Raga Justin: Welcome to New York and The Environment. I'm your host, Raga Justin. US New Yorkers are truly blessed to live in such a geographically diverse state. From the coastlines of the Great Lakes to the beautiful mountain ranges of the Adirondacks and Catskills.
Our state is a haven for folks who enjoy spending time outdoors, but you don't have to be an outdoorsy person to be concerned about what happens to our environment. You might look at news stories of industrial pollution, wildfire smog, and flooding and think to yourself, "Huh, that seems bad."
In New York specifically, climate change could spell trouble for the folks who live along coastlines and waterways of which there are plenty, and outside of climate issues there have been plenty of stories on the discovery of contaminants in our air and water, like PFAS. These are monumental and existential challenges we face, but we can rise to the occasion to take them on and New York has a unique opportunity to be a role model for other state's environmental initiatives.
In this episode, we'll take a look at how our state government regulates forces that impact the environment. We'll also go over some of the state's new environmental laws and how they were pioneered by advocates and voters.
Let's start with New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, which is the main environmental regulatory body in the state. It was formed back in 1970 following the big environmental movement of the 60s, during which there was a nationwide push for stronger environmental protections.
If you think back to our episode on state government, we talked about state agencies being part of New York's executive branch. Each department has its own area of focus and exists to implement and enforce laws passed by the legislative branch. The DEC oversees environmental laws and issues related to pollution and human health.
Right now, the DEC is focused on implementing New York's Landmark Environmental Law, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act that passed in 2019. This is an incredibly broad and ambitious climate law with a long list of goals but here are some of the most prominent:
- 70% of the state's electricity is to be powered by renewable energy by 2030
- With zero emissions from our electric grid by 2040
- And an overall 85% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050
The DEC is currently working with NYSERDA, one of the state's energy agencies, on how to implement the law in order to achieve these goals. One of the major ways they plan to achieve them is through a cap and invest program. What that means is that there would be a gradually decreasing cap on the permitted amount of greenhouse gas emissions in the state. And during this time, companies would pay for the emissions they create. This money would then be used to fund other environmental programs and initiatives in the state with a particular focus on disadvantaged communities.
But the Climate Leadership Act is not the only thing on the DEC's plate, and we spoke with Commissioner Basil Seggos to learn more.
Basil Seggos: We're also very busy protecting the state's water resources. Obviously, we are a water-rich state, and all of our cities and towns are built on the waterfront. For the most part. Our infrastructure has been in decay for many decades. And really, since 2017 we've been putting an emphasis on rebuilding sewer lines, water lines, you know, protecting watersheds and all of that is ultimately to protect human health and allow the state to prosper and to thrive for many decades to come.
And then of course, I think what many New Yorkers feel and certainly are aware of, is occasionally contamination. We spend about a hundred million dollars a year remediating contamination around the state. We also have a very robust Brownfields program which allows for developers to redevelop property for commercial or residential industrial purposes while doing a cleanup to our stringent standards. So it's really our effort to address the toxic legacy of the last 100 years.
RJ: Up next, we're going to look at two major environmental ballot initiatives that were recently voted in by New Yorkers.
The Green Amendment and the Environmental Bond Act are two recently established laws that could have a major impact on New York's environment. Both of these laws were ballot initiatives, meaning that they had to be approved by voters in order to go into effect. Any amendments made to New York State Constitution have to be approved by the people.
The Green Amendment was approved by voters in 2021. The language of the amendment is simple. It declares that each person has a right to clean air, clean water, and a healthful environment. That's it. Just one sentence long. We spoke with Elizabeth Moran of Earth Justice about the creation of this amendment.
Elizabeth Moran: The idea with this was to provide the public with a new legal tool to protect their communities from pollution. A lot of this was inspired by the drinking water crisis that took place in the small community of Hoosick Falls, New York.
Hoosick Falls, for those who are unfamiliar, is a small village about an hour outside of Albany right by the border of Vermont that found extraordinarily high levels of the toxic chemicals PFAS in their drinking water.
