power to try to move forward on some of these problems this year.

“I think there’s always a chance to do good things if the people of the state are behind the initiative,” he said.

WHAT GOT DONE

– Clean Energy Standard adopted by the state Public Service Commission

– Water testing required at all K-12 public schools 

WHAT'S ON THE AGENDA

- Expansion of water testing in child care facilities, colleges and other public venues

– Legislation to address and prepare for the effects of climate change

– Legislation to address the decline of pollinators like honeybees and the proliferation of invasive species

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Justin Sondel
is a freelance reporter in Buffalo.
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