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Climate change fighters hope this summer's extreme weather is a wake-up call to state lawmakers

Gov. Kathy Hochul visits Highland Falls on July 10 after storms caused widespread flooding in the Mid-Hudson and Finger Lakes regions.
Don Pollard
Gov. Kathy Hochul's office
Gov. Kathy Hochul visits Highland Falls on July 10 after storms caused widespread flooding in the Mid-Hudson and Finger Lakes regions. 

Groups combating climate change are pressing Gov. Kathy Hochul and the New York State Assembly to adopt two measures that they say would help ease extreme weather — like what we’re experiencing this summer — in the future.

In addition to the record-breaking heat waves across much of the world, here in the Northeast, excessive rainfall and the resultant flooding killed one New Yorker. Then there have been days of unhealthy air warnings due to toxic smoke from Canadian wildfires.

All the bad weather follows a recently concluded legislative session that saw little action in its final weeks on combating climate change.

The Senate sponsor of one of the bills, Sen. Liz Krueger, said the state and the world can’t wait any longer to make changes.

“We're still dominantly dependent on oil and gas. And we have to get off it as fast as possible,” Krueger said. “So when people say there's not a rush, look out your window, read the weather reports coming in from around the world.”

Krueger’s bill, known as the New York Home Energy Affordable Transitions Act, or NY HEAT, would end the policy of ratepayers subsidizing the cost of expanding and maintaining existing gas lines.

The senator said it would also ease rapidly rising gas bills by capping rates for middle- and low-income customers at 6% of a household’s total income.

“This bill also will save low- and middle-income New York families up to $75 every month on their energy bills,” Krueger said. “And that's more money that they need for food and rent and medicine.”

The measure passed in the Senate in June but stalled in the state Assembly, which adjourned for the year without voting on the measure.

The 2023 state budget already includes a ban on gas hookups in new buildings starting in 2026, and a ban on new gas appliances in the next decade.

Liz Moran with Earth Justice said without the NY HEAT Act, utility ratepayers will have to shoulder too much of the cost of that transition.

“Inaction on the climate crisis is unacceptable and is disrupting the everyday lives of New Yorkers,” Moran said. “The question really should be how can we afford to stay on this system?”

Opponents, which include many of the major companies in the fossil fuel industry, say the bill would prevent gas companies from repairing or modernizing existing gas lines, and would effectively ban natural gas service for entire neighborhoods.

Another bill that passed in the Senate but not in the Assembly is known as the Climate Change Superfund Act. It would require fossil fuel companies to collectively pay $3 billion a year for the next 25 years to help fund the infrastructure projects needed to alleviate climate change effects, including an estimated $52 billion to shore up New York Harbor alone.

The money could also be used to make needed upgrades to the power grid to connect homes and businesses with green energy sources.

Blair Horner with the New York Public Interest Research Group said Hochul has announced in recent days that the state will finance $500 million for community projects to lessen the impacts of flooding. And the governor said the damage from the most recent floods in parts of the state will cost $50 million to repair.

“The state has to pay those bills. The question is, who is going to be picking up the tab on the other end?” Horner said. “Right now, it's the average taxpayer. If the legislation passes, it will be the oil companies.”

Horner likened the actions of the oil companies in past decades to those of big tobacco companies. In both cases, he said, their scientists knew that their policies could cause future harm, but company executives did nothing to stop it.

“They decided to bamboozle the public with phony baloney, public relations campaigns, hire consultants, law firms, lobbyists, accountants to protect them,” Horner said. “And then shower campaign contributions on political toadies that they were trying to get elected to office.”

Horner said the Climate Change Superfund measure would be the first of its kind in the nation, and some lawmakers have been initially resistant. He said supporters expect that attitude to change, though, as climate change effects, and costs, continue to grow.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.