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Groups aim to cut greenhouse gasses, push renewable energy sources

A bicyclist rides past the solar farm in

A bicyclist rides past the solar farm in Calverton. A coalition of environmental advocates, social justice groups and unions is pushing for a bill that would push renewable energy sources. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Combating climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is at the top of the agenda for environmental advocates and the legislative heads of the Assembly and Senate environment committees this session, but how far proposed new laws will go — and the costs they'll bring — is expected to be the subject of an intense fight.

Buoyed by Democrats' newly won control in the Senate and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's promise to make New York a check on federal deregulation, a coalition of environmental advocates, social justice groups and unions is pushing for a bill that would set the most aggressive goals in the nation to cut greenhouse gasses and push renewable energy sources.

The Climate and Community Protection Act would require emissions to be cut across the economy by 50 percent by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. That would mean a massive shift in the economy, advocates and opponents said — not only unplugging power plants that use fossil fuels, like natural gas, but changing how homes are heated and eventually ending gasoline-powered cars, buses and trains. The legislation, which would leave much of the implementation up to state regulatory agencies directed by an advisory committee, also would direct money toward low-income areas typically hurt by climate change and mandate public jobs pay union-scale wages.

The legislation rests in the hands of a pair of Long Island lawmakers, Assemb. Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who chair the Assembly and Senate's environmental committees in Albany.

Sponsored by Englebright, the bill passed the Democratic-controlled Assembly the past three sessions, but failed in the Senate, which Republicans had controlled until this year.

Englebright said in an interview last week he'd reintroduce the bill this month with the same emission-cutting targets. He said more frequent major hurricanes and damaging storms, like superstorm Sandy, worsening wildfires and droughts out west, and rising sea levels that threatened Long Island and the world made this the most pressing issue of the session.

"This is really the most important issue, I would argue, that we’re going to take up," Englebright, a geologist, said. “I think that if we do not aspire and make our best effort, then we’re certainly going to suffer the worst effects of an overheated ocean and atmosphere, and those impacts are a threat to our civilization."

Kaminsky, the new chair of the Senate's Environmental Conservation Committee, promised to hold hearings on the bill, but said he wants to hear testimony on the bill before taking a position on it.

"We want to set aggressive goals that can be reached and we want to be seen as a national leader. We think it’s necessary," he said. "The question is how aggressive can we be. That's a tightrope we still have to walk."

Cuomo hasn't taken a position on the bill, and some environmental organizations haven't endorsed it yet, either.

The bill is opposed by business groups, who say the goals are unattainable and too costly.

Darren Suarez, director of government affairs for the Business Council of New York State, an Albany-based pro-business lobbying group, said a zero emission goal "is really not technologically feasible." It could force some industries to go out of state, he said.

Suarez also noted there was no official cost estimate associated with the bill.

Cuomo's office declined to comment, but when he unveiled his agenda for the first 100 days of the session in December, the governor promised a "green new deal" to "ultimately eliminate the state's entire carbon footprint." He did not give a timeline.

In 2016, the state instituted a clean energy standard that requires 50 percent of electricity in New York come from renewable energy sources like wind and solar by 2030. In December, Cuomo said New York’s electricity would be 100 percent "carbon neutral" by 2040.

Ryan Madden, sustainability organizer for Long Island Progressive Coalition, noted that "carbon neutral" can allow polluters to offset carbon emissions by investing in reductions — like planting forests and building renewable energy projects — elsewhere. He said Cuomo hasn't even acknowledged the bill exists.

"What I'm hearing is a little ambiguity," said Madden, whose Massapequa organization is advocating for the legislation, and does not support carbon offsets. He also said while the electric goals are good, it ignores transportation and buildings, which together make up more than half of carbon emissions.

Conor Bambrick, air and energy director for Albany-based Environmental Advocates of New York, another group backing the legislation, said, "The governor has indicated that climate is a priority. It's unclear how the governor is going to approach that this session."

He said aggressive state legislation could spur other states to pass similar laws, force industry innovation in renewable technologies and pressure action at the federal level.

The Nature Conservancy in New York, another environmental organization, has not taken a position on the bill. "We support what it’s trying to achieve. We don’t have a specific position on it," said Amanda Lefton, deputy policy director with the group.

The group released statewide polling last week that showed more than 80 percent of New Yorkers believe climate change Is happening, and nearly three in five believe it will harm them personally.

Englebright said the costs of inaction are too high. "You pay now or you pay later . . . failure to respond now means the ultimate cost may be insurmountable or dramatically higher," he said. "There are terrible costs of not addressing it straight up."

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