GELF Climate Testimony May 17

Testimony of the Green Legal and Education Fund Inc.
To the New York State Assembly Hearing on Climate Change
May 17 , 2019

My name is Mark Dunlea and I am chair of the Green Education and Legal Fund (GELF). Thank you for the opportunity to testify on how to enact the best climate legislation possible.

The hearing notice poised three principal questions: how to address climate change in a manner that protects disadvantaged communities most at risk from adverse impacts; how to ensure job transitions that result in good-paying jobs with worker protections; and how best to address these considerations, including what role, if any, carbon offsets should play.

We will first address the three specific questions, and then provide further elaboration on the need for New York to adopt the strongest legislation possible.

Climate Change is the Greatest Threat to the Future of Humanity

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned that the world has 11 years left to take unprecedented, bold, worldwide action to try to prevent runaway climate change that threatens civilization as we know it and raises the possibility of human extinction. The United Nations also issued a similar warning related to the worldwide loss of biodiversity that humans depend upon.

The IPCC outlined a series of actions needed to try to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C, rather than the 2 degrees that most of New York’s climate policies and legislation is based upon. It is important to note that the IPCC is a fairly conservative body due the nature of science, and because its pronouncements need the approval of governments that continue to be heavily reliant on fossil fuels such as Saudi Arabia, the US, Brazil and Russia. Every prior IPCC report has underestimated the speed and severity of climate change. As one IPCC scientist explained, to get an accurate reading from the IPCC, one should take its worst case scenarios and double them.

While the CCPA has worthwhile proposals on environmental justice and labor standards, the CCPA largely incorporates the state’s existing climate policies, starting with the 2009 Executive Order initially issued by Gov. Paterson and since renewed by Gov. Cuomo.

The NYS Off Fossil Fuels Act / 100% Renewable Energy by 2030 (OFF Act: A5105 / S5908 in 2018) has a faster timeline for climate action than either the CCPA or the Governor’s budget proposal, and many  other stronger climate provisions including a Just Transition and enforceable climate plans with short-term benchmarks and timelines.

NY Climate Policies Must Embrace Environmental Justice.

We need to adopt – and improve – the strongest provisions of the CCPA and the OFF Act with respect to environmental justice. This includes ensuring a strong voice for disadvantaged communities in developing and implementing climate policies.  We support the goal of 40% of climate funds being dedicated to projects to assist environmental justice and low-income communities. This should support the concept of community- and worker-owned renewable energy systems.

We need to revise the Green Jobs Green Homes program to remove the barriers that have impeded its implementation. We should be providing access to energy retrofits and renewable energy with no upfront outlays by low and moderate income customers.

Climate Action Must Be a Just Transition, providing economic and environmental security for all New Yorkers while creating living wage jobs.

The OFF Act has the strongest provisions that guarantee jobs and wages to workers in the fossil fuel and nuclear industry, as well as payments to communities presently dependent on such plants for tax payments. We must also ensure that the jobs created by the transition to renewable energy are living wage jobs, with the freedom to join unions and create worker owned cooperatives.

In addition to good paying jobs, it is equally critical that we adopt bold, radical climate policies that ensure that disadvantaged communities are not harmed or even destroyed by increasing extreme weather. It is the poor of New York and the rest of the planet that are the principal victims of climate change.

I was Executive Director of the Hunger Action Network of NYS and living in Brooklyn when hurricane Sandy hit. Hunger Action participated in coalition efforts to push for those living in impacted communities like Coney Island and the Rockaways to be hired to assist in the rebuilding effort. But we were disappointed that the coalition was not aggressive in advocating for climate change policies that would reduce and protect them from future flooding, heat waves and other extreme weather  that would negatively impact low-income communities. We needed to demand that the damaged boilers in the public housing projects be replaced with clean renewable heating systems. It was one of the reasons I left Hunger Action Network, to better link the need for economic justice / job creation and effective climate action.

Carbon Offsets Should Be limited to Regenerative and Sustainable Agriculture Practices

The climate deal should not incorporate carbon offsets as a strategy to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions other than putting carbon back into the soil through regenerative and  sustainable agriculture practices like cover cropping, nutrient recycling, managed pastures, reduced tillage and the elimination of synthetic fertilizers derived from natural gas.

A soil health program should be a major component of or companion parallel program to any serious effort to address climate change.  In addition, NYS has vast land areas that were once forested that could again grow trees – up to 10 to 15% of the land area of the state.  There are also forests, especially in the Southern Tier, that have grown up on abandoned farmland, that are unhealthy but with some attention could make significant contributions to sequestering carbon.  This state needs a comprehensive plan for land use to increase soil health and carbon farming of all kinds.

