Energy & Environment

Can New York keep climate change at bay?

A discussion on sustainability with New York City and state's leading environmental officials.

Wind turbines as far as the eye can see

Wind turbines as far as the eye can see Love Silhouette / Shutterstock

In the film “Waterworld,” the polar ice caps have melted and the land has been submerged by rising oceans. Among the remaining inhabitants, who struggle to survive on boats and ships or makeshift floating islands, there are rumors of a distant place where there is still dry land.

Could such a dismal future ever become reality? While much of the sci-fi flick is far-fetched – the protagonist is a mutant with webbed feet and gills, after all – there is scientific consensus that sea levels are rising, and emerging evidence that the waters will rise faster than many expect.

Despite the concerns about climate change, President Donald Trump last year pulled the United States out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, a move that could exacerbate the already dire environmental threat. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed nonetheless to meet the international benchmarks, which align with his goal to have 50 percent of the state’s power come from renewable resources by 2030. His administration has been seeking to overhaul the power grid, support technologies like energy storage and ramp up investment in renewable energy like solar power. One promising area is offshore wind, an industry that is supported by both the Cuomo and Trump administrations.

Of course, all of these efforts come with tradeoffs, both political and practical. Will policymakers be able to push through the changes needed to protect the environment, despite the costs? In “Waterworld,” there’s an upbeat ending – will there be one in the real world, too? In an attempt to get answers, we spoke with Steve Englebright, chairman of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, Thomas O’Mara, chairman of the state Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation and Vincent Sapienza, commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

Thomas O'Mara
Courtesy New York Senate
Thomas O’Mara

Chairman, state Senate Committee on Environmental Conservation

C&S: What are your top priorities in terms of sustainability?

TO: The main issues that I’ve personally been working on have been surrounding product stewardship issues. We’ve had some success with the e-waste program in New York over the years, and we always look for some changes in that. That’s been pretty effective. The main ones that I’m working on now are regarding a paint stewardship program and a solar panel recycling requirement. The paint stewardship we tried very hard to get in the budget this year and were unable to get it done. It’s to help get unused post-consumer paint out of people’s garages or basements, or wherever they have to store it. It’s been a big expense to local governments and hazardous waste expenses. And this would put the onus on the industry, on the paint industry, or the coatings industry I guess is how they refer to themselves. They’re more than willing to start up this kind of stewardship program, which would call for collection sites at retail locations on a voluntary basis for the retailer and give consumers more options and flexibility for getting rid of that unused paint and getting it out of the cost of the municipal waste recycling days. So we have been unable to get that to move through the Assembly unfortunately. We’ve tried over the last couple years with starting on the efforts with solar, which is certainly a burgeoning industry in New York state. These solar panels are estimated to last 20, 25 years. They’ll be turned into scrap and they do contain some hazardous substances such as silicons and things. But they also have some precious metals in those that could be regained and put back into use rather then just scrapped. And I’ve also been pushing for legislation for e-bikes, to help encourage the use of those throughout the state.

C&S: Why do you think the stewardship legislation has not made it through the Assembly?

TO: They have a different version that differs from the way the industry has done it in, I think, about 10 other states right now. I worked very hard in my role as chair of the Environmental Conservation Committee to work together with business and industry on trying to find common ground where we can move forward on issues. They’ve shown it in the towns and states that have enacted this legislation that they’ve been proponents of, that this is a system that works. I actually think we have industries in this state and across the country that are environmentally minded and they do want to do things the right way, but they want to do them reasonably, they want to do them in a fashion that is not overly burdensome, and when I have opportunities to work in those regards, I support those efforts very strongly. And the sponsor of the version that I have in the Senate in the Assembly is Al Stirpe and I think he got something like 80 or more co-sponsors of his legislation, so he has more than a majority over there. It’s one of these issues where, unfortunately in the Assembly, it seems like staff runs the show over there and staff has been unwilling to allow this to move forward in the Assembly. I wish the members in the Assembly had more influence over there staff than they seem to have.

C&S: What about food waste? For the past two years, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has included in his executive budget legislation that would require commercial businesses to donate or recycle excess food. My understanding is that that legislation had support in the Assembly, but it had opposition in the state Senate from Republicans.

