© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Vermont passes first in-the-nation law to make oil companies pay for climate damages — will New York follow?

Like the rest of the world, the state of Vermont is dealing with the consequences of a rapidly-heating planet. Just this past winter the state was hit by a storm that left well over 8 inches of wet snow in several towns and more than 35,000 homes without power. The damage to power lines came from heavy, wet snow, weather that’s becoming increasingly common as climate change brings warmer winters and more extreme precipitation

That storm was not a “one off”: Billion-dollar climate-related disasters are hitting Vermont more frequently. Since 1965, annual precipitation has increased by 7 inches, and the number of days per year with precipitation of 1 inch or more has nearly doubled. These trends are expected to continue. Heavy rainfall events are expected to occur more often, which increases the risk of flooding, damage to transportation infrastructure and buildings, water and crop contamination, wind damage, and power outages. 

All of these impacts are costly. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, over the past five years Vermont has experienced three billion-dollar disasters, with two of them happening in the past year. With a population of nearly 650,000, absorbing the mounting costs of climate disasters is a daunting – and expensive – proposition for residents of the Green Mountain State. 

Last week, in an historic move, Vermont became the first state in the nation to establish a program that will put the largest oil companies on the financial hook for the mushrooming climate costs. Republican Governor Phil Scott, while expressing concerns over expected litigation with the oil giants, allowed the bill to become law. 

New Yorkers who have been paying close attention to environmental policy in New York will know that the state has advanced a similar program here. That legislation, the “Climate Change Superfund Act,” was originally introduced two years ago. The legislation has garnered the support of hundreds of community, environmental, labor, religious, and youth organizations. It passed the state Senate in 2023 and 2024. One hundred local elected officials support it. Seventy-six Assembly Democrats are sponsors of the Climate Change Superfund Act, a huge majority of the 101 Democrats in that chamber (and an overall majority of the Assembly). 

Yet, New York has not acted. Why? 

Surprisingly, the leader of the opposition appears to be New York Governor Hochul. Despite her role as co-chair of the U.S. Climate Alliance – a bipartisan coalition of governors supposedly committed to fighting climate change – the governor has blocked approval of the legislation as part of the budget. 

Now despite the overwhelming majority of Assembly Democratic sponsors (and there are more supporters in that House), the bill seems stuck. Last week, Assembly Speaker Heastie reportedly stated “I’ve never in my life seen corporations choose the ratepayer over the stockholder. Asking these companies to pay more, it’s going to be, of course, taken out on the ratepayer.”

The Speaker’s statement represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Climate Change Superfund Act would work. A failure to approve the legislation will leave New York taxpayers holding the bag for mounting climate costs, while Big Oil continues to make huge profits. The Climate Change Superfund Act should not have an impact on utility rates, no impact on gas prices, no impact on home heating costs. The bill’s impact will be to solely reduce climate costs currently paid by taxpayers. An independent economic paper published by the respected Institute for Policy Integrity at the NYU School of Law supports that view. 

Of course, the comments – however misguided – are those of only one man, an important one no doubt, but only one. With well over three-quarters of his Democratic Conference in support of the legislation, including the chairs of the Codes, Energy, Environmental Conservation, Labor, and Local Governments committees. Given that strong support, in a normal process the legislation should be approved. 

In the arcane ways of Albany, insiders too often accept without question the fate of legislation based on the words of the leaders. If the leader is indeed speaking for the conference, then that view is a correct one. If the overwhelming majority of the conference does not share the leader’s view and legislation fails, there can only be one possibility – that despite public statements of support, the conference doesn’t really care about the legislation and is willing to let the Speaker take the blame for its defeat. 

From a constituent’s perspective, what only matters are who they elect, not that person’s legislative leader. Thus, your Assembly representative is the person that can be held to account for a failure to act. 

Thanks to Governor Hochul, Vermont now leads the nation in protecting taxpayers from the costs of climate change. This week will determine whether the overwhelming support within the Assembly Democratic Conference pushes a vote. If so, then New York will join the effort to protect taxpayers from climate costs. If not, you’re still on the hook for the whole thing.  And that’s a bill with a lot of zeroes to it.

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.

Related Content