There Will Be Politics

New York has adopted a climate plan. What does that mean, and what comes next?

There Will Be Politics
Image from THERE WILL BE BLOOD, a film I saw in a packed theater at the far end of the front row, which afforded me a terrifyingly intimate view of Daniel Day Lewis’s petroleum-infused nose pores.

What’s the plan?

That’s a question I got asked recently — and I had to think about how to answer it. On Sunday, I went to a community shape note singing event in Woodstock, and met a few singers visiting from downstate. One of them asked me what I did, and we got to chatting about climate in New York.

What is the plan? How do you sum up 430-plus pages laying out highly technical multi-decade pathways for decarbonizing an entire $2 trillion economy? Never mind the other complicated part, which is: Now that there’s a plan, how will it be turned into action?

I settled on telling him something he probably didn’t know about his own city: that its electrical power system is something of an island, mostly cut off from the low-carbon hydro and nuclear power that provides most of the juice upstate, and powered almost entirely by natural gas.

Getting fossil fuels out of New York City’s grid, I told him, means building huge new transmission lines to get offshore wind, upstate wind and solar, and Canadian hydropower into the city — and also building the power projects that will feed into it. Without those projects, it will be impossible to ramp down the huge natural-gas-fueled power plants that are both providing New York City’s power and sickening its poorest neighborhoods with air pollution. And the buildout of transmission and renewable power is just a small piece of the plan, which is a rough guide to the massive amount of work and buildout and investment and workforce training that needs to happen in the next few decades to make the state’s climate law a reality.

I was thinking about that conversation on Monday, while watching the state Climate Action Council vote on the final scoping plan that will guide all this work going forward. I was right: My new friend didn’t know anything about it. Many, many New Yorkers don’t.

That might change. Now that there is a plan, the complex efforts to put it into action will ramp up — and so will the vocal pushback. There will be outrage. There will be confusion. “There will be politics,” as Justin Gundlach, a climate and energy policy attorney with the Building Decarbonization Coalition, told me on Tuesday.

This newsletter won’t be the last time I’ll write about New York’s new scoping plan. There’s enough in there to keep an army of reporters busy for a year. But with the plan freshly out this week, I wanted to give you all an overview of it — not just what it calls for, and how its creators think the road ahead will run, but how it will be turned into action.

New York’s climate plan is the product of a law, the 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. But the plan itself is not legally binding. It is not a set of regulations written by state agencies. It is not a law voted on by state lawmakers. It is basically a white paper, the result of years of hard work and analysis by the CAC and the state agency staff supporting their efforts.

But now that the plan exists, it will begin to exert influence over law and regulation and state investment in New York, in just about every area in which laws and regulations and state investment decisions hold sway. And that, as they say, is a whole other kettle of fish.

Welcome to the next phase.

The Vote

The CAC has 22 appointed members. Twelve are heads of state agencies, including the Council’s co-chairs, Doreen Harris of NYSERDA and Basil Seggos of the DEC. It’s fair to say the process is dominated by the Hochul administration. It was deeply unsurprising to see all 12 state agency members vote in favor of adopting the plan on Monday.

The other ten members are a more diverse bunch — and more prone to disagreement and debate in the CAC’s long public meetings, where the final language of the plan was painstakingly hashed out over the past few years. Together, they broadly represent labor, academic science, the power industry, and environment and community interests.

On Monday, three members voted “no” on the plan they had spent years helping to craft: Donna DeCarolis of the National Fuel Gas Distribution Corporation, Gavin Donohue of the Independent Power Producers of New York, and Dennis Elsenbeck of the energy law firm Phillips Lytle.

On its face, it makes sense that the three CAC members most closely allied with fossil fuel interests voted against the plan. But I’ll be honest: I wasn’t at all sure how the vote would go. I wondered if Elsenbeck, a longtime clean energy expert who has worked for both National Grid and batterymaker Viridi Parente, would throw his lot in with the plan. I wondered if Raya Salter, a fiery advocate for disadvantaged communities and environmental justice, might decide that the plan had too many compromises on technologies that are derided as “false solutions” by the EJ movement to earn her support.

As a lawyer steeped in energy policy, and a former employee of NYSERDA, Gundlach is far more of an expert on the allegiances and motivations of the CAC’s members than I am. Gundlach told me that he was paying close attention to how Monday’s vote would unfold.

“The big thing that I was paying attention to was whether the vote was unanimous – and if it wasn't, how that went,” he said. “I thought Gavin Donohue might find a way to straddle IPPNY's complex positions vis-a-vis the plan.”

As Elsenbeck told the CAC on Monday, his comments on the plan (and those of the other two fossil-fuel-industry aligned members) are reflected in the final document adopted by New York State. Every member was able to contribute. None of the plan’s most passionate critics — whether on the side of climate science, or communities, or the gas industry — got everything they wanted.

The statements made by CAC members explaining their votes offer clues to how the coming battles will unfold. The plan may be written, but as New York State agencies and lawmakers turn to the task of translating those words into action, politics will shape what comes next.

