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Blair Horner: Who Pays For The “Restore Mother Nature” Environmental Bond Act?

Last week, Governor Cuomo made a push for environmental initiatives contained in his budget plan.  The governor advanced what he described as an “historic $33 billion, five-year commitment to fight climate change.”

The governor urged support for measures: to ban single-use styrofoam food containers and packing materials; to earmark $300 million for the state’s Environmental Protection Fund; to add $500 million to improve drinking water infrastructure; and to permanently ban hydrofracking. 

But the centerpiece of his environmental package was his plan to create a $3 billion environmental bond act that “will fund critical environmental restoration projects in every corner of the state to ensure New York is able to withstand the threat of more intense and frequent storms fueled by climate change.”  He dubbed this part of the plan, the “Restore Mother Earth” bond act. 

On the need for billions to address the costs of climate change, the governor’s right.  New York – like the rest of the planet – will have to spend billions to mitigate the enormous damage caused by climate change.  A “Restore Mother Earth” bond act offers a down payment for the costs that New York will undoubtedly have to pay.

The question is, who should pay back the costs of the bond act borrowing?

The governor’s plan proposes that the general public pay the back the costs of borrowing the bond monies; for most bond acts, the public usually pays. 

A bond act is a way for the state to borrow a large amount of money to meet pressing needs.  The borrowed money should be used for projects that are expected to last at least the lifetime of the borrowing – usually 30 years.  Thus, spending makes sense for state projects that would protect drinking and fresh water supplies. 

Usually, bond acts are paid back through general revenues – we all pay them back.  But not always.  In the Environmental Bond Act of 1986, for example, which was designed to finance the clean-up of hazardous waste sites, the bond monies raised were to be offset by the state charging polluters responsible for the messes.  That formulation was so successful that the 1986 Bond Act was overwhelmingly approved by voters. 

It’s a formulation that makes sense now. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposed bond act is – as he has stated – to finance projects to help the state “withstand the threat of more intense and frequent storms fueled by climate change.”  But who’s responsible for climate change?

The responsible parties for the climate crisis are the oil, gas and coal industries.  It is those industries that should pay the borrowing back. 

It was those industries that knew for decades the dangers of global warming from the burning of fossil fuels.  It was those industries that spent money – on lobbyists, public relations and campaign contributions – on a disinformation campaign to combat measures to curb greenhouses gas emissions that form the “blanket” contributing to the heating up of the earth.

The oil, coal and gas industries should pay for the costs resulting from their actions, not the general public.  If your neighbor dumped poison on your lawn and it had to be cleaned up, should you pay or the neighbor?  The neighbor should.

While that is a hypothetical scenario, effectively that’s what happened with climate change.  The fossil fuel industries used their political know-how to undermine the science—including their science—that warned the public about climate change and used their deep-pockets to block policy reforms designed to protect the public and the environment.

But like that fictional neighbor, it is their fault.  They made the mess, they should clean it up.  A responsibility lesson that every child learns, they’ve been able to dodge through political muscle and their fat checkbooks.

Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers should ensure that the oil, gas, and coal industries are on the financial hook, not taxpayers, for the looming climate catastrophe.  The “Restore Mother Nature” bond act is needed, but those responsible should pay.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.