Climate activists gather at Brooklyn Borough Hall in June, 2023 calling...

Climate activists gather at Brooklyn Borough Hall in June, 2023 calling for more efforts to combat the climate crisis. Credit: LightRocket via Getty Images/Erik McGregor

ALBANY — Major environmental protection measures that had been planned as jewels of the 2024 legislative session ended in uncommon failure this month amid internal conflict among Democrats and after voters made it clear they didn’t want to pay the bill, according to key legislators and veteran political observers.

“It’s a shocking disappointment given that we are in a climate crisis,” said Judith Enck, a veteran environmental activist and former regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator in the Obama administration.

Supporters said the three major environmental measures that failed would have made transformative changes for generations to come while making fossil fuel producers pay to combat climate change. Opposition was led by the industries that would pay more, which argued their costs would be passed on to New Yorkers already struggling with a high cost of living.

The affordability argument, backed up by polling, took hold in the closing, chaotic days of the session which ended June 7, and the potential political fallout feared by Democrats for the fall’s elections loomed larger, legislators and analysts said.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The State Legislature in its 2024 session failed to pass three major environmental measures that supporters say would have made transformative changes.
  • The measures were hurt by the affordability argument and the potential political fallout feared by Democrats for the fall elections, legislators and analysts said.
  • The measures may be revived in a special legislative session later this year or in the 2025 session.

“We tried,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) said. “We passed bills like this since 2019 when we won the majority … we know how important it is.”

Despite one-party control of state government, Democrats failed to pass:

  • The New York Home Energy Affordable Transition Act, commonly called the HEAT Act. It would have limited how much energy companies could pass along to ratepayers for the cost of transitioning from fossil fuels as required under state climate change laws. The act also would have ended the “100-foot rule,” which automatically hooks up most new buildings to nearby gas lines.
  • The Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act. It would have required New York companies with more than $5 million in net income to reduce their packaging of plastics and other containers as well as take over much of the cost of recycling paid by local taxpayers.
  • The Bigger, Better Bottle Bill. It would have doubled the 5-cent deposit on bottles to a dime and increase the rate of recycling, while keeping afloat recycling companies struggling under a deposit that hasn’t changed in 41 years.

The Climate Change Superfund Act was passed in a last-minute effort. That bill would require fossil fuel producers to take over much of the cost to make communities more resilient to flooding and severe storms and to pay for storm damage. That cost is now paid by taxpayers. While a win for environmental activists, the bill won’t require any reduction of emissions that contribute to climate change. It remains uncertain if Gov. Kathy Hochul will sign the measure into law.

The already packed agenda for the final week was compounded by the delay of an another environmental-related measure. Hochul announced a pause in the congestion pricing program adopted five years ago which would charge drivers entering the most congested parts of Manhattan at the busiest times. The idea was to reduce snarled traffic and cut air pollution.

“I’m an environmentalist,” Hochul said, but added: “People are hurting right now. We ignore that to our detriment.”

Hochul added to a chaotic week by trying and ultimately failing to get the State Legislature to replace the $1 billion in lost congestion pricing revenue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, at first by proposing what she called a “minuscule” tax on big businesses.

In the end, the Assembly couldn’t bring the HEAT Act, the packaging or bottle bills to the floor even after the session was lengthened by a full day.

“There’s a common theme with all of this and that’s the issue of affordability, said Assemb. Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), a member of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee. “People are sensitive to inflation and the cost of living … if it’s not the reality, it’s at least the perception that these were going to cost people more.”

He said it would be naive to ignore the political implication of these bills for the legislative and congressional elections this fall.

“It’s an even-numbered year, and that’s all part of the ecosystem in which these bills were considered,” Thiele said.

The lack of action means the state continues to be at risk of missing its goals under the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act to create carbon-free electricity by 2040.

“A year after New York saw orange skies, and experienced yet another record-breaking year for climate change, the 2024 legislative session failed to meet the urgency of the moment,” said Liz Moran, New York policy advocate for Earthjustice. “No legislation is being sent to the governor that will cut greenhouse gas emissions in accordance with our state climate law. New Yorkers are also reeling from high energy bills, which are continuing to rise due to our reliance upon gas infrastructure.”

“Much more is expected of a state like New York,” Moran said.

There was plenty of finger pointing to go around. Legislators blamed Hochul for dropping her congestion pricing delay in the last week of session, the Senate blamed the Assembly for not acting on the measures weeks ago, and many legislators blamed advocacy groups for failing to rally public support beyond “the true believers” to counter intensive lobbying by industries.

“It’s fair to say that in a state that has passed some of the nation’s most ambitious clean energy and other environmental protections, the failure to support additional initiatives can’t be ascribed to a lack of concern about climate change, congestion and pollution,” said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. “It’s primarily about the economy, primarily inflation, and general uncertainty. These are volatile times, economically and even politically.”

However, he said punting these environmental measures also heightens the conflict within the Democratic Party, where a growing number of progressives have been challenging the established, more- centrist leadership led by Hochul after some stinging losses to Republicans on Long Island.

“For Democrats, it’s just one more fracture that the party has to heal if they expect to come together and flip back the seats they lost two years ago,” Levy said.

“Certain legislators might not want to stick their neck out either,” said Lee Miringoff, a political science professor at Marist College and director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion poll. “It gets laid at an incumbent’s doorstep.”

Yet, these environmental measures may see new life in coming months or in the 2025 legislative session. Hochul’s delay of congestion pricing means the State Legislature is expected to return for a special session, possibly after the legislative and congressional elections in November, to address MTA funding.

Assemb. Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), chairwoman of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, said the bills aren’t dead. She said there is still time in a special session and in the 2025 session to better inform voters that the measures are essential for the environment and public health, while saving taxpayers money by forcing polluters to pay for a share of the cost of global warming.

“We ran out of time,” Glick told Newsday. “I think there are, the governor and certainly others, who raised concerns that about going too fast, too soon,” Glick said. “The problem is, we’ve done nothing for too long. We do have to redouble our efforts. Nobody likes change, and we are asking people to change in a lot of different ways.”

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