Albany Wrap-Up 2011: Slam-dunks & missed opportunities

Environmentalists always have to scrap and battle on programs and policies both big and small, and this year was no different in Albany’s Capitol Building. Legislators handed out victories on some of New York’s important conservation initiatives in the 2011 session, but to no surprise, we’re forced back to the drawing board on others.

Andrew Cuomo ended his first session as Governor with the legislative equivalent of a half-court buzzer beater by passing the Marriage Equality Act.  He pretty much succeeded in getting the bulk of his promised agenda through the Albany sausage factory as well – property tax cap, rent regulation reform, and ethics.

To recap: The Environmental Protection Fund (EPF) was largely protected after sustaining a brutal assault in the last session but only after a dogged campaign from conservation advocates beginning after last fall’s elections.

Two important “Super-bills” also passed both houses and are on the Governor’s desk: a bill which will regulate large water withdrawals and another bill which will help ensure that public roads accommodate all users – including bicyclists, pedestrians, and passengers of public transportation.

But an important solar energy initiative failed to pass either house, and a crucial bill – which will allow the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to classify fracking wastes, including toxic wastewater, as hazardous – was stalled in the Senate. Here’s a fuller list:

The Wins 

Cuomo preserved funding for conservation projects

The EPF was eviscerated last year by Team Paterson, losing nearly half of its funding.  This year, after an intensive campaign by environmentalists, the Cuomo Administration kept the fund at last year’s level, agreed not to sweep any of its money for General Fund use, and made a commitment to move the money into conservation programs at a much faster pace.  So far, so good.

In a sense, although the funding should be higher than $134 million, it’s a real $134 million – no money grabbed by bureaucrats for other purposes, and the funding promises are being kept.  But, it’s said that rust never sleeps – the budget battle begins again right after Labor Day.

Water resources are protected from unregulated withdrawals

Legislators also passed a Water Withdrawal Permit bill at the session’s end, which – if signed into law – will protect our state’s rivers, streams, and lakes from unregulated commercial-scale water withdrawals. The bill requires entities that withdraw more than 100,000 gallons of water per day from New York’s waterways to obtain a permit from DEC, unless the withdrawer is a farm.  DEC is also required to create a water conservation and efficiency program, to develop standards to protect aquatic life, and to further the implementation of the Great Lakes Compact.

Although about 30 percent of New York’s waters are protected through some kind of regional management program (Long Island, Delaware and Susquehanna River Basins), NYS has not had a comprehensive program or permit structure to manage water use statewide.  This bill provides that regulatory system and is a game-changer in reshaping and solidifying New York’s water conservation policies.

Future streets will be more “complete”

The Legislature also passed a “Complete Streets” bill that will help make our streets fairer, safer and better for everyone who uses them, including pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, children, and the elderly.

The bill requires that all transportation projects receiving state and federal funding must include “complete street” design features – which is another way of saying neighborhoods must be more walkable and more bikeable.  One primary goal of the bill is to make New York’s streets safer for pedestrians, since they account for a quarter of all traffic deaths, even though less than one percent of federal transportation dollars are spent on walking and biking accommodations. Another key goal is to spur more coordinated planning among policymakers regarding the design and use of sidewalks, bike lanes, public transportation, and crosswalks to improve community streets for those who don’t drive cars.

New Yorkers will benefit from energy efficiency loans – with jobs and savings

New Yorkers can now retrofit their homes to be more energy efficient at close to zero cost.

In 2010, the Green Jobs/Green New York Act created a state-run fund that allows major lenders to invest in individual home retrofits – to be repaid by the savings of those homeowners’ energy improvements. This system is similar in theory to micro-lending, which attracts lenders to a pool of many tiny loans that are not risky investments.

With that in mind, the Legislature recently passed an On-Bill Recovery (OBR) system that will allow homeowners to pay back those loans through small, monthly charges on their utility bills. The savings are matched to the repayments, meaning the homeowner won’t take a hit and pays virtually nothing for the retrofits. 

This program only works when utility bills are the vehicle for payment; in other words, only for electric and gas-heated homes.  The bill also provides consumer protections on the quality of the audit and energy improvements, with a strong system for customer complaints. Homeowners will also be able to use grants or rebates like HOMESTAR to further reduce the amount that has to be repaid.

Our economic and green jobs transformation will only take place through mass-scale retrofits. OBR is key to spurring the mass-scale financing for these retrofits and ultimately create green jobs for New York.

EPF’s conservation projects will get the attention they deserve

Simply put, much of the problem in defending the EPF is that most voters and even elected officials don’t know what the program funds. There is little fanfare for its grants when a check is written, even though so many conservation programs – benefiting everything from Jones Beach to Niagara Falls to clean water treatment plants to some of the most lush woodlands and meadows in the state – are funded by it. 

The EPF Awareness bill will publicize the awarding of some EPF contracts in real time – through radio PSA announcements, billboards on project sites, mentions on the DEC website, an e-mail communication, or social network advertising.  This low-cost publicity campaign will highlight the crucial nature of these EPF green investments.

Bills for Next Session

New York can be a solar leader

Our hard-fought solar electricity bill was not considered this year, but it made substantial gains by bringing solar energy onto the Governor’s radar.  There was a strong enviro/business coalition (including the solar industry, GE and Walmart) supporting the bill but equally strong opposition from Con Ed and the NYS Business Council.  This will continue as a high priority for NRDC next session. 

New York deserves strong safeguards from hydro-fracking

And then there’s fracking. NRDC is participating in a DEC advisory panel that investigates all things fracking – with an eye toward creating the toughest regulations in the country, including expanded enforcement authority and resources for the agency. 

We’re committed to making sure New York does not move forward with drilling unless and until it’s proven safe for our environment and public health. We’re also working with DEC to address the serious gaps in its preliminary draft environmental review, so that it requires the strictest safeguards, regulations, and enforcement powers possible.

Central to the discussion and campaign, though, is the ability for DEC to classify the waste from fracking as hazardous.  Drilling wastes are currently exempt from state laws governing hazardous waste – meaning they’re sent to the same treatment facilities that take typical wastewater from our homes, even though many are clearly hazardous.

A historic bill to close this loophole passed the New York Assembly in June, but it did not advance in the Senate. The bill represents a bottom line bedrock campaign issue for environmentalists in New York, and it is unlikely that any fracking will take place safely in the state without this policy change.

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