The Off Act has a goal of a 100% clean energy system (defined) by 2030, with net zero greenhouse gas emissions (not defined).

Among the issues being discussed in Albany re climate legislation is the concept of “carbon neutral”, “net zero emissions,” and “carbon offsets” which, though related, are somewhat different things.

What the OFF Act says re net zero carbon emissions

GELF and the OFF Act promote the concept of regenerative agriculture which (in a simplified explanation) uses sustainable farming practices to restore carbon to the soil. It is heavily promoted in California, and has a fair amount of government support in NY as well as support from  the sustainable agriculture community including the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY).

On the issue of “carbon free” The OFF Act is one of the few climate bills that expressly opposes nuclear, calling for a phase-out by 2025. While carbon emissions from the operation of a nuclear plant are minimal, the plants themselves have significant carbon footprints over their lifecycle including the construction of each plant, the mining and processing of the uranium fuel, and the need for exceptionally long-storage of the radioactive waste.

GELF continues to oppose the Governor’s $7.6 billion subsidy to Exelon to keep open a handful of old, failing upstate nuclear plants. GELF is a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by Clearwater challenging this nuke bailout. The state failed to adequately evaluate alternative approaches on how to spend $7.6 billion to create jobs and promote clean energy.

The OFF Act expressly opposes biomass, though it does allow for short-term recapture of methane  from landfills. We say this cannot count as a renewable energy source.

From the beginning the OFF Act – which has a 20-year faster timeline than the CCPA – has called for 100% clean energy by 2030 but we define this as net zero carbon emissions. Partially this is to take advantage of carbon offsets from regenerative agriculture. But it was also to be realistic about the challenges of going to no carbon emissions by 2030 (which is a timeline 20 years faster than the CCPA). It will be the last 5 to 10% of the elimination of carbon emissions that will be the most challenging financially and technologically. There is also considerable evidence that renewables cannot yet produce the temperatures needed for certain industrial processes like cement or aluminum. So we allow for small offsets from regenerative agriculture.

Biofuels and carbon sequestration and storage have significant environmental, technological and financial problems. Carbon offsets can also open the door to trading programs that allow emissions to continue, particularly in disadvantaged communities.

Information re biofuels from Food and Water Watch

Burning wood spews greenhouse gases that contribute to climate chaos. Proponents claim that biomass is carbon-neutral because it avoids combusting fossil fuels or sending biomass to landfills, and because trees can be replanted to sequester wood-fired emissions. In reality, processing, transporting and burning wood all produce greenhouse gas emissions, which can be greater than those from coal. There are more than 200 wood-fired power plants in the United States that could burn up to 260 billion pounds of wood annually. These biomass facilities are anything but clean, and they typically emit up to 60 percent more carbon emissions than modern coal plants and about three times more than natural gas plants.

The harvesting and production of wood for incineration also causes a host of problems. Many forestry companies manufacture wood pellets for power plants from waste wood, but some have been clear cutting forests to supply biomass. Harvesting whole, healthy trees increases net carbon emissions more than burning fossil fuels. Exposure to these air pollutants has been linked to respiratory irritation and infection, increased blood pressure, heart attacks and heart disease, as well as to reduced life expectancy in humans.

Factory farmers argue that they can turn animal waste  into clean power. Factory farms emit methane directly into the atmosphere, in part thanks to the lagoons and slurries used to manage the huge volumes of manure. Methane is a highly potent greenhouse gas, generated by anaerobic (oxygen-deprived) digestion in these waste pits. So, by building expensive facilities to capture and burn the “biogas,” the logic goes, factory farms reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

But this ‘solution’ isn’t what it is cracked up to be. For starters, there is no reason to accept massive factory farms as part of a clean energy system. Pasture-based manure management would avoid the need for massive (and often deadly) manure pits, and thus would avoid this methane problem in the first place.

Second, this technological fix for turning pollution into power often doesn’t work as advertised. Digesters experience a high failure rate; as of spring 2016, the EPA indicated that 13 of 26 digesters in California had been shuttered. And they create other health problems.

And factory farms are still left with the huge volume of solid waste that remains following the digestion process. Digesters generate methane gas from partially breaking down the manure, but they do not make the nutrient loads (nitrogen and phosphorous) in the manure evaporate or disappear. In fact, recent research finds that spreading manure after anaerobic digestion increases ammonia emissions, compared to spreading raw manure. Ammonia is a toxic gas in its own right that can mix with other chemicals and create new pollutants that can create serious health problems.

