While Climate-Driven Wildfires Burn in Canada and Make Air Quality Across the State Dangerously Unhealthy, Will Lawmakers Stand with the Dirty Fossil Fuel Companies That Created This Crisis or with the New Yorkers Suffering the Consequences?
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 7, 2023
Media Contact: Claire Wixted, 914-819-3473, email@example.com
ALBANY, NY – While lawmakers stall on passing key climate bills, climate-driven wildfires in Canada are shrouding New York with poisonous smoke, causing historically dangerous air quality. Last night and this morning, New York State Governor Kathy Hochul recommended schools cancel outdoor activities and New Yorkers limit exposure to the air, which is currently full of Particulate Matter 2.5. According to CNN, PM2.5 is “The tiniest pollutant yet also the most dangerous. When inhaled, it can travel deep into lung tissue and enter the bloodstream. It comes from sources like the combustion of fossil fuels, dust storms and wildfires, and it has been linked to a number of health problems including asthma, heart disease and other respiratory illnesses.”
With three days left of session, the New York State legislature has the opportunity to respond to this climate disaster and reduce New York’s dependence on the fossil fuels responsible for the toxic air by passing the Climate Change Superfund Act (S2129A), Packaging and Recycling Infrastructure Act (S4246A), and NY HEAT Act (S2016A). Better Buildings NY and other advocates held an impromptu press conference today, which you can watch here, calling for action from Albany.
“While Albany fiddles, Canada burns and New Yorkers suffer from the world’s worst air quality. That suffering will add to health care costs – and those costs are just the tip of the iceberg. Rising sea levels and more intense storms have been and will continue to threaten the state. The rising heat and toxic air will hurt the elderly and the most vulnerable. Unless Albany acts, taxpayers will foot the bill for the tens of billions of dollars in climate costs.
“Meanwhile, Big Oil, which has known it’s causing disasters like this since the 1970s, still rake in unprecedented profits year after year. Who does the NYS Legislature represent – New Yorkers struggling to breathe, or the fossil fuel industry responsible for all of this? The clock is ticking: The Senate and Assembly must bring the Climate Change Superfund Act to a vote now to prevent New Yorkers from even more suffering,” said Blair Horner, Executive Director of NYPIRG.
“Plastic production is the Plan B for the fossil fuel industry. We need Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrew Stewart Cousins to bring the Packaging Reduction Act to the floor for a vote to reduce this contribution to the climate crisis,” said Judith Enck, President of Beyond Plastics and Former EPA Regional Administrator.
“There’s no starker reminder that the climate crisis is the existential threat of our time than the dangerous smoke-filled skies covering most of New York State this week – it demands urgent leadership from New York’s legislature,” said Liz Moran, New York Policy Advocate for Earthjustice. “Yesterday, the Senate wisely chose to take action by passing the HEAT Act, which will save New Yorkers from the rising costs of gas, while protecting public health and fighting climate change. The Assembly must not give in to the ongoing, decades worth of fossil fuel industry lies that have brought us to the crisis we face today and pass the HEAT Act immediately.”
“Research shows that climate change has led to drier conditions that make for a longer and more active wildfire fire season, and the smoke from these fires can contribute to a wide variety of adverse health impacts, from difficulty breathing and reduced lung function to heart attacks and even premature death. These are the same health issues we see from burning fossil fuels, such as natural gas, but many overlook or downplay this threat because you cannot see or smell this pollution as easily as you can with wildfire smoke. And the cumulative impacts of all of this pollution does greater harm to people of color, especially Blacks, as studies indicate that they are exposed to higher amounts of air pollution,” explained Annie Carforo, Climate Justice Campaigns Manager at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a member group of the Better Buildings NY coalition. “This is yet another reason for the New York State Assembly to follow the lead of the Senate in passing the NY HEAT Act, which will save New Yorkers money on their energy bills while reducing the harmful pollution caused by burning fossil fuels, along with the emissions that contribute to the climate change that is helping fuel these fires.”
“As New York continues to bear the brunt of the environmental crisis with the recent haze and diminishing air quality, the time for decisive action is now. Legislation like the Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act, the NY HEAT Act, and the Climate Superfund provide not only a pathway to reduce our environmental footprint but also a strategic approach to align with the state’s climate targets. As the current legislative session draws to a close, these bills remain critical to protect our environment, public health, and the economy of New York. Our state’s future demands swift action on these groundbreaking climate bills; we can’t afford to delay,” said Conor Bambrick, Director of Policy for Environmental Advocates NY.
“Climate change is happening, and we can all feel it in our lungs. But right now, the Assembly has 48 hours to address this crisis. The Senate passed NY HEAT yesterday, and now the Assembly must finish the job and stand with New Yorkers, not the dirty, outdated gas companies that got us here,” said Betta Broad, Director of Advocacy and Organizing at AEA and Campaign Director of New Yorkers for Clean Power, member groups of the Better Buildings NY Coalition.
