Cuomo focuses on climate in big speech; some greens shrug

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, January 5, 2018

The annual addresses delivered by America’s governors are, by their nature, political wish lists. But even by that standard, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) eighth State of the State address yesterday was a doozy.

The Empire State’s chief executive called for divesting state pension funds from fossil fuels, outlined plans to nudge offshore wind online and promised to sue the federal government if Washington releases General Electric Co. from its cleanup obligations along the Hudson River. Cuomo’s speech was accompanied by policy proposals to end coal use in New York, close an emissions loophole on small oil-fired power plants, and establish targets for energy storage and efficiency.

About the state pension funds, he blustered: “We call an end in any investment in fossil-fuel-related activities in the pension fund, and we’re going to work with Comptroller Tom DiNapoli because the future of the environment, the future of the economy and the future of our children is all in clean technology, and we should put our money where our mouth is.”

Cuomo has sought to position himself as a champion of climate action since President Trump took office. But environmentalists are split over his record.

For some, the mere fact that the governor is loudly advocating for climate solutions is a sign of progress. They note that New York vests considerable power in its executive. Cuomo does not need legislative approval, for instance, to apply the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative’s cap-and-trade regime to a series of previously exempted oil-fired peaker plants around New York City.

“People tend to try to do the things they say. So getting them to say it is a good thing. We have a governor who’s not afraid to say he wants to do it,” said Karl Rábago, executive director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center in White Plains, N.Y. “Is it sufficient? No, but it’s the first step. I see some value in the fact our leaders are saying this stuff out loud.”

Rábago expressed enthusiasm for the governor’s call to develop energy efficiency targets by Earth Day in April. New York utilities have fallen behind on energy efficiency in recent years, he said, and a push from the state not only will prod them forward but will help meet New York’s goal of boosting renewables while cutting electricity costs.

Yet Cuomo’s proclamations are starting to wear thin in some corners of the environmental community. The governor first proposed eliminating coal, an already insignificant fuel source for electricity generation in New York state, in 2016, said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

While Cuomo called for a conversation on how the state spends money on energy efficiency measures in low-income communities, he offered no concrete suggestions on how the state should spend its dollars.

And after years of talking up offshore wind, New York is behind other states, Iwanowicz said. Cuomo’s plan amounts to releasing a request for proposal for up to 800 megawatts of offshore wind over two solicitations in 2018 and 2019.

Maryland has already approved two projects consisting of almost 370 MW. Massachusetts, meanwhile, recently accepted a first round of bids for projects toward its offshore wind target of 1,600 MW.

“When does the rhetoric match the reality of serious pollution reduction?” Iwanowicz said. “It’s good he understands the need for New York to be a leader as it relates to climate. But the speech falls short of the real leadership.”

As for divesting the state pension fund from fossil fuels, that decision is out of Cuomo’s hands. That power rests with DiNapoli, the state comptroller, who has said New York will be able to exert greater influence over fossil fuel companies’ climate policies if the state’s pension fund remains a major investor.

For much of Cuomo’s agenda, the rubber will hit the road, quite literally, when the governor releases his budget in the next several weeks. Environmentalists are pushing Cuomo to resurrect a congestion pricing proposal on vehicles traveling in and out of Manhattan around rush hour.

A similar proposal backed by former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg died in Albany nearly a decade ago. Cuomo is behind the idea this time, telling The New York Times in August that “Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come.”

Few of Cuomo’s proposals would have a larger climate impact. Transportation emissions are now the largest source of carbon emissions in New York state. Installing tolls on bridges into Manhattan would simultaneously reduce emissions and raise money to invest in the city’s ailing subway system, environmentalists argue.

“That would be in the category of nation leading if he were to propose something meaningful and convince the Legislature to actually pass something,” Iwanowicz said.