Problems with carbon sequestration and storage

A huge problem with the promotion of carbon sequestration is that it relies on the development of a miracle technology which has not yet worked despite the investment of tens of billions of dollars in research. It has the potential to be the greatest corporate welfare boondoggle in history. It should not be relied upon as a climate strategy until it has been proven to work. We certainly should not treat it as a license to continue carbon pollution. There are certainly questions related to the long-term viability of long-term underground storage and potential problems related to aquifer contamination and unexpected releases of carbon.

Oppose carbon offsetting schemes

Carbon Market Watch[1] outlines why the use of offsetting systems has been highly problematic, as they absolve the countries and companies most responsible for climate change from taking drastic climate action. Offsetting creates the illusion that high-carbon activities can continue, by relying on others, most notably poorer countries, to clean up the emitted pollution.

The UN’s main offsetting scheme is the so-called ‘Clean’ Development Mechanism (CDM), allowing governments and companies in rich countries to offset their emissions through projects in developing countries. There are three main reasons why this scheme has failed dramatically.

First, offsetting is at best a zero-sum game, meaning that some countries will increase their emissions while others decrease them (and sell them as offsets). It therefore has no role to play in a world where all countries must rapidly decarbonize. All sectors should reduce their emissions, and investing in domestic climate action is a priority.

Second, the Clean Development Mechanism has been associated with severe negative impacts on local communities. Driven by the perspective of selling carbon offsets, some project developers have infringed human rights and implemented projects which disrupted both the environment and the livelihoods of entire communities.

Third, the mechanism has been counterproductive, leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. In Europe alone, the use of junk CDM credits increased emissions by about 750 million tons of  CO2e. This is because most credits traded under this scheme do not represent real emissions reductions. Only 2% of CDM projects are highly likely to have environmental integrity, that is truly reduce emissions beyond what would have happened in the absence of the project.

Therefore, when CDM credits are used to replace domestic climate action, the result is an increase in emissions compared to a scenario where a company or country would have reduced its own emissions directly. “Clean” projects funded through this scheme include claimed efficiency improvements of coal power plants, the most polluting energy source.

Other Provisions that Should Be Included in Assembly Climate Legislation

While the CLA and CCPA will likely provide the overall framework for the climate deal, provisions from the various other bills need to be incorporated to make the strongest climate change plan possible.

The OFF Act (A3565 /S5526) has the fastest timelines with a mandate of 100% renewable energy, net zero greenhouse emissions by 2030; a halt to new fossil fuel projects; the strongest Just Transition requirements, and strong enforceable plans at the state and local levels.

The Freedom from Fossil Fuels Act (S5200 / A7479) by Senator Metzger also halts new fossil fuel projects while setting a fast goal for renewables for electricity (2030 if possible, 2040 if not) and requiring regional climate plans; it also expressly gives citizens the right to sue to enforce the law. The Green New Deal (S2878b / A5344a) by Sanders and Ortiz calls for a plan for 100% clean energy by 2030 and may be amended to also call for a halt to new fossil fuel projects. It also implements an economic bill of rights including a guaranteed living wage job and universal health care. There is also a fossil fuel moratorium proposal by As. Carroll (A5399 /S5518)

The Governor partially justifies his opposition to moving faster to 100% renewable energy on the grounds that more study is needed. However, 3 years ago we got the state assembly to propose funding for such a study and the Governor 2 years ago directed NYSERDA to complete such a study by 2018. The draft of the study should be immediately released.

  1. We need to move to 100% clean renewable energy, net zero greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.

The OFF Act sets a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2030, with net zero carbon emissions. This is based on the “Jacobson” study by Stanford and Cornell professors. 2030 is also the target date of the federal Green New Deal proposal. 2035 for electricity and transportation is the target date for the federal OFF Act, which last session was sponsored by every Congressional Democrat from NY except one. The US conference of Mayors has 2035 as a goal.

The Governor has proposed that 70% of our electricity come from clean sources by 2030, and 100% by 2040. He continues however to use the state’s existing 2009 goal of an 80% reduction of greenhouse gases by 2050. NYSERDA for two years has done a study on how fast we can get to 100% but won’t release even a draft. The CCPA calls for 100% clean energy by 2050.

The OFF Act has provisions to ensure that renewable energy goals by individual utilities are met. It also calls for carbon offsets by putting carbon back into the soil through regenerative agriculture.

