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NY lawmakers review Gov. Hochul's environmental proposals

A rapidly heating planet, rising sea levels, oceans choked with plastic pollution, landfills overflowing with solid wastes, an increasingly decrepit drinking water infrastructure, and industrial chemical hazards menacing drinking water – these threats and others are the backdrop for lawmakers’ review of Governor Hochul’s proposed environmental budget this week.

As New York lawmakers continue to review the governor’s $216 billion proposed budget, this week they will focus on her plans to respond to growing environmental threats. Broadly speaking, her plans are contained in three major categories: responding to climate changes resulting from global warming, protecting New York’s drinking water (and freshwater) supplies, and addressing the growing solid waste disposal crisis.

Climate change. There is no greater challenge facing the world. As a result of human activities, most notably from the burning of fossil fuels, the planet is heating up and doing so at an accelerating pace. Earth’s global average surface temperature in 2021 tied with 2018 as the sixth warmest on record. Collectively, the past eight years are the warmest years since modern recordkeeping began in 1880. This annual temperature data makes up the global temperature record – which tells scientists the planet is warming. According to NASA’s temperature record, Earth in 2021 was about 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the late 19th century average, the start of the industrial revolution.

New York State has among the nation’s most aggressive goals promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In her budget plan, the governor adds to that effort with proposals to boost reliance on electricity to power transportation and to heat new buildings. As the state’s grid gets “greener” due to a growing reliance on solar, wind, and other non-fossil-fuel forms of power, using electric cars, buses and trucks will drastically reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Demanding that new building construction rely on electricity instead of natural gas for heating and power will also help reduce emissions. The governor deserves support for those initiatives, although her timetable for action on the shift from fossil fuels to electricity for new building construction needs to be moved up to start by the end of 2023. The state needs to be in step with the recently passed gas free law for New York City – the building capital of the state.

Of course, devoting resources to the mitigation and adaptation efforts to respond to global warming will take money. Unfortunately, the governor does little to require that the oil and gas industries – who are responsible for our current predicament – pick up the financial tab for these costs. That’s one place where lawmakers should fill the gap, by making the fossil fuel industry pay – and certainly eliminating any indefensible state financial supports for climate polluters.

And New York needs a comprehensive, easy-to-use, and easy-to-find climate ‘report card” so that policymakers and the public can monitor the state’s progress toward its climate goals.

Drinking water protection. Across New York this winter, there is regular media coverage of water pipes bursting due to the age of the infrastructure as well as the pressures from changes in temperatures. As the planet heats up, drinking water supplies will become increasingly more important to society and New York can ill afford to waste its supplies – or allow pollution threats to harm drinking water quality.

The governor does propose to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on upgrading water infrastructures. Given the state’s surplus and the enormous sums of federal support, the final budget should double the governor’s plan and spend $1 billion to fix New York’s aging system.

In addition, the governor’s plan to protect wetlands – which can often act as a filter for underground drinking water aquifers – is a good first step but leaves too many wetlands threatened by development. Her plan only protects wetlands that exceed 12 acres; the final budget must do better than that.

Solid waste reduction. The governor has advanced an innovative plan to reduce packaging waste. She proposes the establishment of an “Extended Producer Responsibility” program that would require “producers, not taxpayers” to be responsible for reducing and recycling packaging wastes. The plan is seriously flawed with a business-dominated Advisory Committee which could end up being the “foxes guarding the chicken coop.” Lawmakers should substantially improve this proposal to ensure that any advice be developed by independent experts working in the public’s – not the industry’s – best interests.

The governor’s solid waste reduction plan has one big flaw – it shifts away from the state’s best recycling program, the Bottle Deposit Law. That 40-year-old law has led to huge reductions in litter and does a far superior job at making “producers, not taxpayers” pick up the costs of beverage container wastes. Lawmakers should demand the inclusion and expansion of this successful Extended Producer Responsibility program.

These are just some of the environmental and public health issues facing the state. It’s the job of state lawmakers to dig deep into the governor’s proposals and reject those that do not work, demand accountability for performance toward environmental goals, and make sure that taxpayers are protected from the costs of irresponsible corporate behavior.

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.

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