The reason that PFAS got in their water was because of improper practices conducted by the companies that have been there that use PFAS and improperly handled it. This legal tool can help New Yorkers fight for their communities. And you know, basically, say like with the citing of the facility, for example, does this infringe upon my right to clean air and water in a healthful environment?
RJ: The simplicity and brevity of this constitutional right means that New York's court system will likely take some time to interpret its full breadth and application. So keep your eyes peeled for that.
Another recently approved ballot measure is the Environmental Bond Act, which was approved by voters in 2022. This is not a constitutional amendment like the Green Amendment but is instead an approval for the state to borrow $4.2 billion to spend on environmental projects. These projects will focus on improving climate resiliency, mitigating pollution, improving water infrastructure, and more.
To see New York Now's coverage of the Environmental Bond Act, check out the description.
These new environmental laws are significant beyond just their potential impact. Because they passed as ballot initiatives, we can see that the strong majority of New Yorkers have a desire to take care of our natural resources. Politicians aren't the only ones contributing to environmental law. Voters made their mandate loud and clear. It also took the work of many advocacy groups to get laws like these on the books.
We spoke with Elizabeth Moran about what her environmental advocacy work entails.
EM: There's a lot of different ways to do advocacy. I work with colleagues at my organization and they are primarily litigators. So they are conducting advocacy by working with clients in communities being impacted by an environmental harm and fighting for them in the courtroom.
I have partners at other organizations that are community organizers and they are also working with communities that are impacted by environmental injustices, or working alongside people who really just wanna see stronger and better action on climate and other environmental protections.
The other piece of the equation is people who are hounding the halls of Albany, and that's a big part of the work that I do. So I work with, you know, different partners and community groups where we strategize together to influence lawmakers to pass policies we need. All of these different ways of doing advocacy hit different pressure points within government.
RJ: Environmental groups are not the only groups looking to have their voice heard on environmental and energy legislation. There are also groups like trade associations. Here in New York, we have IPPNY, the Independent Power Producers of New York, which represents a large portion of the state's energy production industry.
We spoke with IPPNY's president and CEO, Gavin Donohue, on the kind of work IPPNY does, as well as his reservations about the speed at which New York looks to move off of natural gas.
Gavin Donohue: We represent over 75% of all the electricity that's generated on a daily basis in the state. We are the largest clean energy generator association in the state. So over 50% of the electricity in the state is clean energy and we represent those folks.
Our primary goal is to promote competition in the wholesale electricity arena to have fair market rules put in place on the trading of electricity through the New York ISO, to have fair rules through the legislature, the governor's office, DEC, the Public Service Commission.
My members support the clean energy transition but we have to transition in a smart way if we're gonna ban natural gas in this state for new construction to electrify things, what is the fuel that will replace natural gas? Because right now it's magic. There is no fuel to replace natural gas.
Over 80% of today's electricity generated in New York City is on oil and gas. So what is going to replace that in 16 short years is something that does keep me up at night and makes me think about it.
RJ: What do you think about New York's climate and energy goals? Whatever your thoughts are, there are likely advocacy groups, associations, and officials who share the same thoughts on what actions New York should take. Adding your voice to the conversation is how real change is made possible.
The laws, organizations, and government bodies we covered in this episode will not solve climate change alone. We are simply one state within a country within a global community. But think back to what caused the formation of the DEC and what caused the implementation of laws like the Green Amendment. These happened because there was a mandate from the people. In this sense, you are the ones driving New York to take action.
There's going to be hard work and tough times ahead but we can look at the steps we're taking together as inspiration that a brighter future is in fact possible. That's all for today. Keep learning and I'll see y'all later.
Watch the Epiosode
What Are New York's Climate Goals? | NY& The Environment
In this episode of "NY&," Raga Justin goes over New York's ambitious climate goals, as well as some of the state's new environmental laws pioneered by advocates and voters.