Energy & Environment

Will New York Democrats push a progressive climate agenda this session?

The state needs to wean itself off fossil fuels, but lawmakers disagree about how – and how quickly – to do that.

Climate activists on the West Side Highway in Oct. 2021.

Climate activists on the West Side Highway in Oct. 2021. Steve Sanchez Photo/Shutterstock

New York has a ways to go when it comes to reaching the goals established in the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Just 5% of the electricity in the state currently comes from wind and solar. New York will have to do more than that to meet the legal requirement to have 100% renewable energy by 2040 and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions statewide by 85%, compared to 1990 levels, in the subsequent decade. According to a recent report by the New York Public Interest Research Group, the state needs to promote more conservation, more renewable energy and fewer emissions. Political will appears to be a big variable in finding solutions. “We are at a really critical juncture when it comes to meeting the state’s climate goals,” Liz Moran, New York policy advocate at Earthjustice, said in an interview. Recent disasters show how deadly – and expensive – a warming planet has already become.

Experts empaneled by the CLCPA are expected to release draft plans in the coming weeks that will detail specific steps the state can take to achieve its energy goals. Gov. Kathy Hochul has suggested that her budget for the fiscal year that begins April 1 will include a focus on confronting climate change. State lawmakers meanwhile are getting ready for a 2022 legislative session that could have a big effect on the speed with which the state weans itself off fossil fuels. Albany Democrats are generally of one mind when it comes to expanding renewable energy and promoting conservation, in principle at least, but things get complicated when it comes to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions. A growing group of left-leaning legislators want to block the use of fossil fuels in a variety of ways, which has already led to some friction between colleagues urging a more gradual approach.

“This is a 911 emergency,” state Sen. James Sanders Jr. of Queens said in an interview. “We have to move on and say: ‘No more new fossil fuel infrastructure.’” A bill he is sponsoring aims to block the construction of future gas pipelines, power plants and storage facilities, with some exceptions for things like gas stations. Other bills directly target new sources of emissions, including proposals to ban natural gas power plants, eliminate energy subsidies and crack down on energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining at previously shuttered power plants. Such proposals are complicated in their details. The subsidy bill, for example, involves a complicated web of existing state taxes and economic development programs. Yet, they all reflect a sharpening focus by progressives on ridding New York of fossil fuels. “These things fit together as part of a larger climate platform that we really have to pass in order to be taken seriously as one of the leading states in the country with regard to fighting the climate crisis,” Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani of Queens said in an interview. That includes outstanding legislation that aims to give the New York Power Authority a leading role in building renewable energy projects, as well as a proposal to raise billions in revenue through a carbon tax.

We have to move on and say: ‘No more new fossil fuel infrastructure.’
– state Sen. James Sanders Jr.

Not all Democrats, however, agree with the idea of eliminating fossil fuels in the short term. Some of them say the state needs gas-burning peaker plants that power up when energy demand spikes during hot and cold days alike, especially considering how old hydroelectric plants account for the vast majority of renewable energy currently generated in New York state. Natural gas – or methane – is far from perfect. It is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. So some legislators say it is better than coal or petroleum at meeting current and projected demand. “There is nothing about the state energy plan that requires us never to use another molecule of gas,” state Sen. Kevin Parker of Brooklyn, who chairs the Committee on Energy and Telecommunications, said in an interview. “We don't want to limit the use of fossil fuels too fast before we get proper implementation and the ability to bring online new technologies and new infrastructure to actually generate energy.”

Climate is similar to police reform and health care in at least one critical way. They all show how the speed and scope of progressive reforms can divide Democrats as much as specific policy details. However, the political lines sometimes get blurred in a state Capitol where traditional liberals are de facto moderates. Progressive activists like the New York City chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America have backed primary challengers against Parker (and other lawmakers). This is because of campaign donations from fossil fuel interests and their supposed lack of action on key climate bills even though Parker is the sponsor of the Climate and Community Investment Act, which would impose a tax on carbon polluters, that is championed by the political left. State Sen. Todd Kaminsky of Long Island, who chairs the Environmental Conservation Committee, and environmentalists have partnered on a litany of legislative efforts including the CLCPA, which he sponsored, even while having differences on the proposed carbon tax. Kaminsky, Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Steve Englebright and Assembly Energy Committee Chair Michael Cusick could not be reached for comment by publication time.

This is a real enormous issue, and if we don't treat it with the enormity of it, we're never going to meet those (climate) goals.
– Assembly Member Robert Carroll

Recent actions by the Hochul administration to deny permits to two proposed natural gas power projects suggest that it could take a hard line on allowing new fossil fuel infrastructure. But key decisions remain on other projects like a proposed cryptocurrency mining operation in Yates County upstate that is awaiting approval by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Democrats in both chambers of the state Legislature will meet in the coming weeks to discuss their legislative agendas for the legislative session and the budget negotiations. Some of them will be pushing for their chambers to take a more aggressive approach to climate change. Others will likely argue that their own efforts are more practical and wise given the potential economic costs to the state and Republican rhetoric about how Democrats’ efforts will supposedly cost New Yorkers at the gas pump.

While moderates tend to emphasize practicality, progressives are not ceding that point on climate. The legislation sponsored by Sanders and Assembly Member Robert Carroll of Brooklyn would ban new fossil fuel infrastructure, with some exemptions, while declaring a “climate emergency” for rhetorical effect. Like other bills on the political agenda, its passage would spur the state to move quicker in meeting the goals established in the CLCPA by blocking new fossil fuel projects. It would also send a message far beyond the Empire State, progressive legislators say. “(It will be) a shot across the bow to these large energy producers that no longer are we going to have debates about permitting new plants or building new pipelines across our state,” Carroll said in an interview. “This is a real enormous issue, and if we don't treat it with the enormity of it, we're never going to meet those (climate) goals.”