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“Mired in Incrementalism”: Climate Action Council Proceedings Alarm Climate Advocates

In 2019, New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), a landmark climate law which requires the state to massively reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, reach net zero emissions by 2050, and distribute at least 35% of all clean energy investments to communities that disproportionately suffer from pollution.

The bill didn’t determine how the state would achieve these goals. Instead, it created the Climate Action Council (CAC), a 22-member group appointed by Governor Cuomo and the state legislature tasked with devising the policies to achieve them.

But environmental advocates appointed to the Council and its advisory panels told New York Focus that panel conversations have dedicated too much attention to renewable natural gas, clean hydrogen, and carbon capture, and too little to the urgent task of building out renewable energy infrastructure.

“The Council and the panels are mired in incrementalism. All these false solutions we’re seeing with alternative fuels distract from the basic task of getting New Yorkers to stop burning things,” Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York and an appointee to the Council, told New York Focus.

Stephen Edel, director of NY Renews, a broad coalition of environmental organizations that led the campaign for the climate law and has representatives on the Council and its panels, told New York Focus that consideration of alternative fuel policies is crowding out discussion of building out 100% renewable energy.

“It’s not just that we’re spending a lot of time talking about green natural gas or carbon capture in soil. It’s that we’re then not focusing on the key decision, which is how do we get as close to zero emissions as possible,” Edel said.

“The CLCPA sets out a robust framework for getting off of fossil fuels while investing in frontline communities, but in terms of implementation, the devil is in the details,” he added. “Among the panels, we’ve seen worrying signs and suggestions that will entrench our usage of natural gas and gas pipeline infrastructure and take us away from our climate and equity goals.”

Energy Gridlock

A key requirement under the CLCPA is for New York’s energy grid to be 70% renewable by 2030 and to achieve zero emissions by 2040. As of 2019, the grid was 37.6% natural gas powered.

But the Power Generation Panel, the advisory panel tasked with recommending policies to achieve these goals to the Council, has shied away from discussing the short-term actions necessary to get the state to eliminate gas and build out green energy, environmental advocates say.

“It seems like the state is transfixed on what we need to do to for the last 5-10% of energy supply to get to a 100% renewable grid from 2035 to 2040, rather than what exactly needs to be prioritized now, from 2021 to 2025, to build out a comprehensive and smart plan,” Lisa Dix, an appointee to the panel and a senior representative of the Sierra Club, told New York Focus.”

In meetings of the power generation, transportation, and agriculture panels, the heads of state agencies have discussed the expansion of clean hydrogen and renewable natural gas projects to serve as bridge fuels while renewable energy infrastructure continues to be built out.

“Renewable natural gas and clean hydrogen uses the same infrastructure as other natural gas, so they lock us into expensive pipeline projects that should soon be illegal,” New York Renews representative Arielle Swernoff said. “Why would we spend money building out, repairing, and maintaining gas pipelines when we could be building offshore wind and solar?”

Following the playbook of California gas plants dealing with stricter environmental regulation, natural gas plants in Astoria and Newburgh have sought to continue operations by promising to switch to burning clean hydrogen as it becomes available.

These alternative fuels also come with pollution and health risks of their own. NY Renews released a report last week objecting to many of the policies discussed by the Council and its panels, including proposed expansions of clean hydrogen and renewable gas. The report cites research indicating that burning clean hydrogen results in nitrous oxide emissions, a form of pollution tied to respiratory illness, and that using renewable natural gas could result in adverse health effects resulting from methane leakage.

A November presentation from the Power Generation lists renewable natural gas and clean hydrogen as potentially needed for the “last clean megawatts” of energy, to assure that the grid remains reliable “during periods where the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.” But advocates argue that alternative fuels have crowded out discussion of the elephant in the room, the need to rapidly reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

“The conversation needs to center on the state processes, policies, and emissions reduction enforcement mechanisms that are necessary to begin to move gas and oil out of the grid, every year, and at a steady pace,” Dix said, later adding that the February panel meeting showed more promise in beginning to discuss these policies.

Council appointee Bob Howarth, an ecology and environmental biology professor at Cornell University, said that he doubts the state could secure more than 2% of its energy needs from renewable natural gas. 

“It is mostly a distraction,” Howarth said.