TO: We’ve got a lot of unanswered questions in the Senate. I think the Senate, I certainly am myself and I believe the Republican conference in the Senate, is generally very supportive of efforts to address the food waste issues, to get it into the appropriate waste stream, or more importantly, get it directed, where we can, to food banks or other hunger initiatives that we have great need for in the state. It’s only been addressed during the budget and this isn’t really a budget issue. But I think the food waste discussion has been kind of drowned out in overall budget negotiations. With something that’s that new, there is quite a few unanswered questions as far as certain industries are concerned, such as hospitals, larger scale cafeteria-like operations as well as the supermarket industry and just how some of these things will work out. I am looking forward to coming to some conclusion on the Food Recycling and Recovery Act as it’s referred to and hoping that we’re gonna get there, and we’ll continue to work on that, hopefully now that we’re done with the budget this year.

C&S: Where do you stand on a plastic bag tax or ban?

TO: I would like to see us come to some resolution on a statewide basis on this rather than have a hodgepodge of local laws out there that are developing now. But we’re dealing here with a situation that will have different impacts in different parts of the state. In larger urban areas, individuals don’t do as large a buying with grocery shopping at one given time as people do in more suburban and rural areas, so the quantity of bags at any given purchase point differs greatly. And it’s a major item of convenience that our constituents across the state become accustomed to and used to. I have been looking at ways to further encourage the recycling or proper disposal of these bags. I think since we passed the Plastic Bag Recycling Act in 1999 I believe it was, I’m not aware of any efforts the state or DEC has undertaken to encourage the appropriate recycling of those plastic bags. Nor am I aware of any studies that have shown that removing these bags from our waste stream is going to make a significant difference in our waste handling in the state. I think we should be, at least, starting out with greater recycling efforts, encouraging people, making a better community awareness of what you’re supposed to be doing with these bags. There’s no doubt the bags are unsightly and you see them a lot along our roadways and along our streets and sidewalks, stuck in trees. But I don’t think putting a tax on these bags is gonna do anything except inconvenience people and give the bureaucrats and the like more money to spend on a variety of issues that probably ultimately wouldn’t be related to single bags.

C&S: The Assembly passed the Climate and Community Protection Act last year but it hasn’t passed in the state Senate. What is the support like in the Senate, and why hasn’t it been able move through?

TO: We have done quite a few things in recent years, particularly in the years since Superstorm Sandy on resiliency efforts and efforts to deal with climate change. There certainly is a recognition in our conference of the issues of climate change and I think there are disagreements of which way to best go about dealing with these types of issues. I think you’ve seen through legislation that has gone through both houses in recent years (as part of) an effort to incorporate the concerns of climate change and dealing with issues of resiliency. So that is part of the planning process, significant projects going forward, particularly on a government level.

C&S: But what about some of the other parts of that? It’s a pretty big bill.

TO: Well, it’s very comprehensive.

C&S: Is it something that you think should be addressed in support bills?

TO: I certainly think any of these issues are far easier to deal with when they’re stand-alone as opposed to a large package. Certainly, we have differing opinions on the future use of fossil fuels in this state, certainly from my perspective. I believe that natural gas has been a missed opportunity for this state to lower emissions in many ways. But as I said earlier, I’ve worked hard on zero-emission vehicles and working for e-bikes and these types of things to reduce emissions where we can. But talk has been about 50 percent renewable energy for electricity, which is the governor’s proposal. We have certainly made progress at it and at the joint budget hearings this year, it was made clear by both representatives from the Public Service Commission and they asserted that New York is making significant progress in reaching these goals, that there was no concerns about being at target. But I think we need a balanced approach to everything, and while we might be able to get to 50 percent for electricity, we’re nowhere near that on our heating fuel source for this state and that continually gets ignored by the executive and the Assembly and whoever else is talking about these goals. We’re at probably greater than 95 percent of our heating source demands in this state are from fossil fuels. We’re going to be in need a long time for natural gas and other fuel sources to heat our homes, to heat our businesses. And we’re just continuing to ignore that in the state by blocking pipelines. We’re disadvantaging the entire New England section of the United States by blocking pipelines to get lower cost, cleaner burning fuel for both business and residential uses. And it’s impacting our competitiveness here in New York.

