ALBANY, Apr. 3, 2020 — The New York State Legislature passed bills this week to streamline the process for permitting industrial-scale renewable energy projects, to permanently ban high-volume fracking in the state, and to create a $3 billion environmental bond fund.
Although challenged by the COVID19 pandemic, the state Senate passed major environmental measures.
The bill to streamline the siting of major wind and solar projects would affect at least 10 proposed big solar projects in the Finger Lakes region, as well as plans for several large wind farms.
Across the state, more than four dozen major solar and wind projects have been stuck in a regulatory bottleneck, jeopardizing the state’s goal of obtaining 70 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.
A law requiring all of the state’s electricity to come from renewable sources by 2040 is the most aggressive decarbonization plan in the country.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo pressed for the new siting bill, which passed the state Assembly by a vote of 88-54.
Several state legislators and community groups complained that the law could trample local residents’ rights to reject projects on the grounds they spoil the landscape or undermine property values, among other things.
They argued that constitutionally protected “home rule” legal rights should never take a back seat to state energy goals or to the out-of-state developers who intend to profit from the shift to renewables.
Meanwhile, the fracking ban has infuriated certain landowner groups that have long sought the opportunity to profit by leasing their property to natural gas drillers.
For health and safety reasons, Cuomo banned high-volume hydrofracking in the state by policy in 2014.
Now he’ll get to sign the ban into state law, provoking groups like the pro-industry “Marcellus Drilling News.” On its website, the group said the governor had “slipped (the ban) into the annual state budget bill, which is now law of our fallen (and sick) land….Freedom died yesterday in New York State. We now live behind enemy lines.”
Enshirined in law, the fracking ban will be less vulnerable to repeal or amendment by future governors or legislatures than the 2014 policy ban.
Despite the disruption of the legislative process caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Legislature also passed a $3 billion so-called “Mother Nature Bond Act” to finance flood control, wetland restoration and other climate-related projects.
Assuming Cuomo signs it into law, the measure would also have to be adopted by voters in November before it could be tapped for projects.
“Today’s public health crisis has not erased the impacts of climate change, especially for our most vulnerable communities,” said Peter M. Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “Protecting our water and restoring our natural defenses against future flooding, heat and drought is critically important.”
The state last passed a major environmental bond act in 1996 to close targeted landfills, address air and water pollution, clean up brownfields and expand recycling, among other things. That act authorized $1.75 billion in bond finance.
More recent catastrophes, including Hurricane Sandy (NY Daily News Photo, above), underscore the need to unlock billions to protect communities from the ravages of climate change, Rich Schrader wrote in a recent blog for the NRDC.
The budget also included $500 million earmarked for drinking water system improvements and for cleaning waterways. The funding is part of the state’s 2017-18 Clean Water Infrastructure Act, which calls for $2.5 billion in spending over five years.
The CWIA has sponsored grant programs to help deal with lead service line replacements, septic system replacement and emerging contaminants such as PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane. The state recently wrote rules for binding legal limits in drinking water for those three chemicals.
“With New York already suffering from harmful algal blooms, chemical contamination, frequent sewage overflows and watermain breaks, and stress from climate change, continued leadership on funding is urgent,” six environmental leaders wrote to Cuomo and Legislative leaders March 17.
The Legislature also passed a bill to add $350 million to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, as well as a bill to ban polystyrene foam, a styrofoam-like substance used in packing and food containers.
But not all pro-environmental bills won passage. Among those that stalled:
— A bill to cancel the oil and gas industry’s special exemption from hazardous waste regulation (S3392). The bill had passed the state Senate last year, but died before it was called for a final vote in the Assembly. This year it never reached a vote in either chamber.
— A bill to expand state authority over wetlands (S.5612-A). The measure would have extended state protections to a broad group of waterways classified as Class C waters.
While Gov. Cuomo, left, had emphasized the need for the new siting bill for renewable energy projects, several Republican legislators engaged in Assembly floor debate to criticize it as an imposition on rural communities.
“There’s no question there needs to be a diversification of energy,” said Assemblyman Michael Norris, who represents areas of Erie and Niagara counties. “But at the same time it’s critically important that individuals in a community have a full voice.”
Under the bill, permits for renewable energy projects over 20 megawatts would be handled by a new office in the Department of State.
The existing permitting procedure for renewable energy is covered under Article 10 of state Public Service law. Only five projects have been approved over the past eight years, while 55 projects are stuck in the queue.
Several last-minute amendments tweaked the rules for the new process, mostly related to public engagement in the permitting process.