The sobering reality is that 16 years after Governor Pataki announced bold goals to increase renewable energy – and 8 years into the Cuomo era – New York gets a mere 4 to 5% of its electricity from wind, solar and geothermal energy[2]. Setting goals is one thing, achieving them is something else. California in contrast announced last year that it expects to get 50% of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020 – ten years faster than they planned.[3]

  1. The state needs to enact a ban on the development of new fossil fuel infrastructure and start a phase-out of existing fossil fuels. Utility companies must be prevented from switching from oil furnaces to gas, and instead they must be required to install renewable heat systems.

The OFF and Freedom from Fossil Fuels call for a halt to new fossil fuels infrastructure; the CCPA and the Governor do not directly address this issue. The state needs to strengthen its monitoring of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane leakage. The state needs to be clear that the use of natural gas must be ended. The state needs to increase its funding for renewable heat (air heat pumps, geothermal).

  1. The legislation needs to set targets and goals for transportation and buildings, both of which account for a third of the state’s carbon footprint.

As the OFF Act proposes, NY should adopt California’s requirement that new residential buildings  be net zero carbon emissions, with solar, by 2022. The state needs to strengthen programs to energy retrofit buildings. We also need to move to clean renewable heat (geothermal, air heat pumps for buildings).

  1. 4. The State needs to adopt a strong climate action plan, with clear two-year benchmarks, timelines and activities. There should be an annual report to the legislature.

Similar to California, the OFF Act requires climate plans for county and local governments (of more than 50,000). The plan has benchmarks in two year intervals with annual review. The CCPA proposes benchmarks with 4-year intervals and review; it also requires a scoping document rather than a climate plan. The Freedom from Fossil Fuels Act promotes regional climate plans. There must be ways for labor, environmental justice and community groups to fully participate in the planning process, not the fossil fuel industry. (There are different ideas about how the Climate Action Council overseeing the planning process will be put together and who will be on it and chair it.)

  1. The various climate action plans need to be legally enforceable.

Like California, the right for citizens to legally enforce the climate plan should be included in the legislation. State and local agencies must be required to adhere to the climate plan; the provisions within the CCPA to do this must be significantly strengthened. The Freedom from Fossil Fuels Act specifically gives citizens the right to sue to enforce the law.

  1. The State should support public / community ownership and democratic control of the energy system.

Public ownership is one way to accelerate the development and siting of large-scale renewable energy systems while lowering costs.

New York State should promote energy democracy, with community control / ownership of the energy system, ensuring that low and moderate income New Yorkers can participate in our energy future.

GELF supported the Governor’s Article VII proposals last year to allow NYPA to own renewables. We support public ownership of much of the energy system at both the state and local level in order to reduce costs and to ensure that the energy systems meets public needs rather than private profits.

We need to avoid the gentrification of our energy system, ensuring that low-income individuals and communities can fully participate in our clean energy future. We need to support energy democracy, including the development of community shared renewables, Community Choice Aggregation, and public ownership / worker / community cooperatives.

To build large renewable energy projects in New York takes 6  to 10 years for the permit process; places like Kansas take less than a year.[4][MOU1]  The State must devote resources to solving this barrier. One solution is to have municipal power systems develop renewables, as is done widely in other places like Germany. With public power, the proposal is viewed as a common good and tends to have more public acceptance and support.

The state should provide upfront funding to any local government, including schools and other districts, that want to construct a publicly-owned renewable energy system in their community.

The state should evaluate the proposal by NYC Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to create Public Banks as a financing mechanism for the transition to renewable energy.

Enact a State Carbon Tax;

Make Polluters Pay

The “Jacobson” study a few years ago showed that NY could move to 100% clean energy by 2030 based on existing technology and estimated the transition cost at around $480 billion. While much of this involves redirecting existing funds from the fossil fuel industry to renewable energy, and routine expenditures already budgeted for system and distribution upgrades, it still requires new additional spending of tens of billions of dollars a year.

New York needs to adequately price carbon to reflect the true economic, health and environmental costs associated with its use. New York should enact a carbon (greenhouse gas) tax or fee to accomplish this purpose (this needs to include methane). The prime purpose for carbon pricing is to make polluters pay for the damages they cause while accelerating the transition to clean energy sources by making fossil fuels reflect their actual costs.