“Reducing Emissions on Paper, Not Reality”

Another controversial policy currently under discussion in the Council’s advisory panels is the use of carbon offsets, which allow sectors to continue polluting so long as they fund projects, such as planting trees, that remove an equivalent amount of carbon from the air.

The version of the CLCPA originally passed by both the state Senate and Assembly mandated that New York reach zero emissions by 2050. During subsequent negotiations with Governor Andrew Cuomo, the law was amended to allow the state to continue emitting 15% of 1990 emissions levels, so long as these emissions are offset.

The wiggle room created by this provision has become a loophole that allows sectors to set inappropriately low emissions goals for themselves, Iwanowicz said.

In an October meeting, Department of Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball said that New York farmers aim to get to carbon neutrality by reducing sector-wide emissions by just 30%—rather than 85%—and to use carbon offsets to capture the rest of the pollution. 

Iwanowicz argued that the intention of the 15% allowance climate law was to provide room for industries that currently had no choice but to use fossil fuels, such as concrete and aluminium plants, to do so only as a last resort. “Now we see sectors like agriculture setting lower emission goals for themselves, but without proving they don’t have other options. They need to electrify their tractors and machinery,” he said.

In response to an inquiry from New York Focus, a representative of the department of agriculture said that the lower emission goal took into account the difficult-to-green issues of cow belches and manure emissions. “The agricultural greenhouse gas emission reductions for carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are both realistic and bold, and taken together with the sector’s carbon sequestration goals, these emission reductions put agriculture on a path toward carbon neutrality by 2050,” they said.

Top state and city lawmakers recently slammed a similar measure pushed by Cuomo to allow NYC buildings to purchase renewable energy credits in lieu of reducing emissions.

Advocates argue that in the past, major carbon offset projects have been underregulated, failing to produce the promised reduction in emissions. Iwanowicz said he worries that offset projects enable sectors to “reduce emissions on paper, but not in reality.”

A 2020 Bloomberg report found that real estate investment firm Blackrock’s carbon offset project in Albany claimed to preserve forests that were in little danger of deforesting. A Propublica Report analyzing a wide variety of forestry-based carbon offset projects purchased by global corporations found that only half of the areas that were supposed to be reforested had been.

“Ultimately Cuomo has the power”

Environmental advocates have applauded the Council for being the first committee of its kind to involve environmental justice concerns in the implementation of laws. But they criticize certain procedural aspects of how it has been run, including significant delays before it began to regularly meet, the opacity of its subgroups, and the lack of information provided to panelists on the costs of environmental projects.

All Council meetings are open to the public and recorded. But the meetings of environmental subgroups—where members discuss niche aspects of sector-specific energy policy—are closed to the public and not recorded, despite a push for transparency by Council panel members Iwanowicz and Bob Howard. Council Chairman Basil Seggos incorrectly said that all subgroup materials were posted online, Politico reporter Marie French noted on Twitter.

Representatives of both the environmental and industry sectors have also said they lack key information required to make informed policy decisions. 70 energy producing and labor organizations signed on to a letter demanding that the Council produce a report detailing the cost of building out different environmental policies before the fast-approaching March 21st deadline to present their policy recommendations. A press representative of the Council said that costs will be evaluated after panelists make their recommendations.

Beyond these near term concerns, advocates worry that Cuomo’s near-supermajority of appointees to the Council will carry out the governor’s agenda regardless of the objections of environmentalist appointees.

Fifteen of the twenty-two Council members must vote in favor of the scoping plan in order for it to be passed on to the governor. Fourteen are either Cuomo-appointed heads of state agencies or the governor’s direct appointees to the Council. Two others are energy industry representatives.

“I’ve been part of these kinds of processes before and ultimately Cuomo has the power,” Mark Dunlea, an environmental advocate who helped draft an early version of the CLCPA, said. “If you just count the votes, it seems like Cuomo will get what he wants on the CLCPA no matter what people say.”

Iwanowicz said that while he shared this fear, he remained optimistic that the Council would produce a plan commensurate with the CLCPA’s goals. The scoping plan has to go before the public for comment,” he noted. “It would be really hard for Cuomo to go out there with a straight face and say that New York is going to do something less than what this moment demands.”

Aviva Waldman contributed research.

Correction: a previous version of this article stated that the CLCPA requires the power sector to end all reliance on alternative fuels by 2040, but there are competing interpretations of this section of the law.