This story is published in partnership with New York Focus.
Last June, in the tumult of the final days of New York’s legislative session, the state Senate passed a bill that almost no one – outside of the power industry lobbyists who crafted it – paid much attention to.
The bill’s one-sentence summary said it would create a program to support “zero emissions energy systems.” It passed unanimously, without any debate on the state Senate floor. But the Assembly didn’t get around to advancing it, and it was shunted to this year’s session.
Only in the fall did environmental groups realize that the proposal, if approved this year, could shift the course of New York energy policy, potentially opening a back door for power plants to keep polluting past New York’s legal deadline to achieve a 100% emissions-free grid.
The proposal seeks to define “zero-emissions energy systems” as ones that do not result in a “net increase in greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere at any time in the process of generating electricity.” That could mean that fossil fuel plants would be allowed if, for example, they were coupled with carbon capture technology, whose track record has been hotly debated nationally.
The technologies most likely to benefit from the bill all involve burning some kind of fuel, whether hydrogen, “renewable” natural gas, or simply fossil gas paired with carbon capture and storage. Environmentalists say that giving the state’s stamp of approval to those technologies would amount to backtracking from the state’s landmark 2019 climate law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).
“This legislation is the direct antithesis of the state’s climate law,” said Anthony Rogers-Wright, director of environmental justice at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a nonprofit civil rights law firm that has lobbied against the bill.
The bill’s proponents – led by the Independent Power Producers of New York (IPPNY), the main trade group representing the state’s power industry – counter that developing such technologies is critical to meeting the goals of the state’s landmark climate law, given the inability of renewables like wind and solar to meet the huge electric grid demand on their own.
The power industry trade group is a major donor to state Senate energy committee Chair Kevin Parker, who sponsored the bill. They are backing the bill as well as a parallel petition to the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC) in what the group’s president, Gavin Donohue, calls a “two-pronged approach” to promote technologies that can reliably power the state while zeroing out carbon emissions.
“The reality is you can’t close all the power plants and keep the lights on,” Donohue said. “What do you want to use to keep the lights on? You want candles?”
The proposal has garnered support from a wide array of industry groups, from the American Petroleum Institute to the Northeast Dairy Producers Association. Key labor groups are also lobbying for it, including the New York State AFL-CIO and the Building and Construction Trades Council. That puts New York’s major labor bodies at odds with every environmental group that has weighed in, from the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Yet this debate hadn’t even begun last June, when the bill glided through the state Senate. Advocates say that’s because the bill wasn’t on their radar.
Lawmakers, for their part, “saw something that stated zero emissions, thought it was innocuous, did not read the substance of the bill, and therefore voted for it,” said Rogers-Wright, a steering committee member of NY Renews, the broad coalition of environment, community, and labor groups that drove the passage of the 2019 climate bill.
Now, lawmakers will have a second chance to consider the bill. This session, it has already passed the state Senate energy committee with just one no vote. Environmentalists say they’re confident they can rally lawmakers to vote differently on the floor this time around. Yet so far, the debate has played out almost entirely behind the scenes.
So, what is this bill really about, and why has it so sharply divided environmental, labor, and business groups?
A gambit ‘to stick around’
By law, the state must achieve at least 70% renewable energy by 2030 – a target the state and many observers believe it is on track to meet – and 100% “zero emissions” electricity by 2040. By most accounts, that will mean closing down dozens of fossil-fueled power plants and replacing them with wind, solar, hydro and other renewables, paired with transmission upgrades and vast amounts of battery storage.
But the 2040 “zero emissions” target leaves some leeway for technologies other than renewables, which power companies say can’t meet the state’s needs alone.
A 2020 study by the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), which manages the electric grid, found that even if the state vastly increases its supply of wind and solar energy, it will still need more options to reliably meet demand 20 years from now. The NYISO dubs these “dispatchable emissions-free resources,” meaning they can be turned on or off on demand (unlike wind and solar, which are intermittent). The analysis suggests that New York might need as much as 30 gigawatts of these dispatchable resources – more than the capacity of all fossil fuel plants in the state today – by 2040 to ensure the grid can withstand both widespread electrification and increasingly extreme weather.
This is the gap the energy industry group’s proposal aims to fill, by attracting private sector investment in alternative technologies. The main candidates it points to are “renewable” natural gas or biogas that comes from organic waste; hydrogen or other synthetic fuels; carbon capture and storage, which could allow for continued burning of fossil fuels; and nuclear power. Independent Power Producers of New York wants the state to require at least one gigawatt of such “dispatchable” technologies by 2030.
Donohue stressed that the goal is not to favor one technology or another, but to create a process for the state to promote whichever it finds meets its criteria – including the requirement against emissions. “One of the downfalls of the climate law is that it legislates technologies,” Donohue told New York Focus and City & State. “That is really stifling innovation and development.”
Environmentalists, however, say the proposal would give power companies facing a deadline to zero out emissions a workaround.
Advocates warn that the proposal’s definition of zero emissions is far from airtight – first, because “net” zero targets leave lots of room for interpretation, and second, because narrowing in on “the process of generating electricity” might not cover methane leaks or other emissions from producing and transporting gas.
Allison Considine, senior New York campaign representative at the Sierra Club, said the proposal is laying out an “Orwellian definition” of zero emissions that would allow fossil fuel interests to keep a foothold in the state as it decarbonizes.
