Albany Agenda

Basil Seggos wants to trust the science

The departing DEC commissioner says New York is serious about addressing climate change.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos speaks at Fordham University in 2019.

DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos speaks at Fordham University in 2019. Scott Heins/Getty Images

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos is departing after eight years of shepherding New York through changes to environmental policy, climate crises and sea changes in Albany. Seggos, one of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s appointees, has run the state’s lead environmental agency since 2016. In recent years, he’s balanced his support for Ukraine, still at war with Russia, with his desire to make sure New York reaches its climate goals. Signed into law in 2019, the state is currently not on track to meet those benchmarks by 2030, an issue Seggos said was partly due to the pandemic and hardly indicative of the state’s commitments to a greener future.

While wrapping up his tenure and preparing for a much-needed rest, Seggos hopped on a call with City & State to talk about the DEC’s priorities, highlights of his tenure and his plans for the future. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What made you feel like it was time to leave the DEC?

Well, listen, I've been here a long time and my staff reminded me at some point in the last few months that I hit a record, and I don't think I stayed in this job to hit a record. I stayed in as long as I did because I actually love this job. It really is, in many ways, the best job in state government. DEC’s in the middle of everything. We've got extremely passionate stakeholders on the outside, we've been a leading state on the environment for many decades and we have really incredible staff here who, in some cases are here 30, 40, 50 years – there's actually a person who's here 54 years, she's in a management position – so it's sort of amazing to be part of this agency and the time had gone by very fast. 

But I just felt like it was time, time for me to take a knee in state government for a while. I’m certainly going to stay in the fight and dedicate myself to continuing this kind of work. I’ll just put a different hat on but I won't be a stranger to New York State that’s for sure.

It's hard to leave the best state in the country, right?

Yeah. Come on. We’re number one. Always.

You've had a lot of years to get a sense of where New York is at climate-wise, so what do you see as priorities that we should still really be focusing on?

Yeah, there's so many priorities this agency is in the middle of leading. Our work on climate change is vital and we have to do it for every reason imaginable, The crisis is real, the impacts are already being felt here in New York, and the country needs some of these big states like New York and California to be leaders and to show the way to develop policies and work through the really challenging issues. When those states can find a path forward, that gives the country some cover as well, and it can continuously advance some policies that would otherwise be very challenging at the national level, if just on their own. That is certainly one of the priorities and it'll involve not just reducing emissions, but also investing in our state making it more resilient.

To withstand the effects of severe weather is something that we think about a lot and something we act on a lot. So climate change 100%, a big priority. Also, infrastructure, water infrastructure in particular, investing in our hidden infrastructure that underpins all of our cities and towns. We've had a bit of a renaissance in that here in New York in the last few years: $5.5 billion dedicated to addressing old leaky pipes and outdated systems. I know that there’s very, very strong bipartisan support for it, and I have no doubt that the next commissioner will have a governor that supports him or her and a legislature that's very engaged in that point. So that's essential, but also something I have no doubt will continue. 

There are lots of other things that I made a priority for myself here at this agency that I think align very much with where New Yorkers are. I would just call attention to our efforts to diversify the agency. Obviously, we're a big and bold agency and we serve communities all across the state, and yet our diversity in the agency and our workforces is not yet where I want it to be. We put in place a number of really important infrastructural changes, we've created new offices, hired new leadership to break down some of those barriers and to create better pathways into the agency for people of all creeds, religions, races, ethnicity. When we hit that point when we're representative of New York state, we're gonna be more effective as an agency because people will see themselves in us and want to be part of this agency and ultimately make us better as we do our important work in every community in their state. So I think that'll be one of the things that surely the next commissioner will carry on. 

We created the Office of Indian Nation Affairs at DEC that never really existed before. We're doing some really groundbreaking nationally significant work on that. The office will certainly outlive me. The next commissioner will come in and have a really interesting opportunity to continue pushing this agency to have a more modern approach to relationships with the Indian Nations in New York state. So that's certainly significant, maybe not top of the line for all New Yorkers, but for me, it's been one of those really important things that I think we have to do.

What are your thoughts around New York not being on track to meet its 2030 climate goals?

I don't think any of us are prepared to throw in the towel on any of the targets we have there. They're very ambitious targets. They were signed into law in 2019, we've had a pandemic that had not just obviously a severe impact on our collective health, but it also had an impact on supply chains and infrastructure, inflation, pace to development, investment, everything else. It set us back a bit, but I know this governor takes the issue of climate change seriously and very much wants us to lean forward. 

Our target is to establish relationships with other states so that we collectively can meet our targets or meet more ambitious targets as a country. An incredible amount of work has gone into setting us up for success on this. In the same token, we have to advance policies that are affordable and policies that will retain businesses here in New York and ultimately grow the economy. 

I said at the beginning of this, years ago, after we passed the law and started our work and planning, that it would be the toughest thing that we ever did as a government, making this transition from a largely fossil fuel economy into something that's renewable and more sustainable. I knew that we would begin feeling the pain immediately upon embarking on the planning and implementation. We're in control of our future, but we have to do everything we can to adjust to society as we develop policies.

If I'm understanding you right, it's not as if the state went, “Oh, we're not going to meet it. Oh no…,” it's more like COVID was a significant delay to start progress but things are still trending in the right direction?