The Governor used the social cost of carbon to justify his $7.6 billion bailout of three small upstate nuclear plants. This had led the NYS Independent Systems Operator to seek similar handouts for other electric producers, a proposal which the Governor has embraced through the Public Service Commission.[5]

The biggest obstacle to clean energy is that the market prices of coal, oil and gas don’t include the true costs of carbon pollution. A robust and briskly rising carbon tax will transform energy investment, re-shape consumption, and sharply reduce the carbon emissions that are driving global warming.

A carbon tax is an “upstream” tax on the carbon content of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) and biofuels. A carbon tax is the most efficient means to instill crucial price signals that spur carbon-reducing investment. A carbon tax can also be used to recapture some of the costs pushed on to taxpayers and consumers from burning fossil fuels,

The International Monetary Fund estimates that worldwide we provide $5.3 trillion in annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. We need to stop paying to make the world uninhabitable for humans. In New York, it is estimated that allowing the burning of fossil fuels increases health care costs by $30 billion or more while leading to at least 3,000 annual deaths from air pollution.

It would be better to enact a robust national carbon tax. However, since the present Congressional gridlock on climate change makes this unlikely, New York should take the lead and enact a state carbon tax. In Canada, British Columbia has successfully implemented a provincial carbon tax. The tax has helped BC reduce its carbon emissions 3.5 times more than the rest of Canada while their economy performed slightly better than the rest of the country.

There is significant interest in the northeast in a regional carbon tax. Northeastern states are continuing to examine the possibility of some form of regional approach to address transportation / gas under the Climate and Transportation Initiative.[6] Several years ago Gov. Cuomo had publicly raised the possibility of a regional gas tax to support mass transit.

GELF helped draft carbon tax legislation[7] which has been introduced. We actively support A107(Cahill) / S2846 (Parker).  We are also supportive of the polluter pay carbon tax proposal that has been developed by NY Renews, including its proposals for investment in a Just Transition and environmental justice.

In writing the Cahill / Parker bill, we selected the various options included in the bill after surveying several hundred climate change activists – we adopted the positions with the most support.

The proposed carbon tax would start at $35 a ton and then increase in annual increments of $15 a ton. 60% of the revenues would be rebated to low and moderate income consumers. The remaining forty percent will support the transition to one hundred percent clean energy in the state, to support mass transit to reduce carbon emissions, and to improve climate change adaptation. Such funds shall include payments and subsidies for renewable energy, energy conservation and efficiency measures, improvements in infrastructure, improvements in mass transit capacity, agricultural adaptation measures, protection of low-lying areas including coastlines, and emergency responses to extreme weather events.

At the base rate of $35, according to Prof. Sara Hsu of SUNY New Paltz, the revenues would amount to over $3.5 billion. In Year Two of implementation, with an increase of $15 per ton, the revenue would be $6.2 billion, in Year Three, $7.9 billion, in Year Four, $9.5 billion, and in Year Five, $11 billion. At the last point, revenue would amount to $14.3 billion. It is estimated that the initial carbon price of $35 a ton would increase the cost of gasoline by 35 cents a gallon. At $180 a ton, the cost would rise by $1.58 per gallon.

We recognize there are differences of opinions as to how to best invest the revenues: offset the regressive nature of any energy tax; do a 100% rebate of the tax to consumers (e.g., 100% fee and dividend); invest in the transition to renewable energy; and to meet other social needs such as job creation. The issue of what revenue options the legislature agrees to is less urgent than adopting a carbon price high enough to effectively reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted.

We like many of the revenue distribution proposals in the polluter penalty legislation developed by NY Renews to better reach low-income New Yorkers as well as the fee on other air pollutants.

GELF sees a carbon (greenhouse)  tax not as a substitute but a complement to other strong proposals to cut greenhouse gas emissions and promote renewable energy. It needs to adequately penalize methane starting with leaks.

As an interim step, we urge the legislature to  authorize a study of the impact and potential of the various levels and variables for a state carbon tax. Oregon and Massachusetts have conducted such studies. A 1919 / S4598[8]

New York already has a limited carbon pricing scheme through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative for electrical production. However, the Congressional Research Service[9] concluded that the pricing was set too low to have any significant impact on reducing carbon emissions. It is presently around $6 a ton. The emission reductions result from investing the proceeds from auctioning the carbon permits in renewable energy. The recent effort to reform RGGI regionally to set higher goals fell far short of what advocates were calling for but some higher goals for carbon emission reductions were agreed to. There is the possibility that RGGI may expand to gasoline as other cap-and-trade programs have done. Cap and trade programs however are subject to market manipulation and often shift the pollution burden to poorer communities and nations, which is why they were condemned by Pope Francis.