“The passage of the CLCPA was a big blow to the fossil fuel industry,” Considine told New York Focus and City & State. “They’re hoping that with greenwashing and tweaking zero emissions to not actually mean zero emissions, maybe they can find a path to stick around.”
Robert Howarth, a biochemist at Cornell University and member of the state’s Climate Action Council, is also wary of the proposal. “The bill could be read as favoring the use of fossil energy with carbon capture, which my research published last summer shows to be a disastrous idea (for) the climate,” Howarth told New York Focus and City & State by email, referring to a study he authored that showed so-called “blue hydrogen” produced through carbon capture and storage releases at least 20% more carbon emissions than burning natural gas.
Other technologies highlighted in the proposal, including biofuels such as “renewable” natural gas, remain under-studied and could also prove to emit significant amounts of carbon, said Howarth. “It would be a mistake at this time for the State of NY to endorse them as part of our energy future, absent this further study and analysis.”
‘False sense of urgency’
The proposal most likely wouldn’t lead to direct state funding for these technologies. Instead, it would rely on a more complex form of subsidy, which could leave ratepayers – that is, everyday New Yorkers – footing the bill for big investments.
Specifically, Independent Power Producers of New York is asking the Public Service Commission to create an incentive program, like those the state’s Clean Energy Standard mandates for renewables. Under these programs, the state does not fund clean energy projects out of its own budget, but establishes a market for them, requiring utilities to buy a certain share of their power from producers that meet the clean-energy criteria. In most cases, the facilities to generate that clean energy need to be built from scratch, requiring major up-front investment. Power companies pass those costs on to utilities, which in turn pass them on to ratepayers.
Multiple Intervenors, a group representing about 60 large industrial and commercial energy consumers, worried that the proposal could amount to a “blank check” from ratepayers to fund nascent, and potentially very expensive, technologies. Meanwhile, the cost of wind and solar are dropping rapidly—in the case of solar photovoltaics, plunging by 81% from 2010 to 2020, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency.
Against this backdrop, Multiple Intervenors said the bid for the state to require at least one gigawatt of new nonrenewable energy by 2030 is premature – an assessment shared by environmental and progressive groups, 66 of which signed a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul in September asking her to oppose the petition.
The proposal is creating a “false sense of urgency” around technologies that remain largely speculative, said Considine of the Sierra Club. She acknowledged that there could be a gap to fill in the state’s 2040 electricity mix, but said advances in energy storage and transmission could well prove capable of filling it.
“The gas industry is trying to imply that the only thing that can fill that gap is gas or other combustion of fuels,” Considine told New York Focus and City & State. “And I actually think there’s been really rapid progress being made on batteries and other long duration energy storage technologies.”
Some advocates worry that the proposal could give a second chance to proposed new gas plants like the NRG-Astoria and Danskammer projects, whose permits the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) denied in October.
Donohue dismissed this concern as “hysteria,” while standing by Independent Power Producers of New York’s long-held case for the Astoria and Danskammer projects – namely, that the new gas plants would displace older, dirtier plants. As to concerns that the initiative is premature, Donohue says the incentive program will take a long time to set up and, if anything, “we’re already late doing this.”
The proposal’s backers in the labor movement portray it as part of the effort to advance a “just transition” for workers in the state.
“We need a realistic approach to meet the state’s bold climate goals and must leave every option on the table,” Mario Cilento, president of the New York State AFL-CIO, told New York Focus and City & State. “This path will allow New York state to lead the way when it comes to green hydrogen, and other cutting edge clean energy production alternatives.”
What comes next
With parallel versions of the proposal pending in the Legislature and before the Public Service Commission, both supporters and opponents are promising to step up the pressure.
“We can’t allow this to happen. We fought too hard for the CLCPA,” said Rogers-Wright. “We’re going to kill this thing, whether in the Legislature, or we will take our case to the governor directly.”
State Sen. Brian Kavanagh, the lone no vote on the Senate energy committee this year, declined a request for an interview, but his spokesperson, Stanley Davis, said Kavanagh shares many of the concerns raised by environmental groups and that he plans to discuss them with his colleagues. Other senators, including Parker, declined to comment or did not respond to questions. Mike Murphy, a spokesperson for the Senate Democratic conference, said that the conference is trying to “figure out [the] best path forward that will be good for all stakeholders.”
As for the petition, a spokesperson for the Public Service Commission would say only that it is still under review and that no decision has been made.
In the meantime, the state is moving ahead with implementation of its 2019 climate law. The Climate Action Council released its Draft Scoping Plan at the beginning of the year, and the plan is now open to public comments until June 10. Considine, of the Sierra Club, said the state should focus on its core goals for the energy sector, rather than on seeking out new technologies.
“What we need the (Public Service Commission) to be focusing on is how they’re going to alleviate our current reliance on polluting fossil fuel power plants,” she said. “I hope (this proposal) gets left aside in favor of things that are actually aligned with what New Yorkers want, which is clean air and renewable energy.”
New York Focus is an independent investigative news publication covering New York state and city politics. Sign up for their newsletter here.
Correction: Due to an editing error, and earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the New York Independent System Operator as an agency.
Update: On the same day that this article was published, the period for public comments on the Climate Action Council's Draft Scoping Plan was extended to June 10.