Absolutely. We are trending in the right direction. It's no easier than it was several years ago. but we made it through COVID. The governor cut the ribbon or turned the switch today on a really significant wind project. We're leading the country still on community solar, we've got

an incredible amount of investment going into a transition cap-and-invest program that we're developing which is going to help provide real programmatic support behind hitting our targets. So we’re doing all this stuff all at the same time and in some ways, we're “building the plane as we fly it” – that old expression – and that means approaching it with a level of seriousness that it demands and also the flexibility that we need to adjust as we go.

You said before you’ve set a record tenure as DEC commissioner. What are some of the craziest or most standout moments of this role?

Two weeks into my job, not even getting my feet on the ground, and the Hoosick Falls water crisis happens. The village loses its water supply, and we have to ultimately pivot the agency from what historically would just be a remediation issue to what is effectively a gigantic plumbing operation. We had 600 people from the agency that served in Hoosick Falls to install 800 treatment systems in people's houses and rebuild the village’s water supply. That's still going on today. But for me, that was trial by fire and that was just a wild start to my job and also one that really changed the way I thought about government. We had so many skills that were untapped in this agency that we were able to harness and fix a problem. 

And then DEC gets thrown into the mix as well on COVID. I mean, we were the lead agency on designing and operating drive-thru testing facilities around the state. Similarly with the vaccination sites, largely we're not the doctors or medical professionals but we're the ones who are creating that organizational plan and implementing it and harnessing resources and those three things – they were eye-openers about this agency, about my job and about government generally. The government can be a force for extreme good if run the right way.

Going back to last year with those really spooky wildfires. I know for a lot of New Yorkers, you're hearing the governor say “this is the new normal” as the sky is orange and there's actual smoke in the air and you're coughing all day. I mean, what was that like?

I think that's a perfect example of those days that are truly challenging, that you feel the gravity of the job and you feel the importance of managing an agency like this, which has the tools to help New Yorkers through a real health crisis. We are a very active agency on air quality. We're very active on wildfires. 

Yesterday, I did a press conference on wildfires just to remind New Yorkers not to burn this time of year because that's when we usually see fires happen in spring. We send our forest rangers out to fight wildfires, you know, million-acre fires in the West, Montana, Alaska, everything else. So we're very knowledgeable about air quality and fire. But that was a really unique moment in time when that much smoke came out of so many fires in Canada. Literally in a day, we went from some of the best air quality in the world to literally the worst air quality in the world. I don't know that anyone expected that would have ever happened, but it was a very stark reminder that the planet is changing, changing in ways that are less predictable, and we need to have very competent operators who can make judgments about how to protect public health along the way and pivot very quickly in the depth of these situations.

Can you talk a little bit about your trip to Ukraine?

I'd be hard-pressed to think of something in life, except for having my kids and getting married, that was more meaningful. Very early in that conflict, I just remember, like a lot of people, watching what was going on and feeling a sense of outrage and an inability to sit down. I found a way to get involved. For me, it was ultimately connecting with some people on the ground in Ukraine and assessing the various humanitarian needs they had and being able to move ambulances into the country. First aid kits, medical supplies and now three missions I've done there, all the way to the front, seeing some of the worst stuff you can imagine. 

I feel honored to have been involved with what was going on and been able to help a little bit. I think we've continued to help. We've done something like 165 ambulances so far, a number of trucks, a thousand pounds worth of firefighting gear, thousands of first aid kits, supplies for orphanages, sister city relationships that we've established, especially with Albany here, Bucha over there, and just it's one of those moments in history. I think that we will hopefully look back and say, “Well, you know, America stood up and did the right thing.”

What are your future plans once you leave DEC?

Six weeks of vacation, that's my first goal. I need some time off. It's been like two decades since I've had more than two weeks off. So I think I've got to take a knee and take a breath, rest with my kids for a while, and then get back into it. I'm not going to be in state government anymore, but I'm going to be working in environmental issues as I will (for the) rest of my career. (It will) be an opportunity for me to change hats but ultimately stay in the fight and do this really important work. All of us share this rare opportunity right now to make a lasting impact for our planet.

I'm assuming we’ll most likely be seeing you in this new job in New York?

I won’t be leaving New York. I'll be continuing to live in the Capitol District. My kids are at school here, and we're happy here. But yeah, it'll be different. I'll be active and I'll be present.

Do you have any words of advice for I guess whoever ends up replacing you?

I would say trust the science. This agency is built on science and there are people here that are some of the preeminent experts in the country on fixing some of these problems. That's one thing. 

Second is, be a listener. No matter how experienced you are coming in as commissioner, you need to learn every single day. Read and listen every single day and challenge yourself to be better. I approached the job with that in mind every single day, and (I) think if you reach the point where you’re no longer learning or you don't want to ,then you’re probably no longer into the job. For me, it's the only way to be effective here. 

And get out from behind the desk. That's a big one. You'll never be an effective commissioner unless you're out in the field listening, talking to people, traveling the state representing the governor, making friends of all stripes, of all political affiliations. I mean, this is a political appointment, but it's also a nonpartisan job, and you really have to get out there and find a path forward for New York that incorporates the views and interests of all New Yorkers.

Where are you going for vacation?

It's gonna be a combination of a quick trip with the kids to the Bahamas, on school break week, and then I'll be doing a lot of staycationing. I’m way behind on my Adirondack high peaks 46-year list. I think I've only got six in the hopper. So I've got to make some progress there. I've got paint chipping on my house that I've been looking at for a while. I've gotta chip that paint off, maybe do some paint jobs, some plumbing and electrical and some yard work. I love being a DIY guy, and I know that'll get me through the six weeks.