C&S: Even though there are no stand-alone bills in the state Legislature yet, has the environmental impact of congestion pricing come into play as to whether or not it’s the right move to enact?

TO: I certainly think the more you direct passenger traffic to mass transit, that helps the environment with emissions. I think that we have an opportunity with congestion pricing, that it should lead to, hopefully, opportunities to lead to greater use for the zero-emission vehicles as well. I look at it as perhaps you have a discounted congestion fee, or no congestion fee, for zero-emission vehicles that much more substantially reduce emissions in the city. Most of the discussions have been just straight on congestion, so just switching from gasoline vehicles or diesel vehicles to electric doesn’t solve your congestion problem, but I think it does certainly help with the patience for our air quality. But most of the congestion issue, my involvement has been just around the congestion and not the environmental emissions impact.

Steve Englebright
Courtesy New York Assembly
Steve Englebright

Chairman, Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee

C&S: What are your top sustainability issues?

SE: Well, I think that the most important issue, arguably in the whole world these days, is climate. And so we have a bill that deals with climate change, getting prepared for it, moving in the direction of reducing our carbon footprint in an incremental way. And I think that’s a high priority.

C&S: Is that the bill to set a goal for 2030 to hit a 50 percent renewable energy goal?

SE: That’s one of the things that’s built into it.

C&S: How is the state doing in terms of trying to hit the goal set by Gov. Andrew Cuomo of 50 percent renewable energy by 2030?

SE: We’re still ramping up in the direction of trying to make more use of renewables. We just completed a budget which included, when the dust settles on what we did last week, you’ll find that there is a portion of the budget in the language section, Article VII amendments, which includes completing, in Suffolk County at least and Nassau County, an inventory of state-owned land, and that would include buildings that might be suitable for solar. That would include things like the Long Island Rail Road that has probably 200 miles of right of way where solar panels could potentially be used on those properties and feed out into the grid and thereby into neighborhoods, schools and the like.

C&S: The governor once again put the Food Recovery and Recycling Act in his executive budget to require commercial businesses to recycle excess food, and once again it was not included.

SE: It was not included because the state Senate objected for reasons that they did not articulate – they just objected.

C&S: What efforts are ongoing to address the problem of food waste on the legislative level after not being included in the state budget?

SE: We’re not going to let go of the issue. We’re going to bring it back as a stand-alone bill. And in the … general election in the fall, I imagine this will be one of the sustainability issues that will be a matter of debate and discussion. So I think we’ll come into this next year with more insistence from the public demanding that we do a better job of recycling food. It touches everyone.

C&S: The proposal to enact a plastic bag tax has also gotten a lot of attention recently. How likely do you think that is to passing?

SE: I’m not very good at predicting, so I’ll just say that we have – if you want to compare the session to a basketball game, we’re only at halftime, the halftime break right now. So we still have half of our session left. I’m hoping that we can make gains on some of these issues individually, even as they were not found to be appropriate for the budget at that particular moment.

C&S: In the discussions on congestion pricing, how much has the discussion revolved around the potential environmental impact?

SE: In conference, at least. Of course, we haven't had a bill on that out on the floor yet. As a stand-alone bill, it hasn’t been out there. But I brought it up in conference at each opportunity because it’s ultimately what this is about. It’s not about raising money, it’s about having new incentives for making better use of transportation in order to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels, in particular to reduce the number of internal combustion engines being used on a daily basis. So that’s really what congestion pricing is targeted toward as a goal. And of course, by putting in fees that charge people a more appropriate level of cost for their use of the public resource known as oxygen in the air, the revenues that it derives from that will be used for mass transit. I’m hoping that we will see improvements not only to our subway systems, starting with the signalization, which is more than 50 years old, but by also electrifying the north lines of the railroads, which are still using diesels. They shouldn’t be using diesels, they should have electrification. And that all ties back to, I think we should be doing not only congestion pricing, not only in the heart of our population density, but also providing more state-owned land to be contracted out for solar. It’s interesting, you go to Hauppauge in Suffolk County, and County Center and the state office building are next to each one another. You go to the County Center, all the parking lots are covered with solar panels. Next door, there’s a huge state office building. No solar. Not one panel. Up the road, there’s a State University of New York, 800 acres, the largest SUNY site of concentrated activity in the whole state. Not one solar panel. We can do better.

