Hochul officials drop proposal to weaken climate law amid criticism

The major change is no longer a priority in budget negotiations.

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Basil Seggos testifies during a joint legislative budget hearing.

Basil Seggos said the state will not push for an immediate change in its nation-leading climate law that had fueled outrage from lawmakers and environmentalists.Mike Groll/AP Photo

ALBANY, N.Y. — Gov. Kathy Hochul’s top climate officials, a day after defending a proposal to rewrite the climate law because of cost concerns, said Wednesday that the major change is no longer a priority in budget negotiations after backlash from environmental advocates and lawmakers.

In an interview with POLITICO, state Department of Environmental Commissioner Basil Seggos and NYSERDA president and CEO Doreen Harris indicated that Hochul would not be pushing a controversial plan to change how New York accounts for its emissions.

Last week, POLITICO was the first to report that the climate law revision was a priority in budget talks that are set to go into overtime at least until Monday. She is still seeking a deal on “cap and invest,” which would set up an auction for emissions allowances and drive increased gas and energy prices that would include a rebate to consumers to cushion the cost at the pump, they said.

They didn’t rule out the measure being considered in the future but noted it won’t be a top agenda item in the budget for the Democratic governor.

“The other other elements that we’ve discussed recently may take time to get done. We may get it done during the budget. That may happen during the session; it may take the course of a year,” Seggos said Wednesday. “The fundamental takeaway is it’s full steam ahead for cap and invest with the climate action rebate and any other elements we’ll take up as soon as we can.”

The shift comes after Seggos and Harris earlier this week went on a media blitz to defend Hochul’s proposal. They penned an op-ed on the cost concerns, went on Spectrum News’ Capital Tonight and even defended the plan to rewrite the climate law to POLITICO in an interview on Tuesday.

Some Democratic lawmakers have slammed the proposal, as have environmental groups who see it as a weakening of the state’s climate law.

“With respect to the budget, we’re focusing on the rebates in the first instance,” Harris said Wednesday. “Ultimately, there’s a lot of nuance around this accounting framework that we are committed to sorting out.”

New York’s law was the most ambitious statutory mandate in the nation requiring emissions reductions when it passed in 2019. It required emissions to be slashed 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050, with the remainder offset. It also requires zero-emissions electricity by 2040.

While other states have passed laws requiring more aggressive percentage reductions since, New York is unique in using three factors that increase the emissions that have to be reduced: a 20-year metric, out-of-state upstream emissions from imported fuels and “biogenic” emissions from burning fuels like wood and ethanol.

New York is the one of only two jurisdictions to use a 20-year time horizon to account for the damaging effects of planet-warming gasses instead of 100 years. Maryland’s 2022 climate law also uses the 20-year metric.

The important distinction was a key provision pushed by supporters of the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act passed in 2019. It makes methane, the main component of natural gas, more potent than under the longer accounting timeline. Backers say this more accurately reflects the short-term warming impact of greenhouse gasses and the urgency around reducing emissions.

The three components make New York’s law more ambitious in terms of the urgency of action and the amount of reductions required. If New York were to use the same accounting nearly every other state does, its statutory targets would fall behind at least WashingtonMassachusetts and Maryland — the only other state to use the 20-year timeline for its emission reduction requirement.

Seggos and Harris said Tuesday that unique accounting approach also raises potential costs of New York’s climate mandates for residents.

Environmental groups have also raised concerns that an accounting change could allow more import and burning of fuels like renewable natural gas, which still emit health-harming co-pollutants but could be counted as lower carbon if the state changes its policy.

New York implementing a cap-and-trade system to limit emissions would be a significant step. But there’s a gulf between Hochul’s proposal and legislative leaders. Assembly Democrats have indicated they’d rather deal with “cap and invest,” as the state has branded it, outside the budget. The Senate has proposed a version that would prohibit any trading of allowances and put more restrictions on the spending side.

Seggos said he wasn’t sure if the Senate’s restrictions on trading had implications for affordability and that he’d leave the details up to staff at the negotiating table.

“Cost remains a priority for us, and that the governor’s original proposal through her State of the State remains a priority for her, and the more difficult potential changes to the law that that have been contemplated may take more time,” he said.