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'Left At The Altar': N.Y. Climate Activists Lament Unpassed Environment Bills

Image by Kevin Snyman from Pixabay

A student group that lobbies for climate action is disappointed in New York lawmakers for failing to pass certain environmental bills during the past legislative session. Students for Climate Action was started in Sayville, Long Island, in 2017. The group has since launched student chapters across the rest of New York, Massachusetts and Texas.

Harrison Bench, deputy director of Students for Climate Action, wanted lawmakers to loosen state regulations to give schools more time to pay for solar energy projects.

“There's always going to be a very large, immediate cost to that,” Bench said. “But what this regulation is saying is, if you're unable to pay off that debt in 18 years, you cannot pursue that. And that is actually a shorter time here than the federal limit of 25 years.

“It's really just giving school districts seven more years, a little more flexibility with energy projects,” he said.

The Students for Solar Act passed with unanimous support in the state Senate, but never reached the floor of the Assembly for a vote. The session included several disappointments to young environmentalists, Bench said.

Advocates wanted the state to set the goal of preserving 30% of the state's available land by 2030, new energy efficiency standards for new construction and increased transparency for flood risk disclosure when buying a home. New York failed to pass a measure that would put a hold on new energy-intensive cryptocurrency mining operations, as well.

Students for Climate Action also lobbied state lawmakers for the Climate and Community Investment Act, but that too never reached the floor of the state Legislature for a vote.

The package of bills invest more than $10 billion over the next decade in renewable energy projects, among other policies.

Bench said that means future high-skilled jobs for young people like him.

“Where we purchase property and the food that we buy and the energy that we use, the cars that we purchase, how our kids grow up, all that sort of stuff,” he said. “We are the generation that is going to be dealing with this when we are older. And I think a lot of people who tend to be older don't see it as much of a threat. But it's going to be impacting us.”

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, and Republicans across the state blasted provisions in the bill that would implement a 55-cent per gallon tax increase for cars and home heating — even though there is no increase to gasoline in the draft legislation. What is in the bill is a tax on carbon and other air pollutants that industrial polluters will have to pay.

State Assemblyman Fred Thiele of Sag Harbor said there was a lot of “unfinished business” left in his chamber this past legislative session. He said he suspects there could be a special session before the state Legislature is scheduled to return in January.

“The end of session when it came to environmental priorities, including climate change, I think, kind of ended with a whimper rather than a bang,” Thiele said. “There were a lot of bills that got kind of left at the altar.”

The session did end with a few victories:

  • The New York League of Conservation Voters praised improving drinking water standard for lead in schools from 15 parts per billion to 5 parts per billion. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends states move closer to 1 part per billion, as there is no safe level of lead exposure. 
  • Homeowners' associations will no longer be allowed to ban rooftop solar panels.
  • Single-use plastic toiletries, which litter the state's waterways and harm wildlife, are banned from hotels. 
  • New York will mirror California's Advanced Clean Car rule, which creates a pricing system for electric vehicle charging stations.

Copyright 2021 WSHU

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's afternoon news editor. Formally WAMC’s Berkshire bureau chief, he has reported for public radio stations, including bylines with WSHU, WNYC, WBUR, WNPR and NPR. J.D. has reported on healthcare and small businesses for "Long Island Business News" and real estate and land-use for The Press News Group newspapers. He also hosted, produced and engineered award-winning programs at WUSB Stony Brook. An avid fencer in his free time, J.D. holds a B.A. in journalism and sociology from Stony Brook University and an M.S. in communications from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.