The three “no” votes make one thing clear: The gas industry in New York will fight decarbonization to the bitter end. In that fight, they will seize opportunities to play on deep public fears about change and uncertainty, in a realm that is so technically challenging that most members of the public do not truly understand the issues involved, or the solutions that exist to tackle very real problems created by the transition away from fossil fuels.

Where Does Action Come From?

The last time the New York State legislature did something very big and bold on climate was in 2019, when they passed the CLCPA. Since then, they have passed a few bills that are important, but none that have tackled the CLCPA’s biggest issues: funding climate action, planning for an orderly shutdown of the state’s gas infrastructure, decarbonizing New York’s fuel-burning buildings.

With the adoption of the plan, the legislature’s excuse for not acting on these things is now gone. Without legislative action, the CLCPA’s goals will not be fully realized. But for some parts of the clean energy transition, if lawmakers do not act, state agencies can.

“There are several points where you have a fork: legislation on one side, regulation on the other, and the option appears at this stage to be somewhat open,” Gundlach told me. “There are other places where you simply need legislation.”

The clearest need for the legislature to act, Gundlach says, is in the realm of public service law. The Public Service Commission — which regulates the state’s electric and gas utilities, and whose chair Rory Christian sits on the CAC — is in a very tough spot. If a customer wants gas service, in a place where the infrastructure exists, New York public service law requires the local utility to connect them. By law, new connections to the gas system are paid for not by the newly-connected household, but by the utility’s other customers, spread out across the entire customer base in a method called “rate-basing.”

Burning fossil fuels is what drives climate change. It seems obvious on its face that a system that requires the PSC to support the expansion of fuel-burning, and the rate-based subsidies that make that expansion cheap for new customers, is simply not compatible with taking action to stop climate change. But under New York’s existing public service law, the PSC’s hands are tied.

“There is a tension — they actually use the word ‘conflict’ in the chapter — between existing utility law and the climate law,” Gundlach said. The only way to resolve this, the PSC believes, is for legislators to step in and clarify the situation.

In other major realms, if the legislature does not act, agencies can.

Show Us The Money

New York lawmakers have dithered over footing the bill for the state’s piece of investment in the clean energy transition. If they dither much more, agency regulators can (and probably will) raise the funds themselves.

One of the biggest differences between the draft plan that was released last year and the final version adopted on Monday is in the chapter on “economywide strategies,” which lays out the options for funding climate action. In the draft plan, several different strategies, including a carbon tax and a “cap-and-invest” scheme, were set forth as options, but not delved into in any great detail. The final plan recommends that the DEC adopt a cap-and-invest program, and lays out in greater detail what that program would look like.

As the plan states, the DEC does not have the authority to enact a carbon tax. But as an agency with broad authority to regulate pollution, including the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, the DEC does have the authority to set and enforce a statewide cap on greenhouse gas emissions, and to ratchet that cap down year after year so they are forced to decline. (Such a program already exists, for electrical power producers, in the form of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — a far narrower program, and one whose funds were regularly raided by the Cuomo administration to plug budget holes.)

Under a cap-and-invest program, the DEC would issue emissions “allowances,” which could be bought and sold by polluters on an auction, and the proceeds put toward state climate investments. New York’s climate law requires 35 to 40 percent of those investments to flow toward projects in “disadvantaged communities,” a term whose definition has been the subject of intense and technical wrangling by the CAC’s Climate Justice Working Group over the past couple of years.

There’s some major tension here. As the CAC has worked to center “cap-and-invest” as a strategy for funding climate action, climate advocates in the state have backed away from it. Last year, the broad climate coalition New York Renews pushed for the legislature to pass a carbon tax. But enthusiasm among climate advocates for various carbon pricing schemes has cooled recently. For the upcoming state budget season, the coalition is pressing for a “tax the rich” Green New Deal approach to the problem of climate funding.

Salter, along with other environmental justice advocates, worries that a cap-and-invest program will keep pollution hotspots alive in poor and vulnerable communities, as polluters trade their allowances amongst themselves and concentrate emissions in places where it is cheaper to spew them.

“Ideas for market-based ‘cap and invest’ and biofuels schemes should be rejected if they can’t overcome design flaws and stakeholder concerns,” Salter said in a statement on her “yes” vote, which was clearly given with reservations.

Buildings are Burning

Another realm in which there seems to be a choice between legislation and regulation is in buildings. HVAC systems in buildings are the single biggest source of New York’s greenhouse gas emissions, making up roughly a third of the state’s climate pollution. It’s a tough problem to solve, but the first step is to start requiring newly-built buildings to be heated with highly efficient heat pumps, either of the ground-source variety or the latest generation of air-source heat pumps that are capable of heating homes in cold climates.

A bill that would start the electrification of new construction, the All Electric Building Act, has failed to pass for several years in a row. It has faced fierce pushback — partly as a result of gas industry lobbying and public misinformation, funded and promoted by a utility-supported group called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy as well as the state’s fuel oil and propane delivery businesses.

If the legislature does not act on electrifying buildings, the council that sets state building codes can — and the plan recommends that it do so, starting in 2025.