C&S: Recently Cynthia Nixon visited Hoosick Falls, and water quality continues to be of great concern, especially on Long Island. While Cuomo has paid attention to water quality, do you think his challenger also bringing up the issue will bring about more action on his part?

SE: You’ve noticed the governor’s challenger going to Hoosick Falls; I bet he noticed also. And she was with Judith Enck, as I understand it also, at that same tour of Hoosick Falls. So I think that it is certainly something the governor is going to continue to be focused on. I don’t just mean Hoosick Falls, I mean that last year, when we did the Clean Water Infrastructure Act, that it was within the context that this was a down payment on getting started on a much bigger project than this amount of money. We were basically making the down payment on what would look more like an $80 billion project statewide. The governor’s awareness of that is not new. I don’t think it requires anybody going to Hoosick Falls to get his attention. I think he’s already focused on this. It’s one of the things that we’ve been able to work cooperatively with the executive on. State Sen. Kemp Hannon and myself met last year and worked with the executive to put that initiative together. But all of us agree that it was a beginning and we have more to do.

C&S: Are there any issues that being overlooked?

SE: Well again, I think that climate change issue in all of its manifestations really deserves our first order of attention. One of the things that climate change is doing of course is overheating the ocean and creating more storms. The frequency of Category 3 and higher energy storms is increasing. We’re supposed to get one of these every 100 years. We’re getting a storm, a superstorm or devastating hurricane, about once every three years. That’s because of the overheated ocean and that is part of what is melting the glaciers and the ice caps. I think we need to start to focus on protecting our city. One of the other things I was very pleased to help negotiate into the budget was to have a planning grant built into the budget to hire academics to advise how to stave off the effects of hurricanes. We saw in the last superstorm that came into our area, Superstorm Sandy, we had people literally drowning in their apartments in lower Manhattan. So it’s time for this manifestation the global climate crisis to be met with preventative design and investment.

C&S: Are there any other issues City & State readers should know about?

SE: Just watch, we had a hearing on offshore oil, which is completely incongruous with the direction that we need to go in. The Trump administration has opened the offshore area off of Long Island potentially for oil drilling. We have been working on – first we had a hearing, and we are working on legislation to help make sure that our offshore shelf area, if it’s going to be used for energy production, it should be used for offshore wind.

Vincent Sapienza
Courtesy New York City DEP
Vincent Sapienza

Commissioner, New York City Department of Environmental Protection

C&S: This year we’re seeing a major city like Cape Town, South Africa, go through a water shortage. As the manager of New York City’s water supply, have you learned anything from watching this crisis?

VS: When it comes to water quantity and quality, New York City is in a much better position than most large cities throughout the world. Our reservoir system in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains was built with significant amounts of redundancy and flexibility to help the city withstand severe droughts. New York City has also focused a lot of energy and investment on water conservation in recent decades. Since 1990, the five boroughs have grown by about 1.6 million people, but water demand had gone down by about 35 percent. The city is now using less water on an average day than it did during the drought of record in the 1960s, which means we are better protected against future droughts. The situation in Cape Town is a stark reminder that all cities need to plan for droughts and invest in the infrastructure that’s needed to withstand them. New York City has been a worldwide leader in that type of water system planning for more than a century.

C&S: Your office predicted that water rates could rise some 80 percent over the next 10 years, according to an analysis by the New York City Public Advocate's Office. Why? Is this the only way to fund infrastructure repairs?

VS: We work hard to manage the significant costs that come along with operating the largest municipal drinking water and wastewater system in the country and the water rate has not changed since 2015. In fact, the cost of water services in New York City is now about 10 percent below the costs in other large U.S. cities. This is partly due to the historic step taken by Mayor de Blasio to forgo a rental payment from the water system. As we do every year, later this spring, DEP will meet with the New York City Water Board, who actually sets the water rate, and we will present the anticipated costs of operating the water system for the next fiscal year.  We will also make a recommendation to the board concerning the water rate. Following public hearings in all five boroughs, the Water Board will then determine the water rate for fiscal year 2019.

Editor's note: DEP has denied that it predicted a potential 80 percent increase in water rates over a decade, saying the figure was based on inaccurate assumptions. This post has been updated to attribute the figure to the New York City Public Advocate's Office, which put out that figure.