Getting fossil fuels out of existing buildings will require — among other things — a dramatic investment in state incentives and financing to help building owners offset the costs of heat pump retrofits. The plan calls for a phaseout of the sale of fossil fuel boilers and furnaces to replace systems that reach the end of their lifespan, resulting in a gradual shift toward heat pump systems over the next few decades.

“In existing buildings, the best opportunity for energy improvements is during routine home and capital improvements and when HVAC equipment is retired from service,” the plan states. “Since the useful life of HVAC equipment ranges from 15 to 30 years, seizing the opportunities to electrify New York’s over 6 million buildings by 2050 requires near-term action.”

How the Gas Industry Shaped the Plan

Gundlach told me that the place where he sees the fingerprints of the gas industry most clearly, in the final plan, is in Chapter 18, about the gas system transition.

There’s a tension, he says, between the clarity of the chapter on buildings, which clearly lays out the necessity of moving away from fuel-burning, and a somewhat fuzzier vision in Chapter 18.

“This chapter does not contain any kind of poison pill that will somehow prevent the [Public Service] Commission or the DEC from doing what is needed,” he said. “But it is notably different in its clarity and certainty.”

In a statement explaining his “no” vote on the plan, Elsenbeck lamented the CAC’s focus on shutting down the state’s gas system. “Much of our discussions appeared to be more about shutting down the natural gas transmission and distribution network than on achieving the 85 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2050,” he said.

From where I sit, as a science-minded reporter, this seems a bizarre distinction. Natural gas is the fossil fuel New York State is most married to, and fossil fuels are overwhelmingly the driver of climate change. Without shutting down natural gas, there can be no climate progress: If you do not put effort into the former, you will inevitably fail at the latter. The fact that the sunset of the state’s gas grid will create other problems that will need solving, and be both expensive and politically difficult, does not alter the stark math of that equation.

But for utilities and the gas industry, the goal of salvaging the state’s gas infrastructure has loomed large in the climate planning process. The three “no” voters have pushed hard for the inclusion of hydrogen and “renewable natural gas” from farms and landfills throughout the scoping plan — fuels that will inevitably play an important role in hard-to-decarbonize industries and very specific energy problems, but that make little sense as replacements for the fossil methane that now flows through the veins of New York’s residential neighborhoods.

Despite the marks of the gas industry’s work on the document, Gundlach says, the plan has its eye on the prize of ceasing greenhouse gas emissions, and contains a lot of transformational good stuff for environmental justice and communities.

“Sure, there will be politics, and the politics will try to slice things out, and create exceptions, create loopholes,” he says. “But that is not to say that this document is not doing sacred work.”

Sacred work. Whoof. I felt that. For all the wonk, and all the naysaying from climate advocates about how it caves to “false solutions,” it really is a lot, this plan. It relies heavily on real fossil fuel reductions, not dubiously-effective offsets. It is tempting to be forever cynical about the ability of any human institution to do good work — but if all of the things in this roadmap truly happen, it will be a monumental achievement.

Are You Still With Me? Let’s Talk About Wizard Shit

I appreciate your patience. We’re at a few thousand words and counting here, and this stuff is deeply wonky. And we haven’t even gotten to a very murky issue that I suspect will be the climate plan’s biggest Achilles heel, and the focus of an intense barrage of gas industry pushback over the next few years: Magic.

(“Magic???” you’re probably thinking. “Really?”)

I’m being glib here. Actually I’m quoting Donohue, whose statement lambasted the plan’s reliance on “magic” to get the state’s electrical grid through the increasingly uncertain years between 2030 and 2040.

We’re going to talk about magic in a future issue of this newsletter. And if you’ll forgive my uncouthness, I’m going to contrast it with “wizard shit,” which has become my internal shorthand for a very long phrase that goes something like “technology that currently exists, but is unevenly distributed, or whose rapidly-shifting economics are unclear, or whose precise parameters and ideal operating circumstances are not currently known, and that therefore is not easily slotted into fundamentally conservative documents such as (for instance) a state roadmap for decarbonization or a NYISO report on the reliability margins of the statewide electrical grid.”

We’ll get to wizard shit. But for now, if you’re still with me: Do you have questions about the scoping plan? Hit me up, I’ll do my best to answer them, or find someone who can:

IN GRATITUDE: Shoutout to everyone who signed up to give a little extra in support of this newsletter as a founding member. This week’s appreciation goes to Michael Richardson of the Hudson Valley-based Rivers & Mountains GreenFaith Circle, which is an interfaith environment and climate organization and a member of the NY Renews climate coalition.

Michael leads free workshops on how individuals can move their personal finances away from funding fossil fuel extraction, production and distribution, and instead arrange for their deposits, premiums and investments to be used to fund sustainable local businesses and farms, affordable housing, and development of renewable clean energy.

“Looks like Empire of Dirt is getting off to a robust start!!!” he writes. I certainly hope so.

To Michael and to every Empire of Dirt subscriber: Thank you so much for your support for this newsletter. It means a great deal to me, and it is making this work I’m doing seem both possible and desirable. Onward.