Background on the Climate Change Superfund Act
The Climate Change Superfund Act is modeled on the existing toxics superfund law (which deals with land and drinking water contamination) that makes corporate climate polluters financially responsible for the environmental damages that they have caused. These costs wouldn’t fall back on consumers, according to an analysis from the think tank Institute for Policy Integrity at NYU Law.
According to a new study in One Earth, the world’s 21 top polluting companies are responsible for $5.4 trillion in climate damages over a period of 26 years. Just this year alone in New York State, taxpayers have already been asked to pay more than $800 Million so far for projects related to climate damages and resilience. On top of that, according to the State Comptroller’s office, the City planned to spend another $829 million on projects fully intended for climate change adaptation and resilience in FY 2023. The City also planned to spend an additional $1.3 billion on projects that are partially for these purposes.
Meanwhile, while the bills pile up for taxpayers, the industry responsible for this mess is raking in cash. The top Big Oil companies in the U.S. are on track for a second consecutive year of record profits, and the industry globally is performing much better than expected. 2022 was a record profit year for the industry, with the top companies’ combined profits reaching an astounding $376 billion. Those record profits allowed them to deliver unprecedented returns to shareholders while doing little to address the climate crisis they knew was coming, but did all they could to undermine climate action. Starting in the 1970s, scientists working for Exxon made “remarkably accurate projections of just how much burning fossil fuels would warm the planet.” Yet for years, “the oil giant publicly cast doubt on climate science, and cautioned against any drastic move away from burning fossil fuels, the main driver of climate change.”
Big Oil is at fault for climate change, and it can certainly afford the costs – which are uniquely necessary – and expensive – in New York. A new report from Rebuild by Design “Atlas of Disaster: New York State” identifies the impacts of recent climate disasters across New York State at the county level, for the years 2011-2021. The data shows that every single county in New York has experienced a federal climate disaster between 2011-2021, with 16 having five or more disasters during that time. In that decade, more than 100 New Yorkers died as a result of climate-driven disasters. In 2022 that number grew exponentially when Winter Storm Elliot in Buffalo killed 39 people.
In a separate report, Rebuild by Design estimated that the climate costs to New York could be $55 billion by the end of this decade. Furthermore, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimated that it would cost $52 billion to protect NY Harbor alone. And while storms get worse, sea levels are rising and groundwater poses a higher risk of flooding – and we don’t even know how much yet. Clearly, New York is facing staggering – and growing – climate costs.
The Climate Change Superfund Act isn’t just necessary – it’s popular. According to a poll from Data for Progress, 89% of New Yorkers support fossil fuel companies covering at least some of the cost for climate damages. 200+ groups including key labor unions such as DC37 sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Heastie urging them to include the bill in the one house budgets. In their letter, the groups write that the fossil fuel industry should be subject to the state’s climate costs since their “decisions led to global warming; justice requires that they-not New York’s other taxpayers-be financially responsible for the tragically enormous climate crisis impacts that they created.”
Comptroller Brad Lander sent a letter to Albany leadership calling on them to support the Climate Change Superfund Act and protect NYC taxpayers. In the letter, he wrote:
“[Climate] costs are particularly high in New York City. According to a recent study from Moody’s Analytics, “New York City, in particular, faces the possibility of significant losses from rising sea-level rise given that Manhattan is surrounded by water and frequent flooding could prove crippling to an economy where much activity – and the ability to travel – is tied to low-lying land or subway tunnels.” Another recent study from First Street Foundation found that New York City faces the greatest rise in risk of catastrophic hurricane damage over the next 30 years, more than any other city in the country. Average annual losses from hurricanes alone will skyrocket from around $2.1 million this year to $8 million every year in three decades. That’s on top of the $52 billion the Army Corps of Engineers is proposing to protect New York Harbor alone, and another $55 billion experts are predicting will be necessary to protect the rest of the state over the next decade. That’s more than $100 billion in spending for climate change, out of taxpayers’ pockets.”
Background on the NY HEAT Act
The NY HEAT Act (formerly the Gas Transition and Affordable Energy Act) ensures that New York State will be able to meet the crucial climate justice and greenhouse gas emission reduction mandates set forth in the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act for buildings without sticking everyday New Yorkers with the bill for misguided expansion of the gas system. It will allow gas utilities to invest in safer, cheaper, neighborhood-scale non-pipe alternatives to new gas infrastructure to protect New Yorkers from spiraling bills and enable zero emissions alternatives to the gas system. It also puts a price cap of 6 percent of income on electricity bills for low- and middle-income families to ensure energy stays affordable.
Crucially, the NY HEAT Act will do away with the unfair 100-foot rule, which sticks everyday New Yorkers with the bill for gas hookups in new buildings totaling $1 billion in added costs to utility bills for New Yorkers over just five years.
It will also allow utilities to redirect the $150 billion that it will cost to complete planned gas pipe replacements over the next 20 years, and instead invest in neighborhood-scale building electrification.
A new report from the Building Decarbonization Coalition finds that every new mile of a gas pipeline costs customers an average of $6 million – that’s $60,000 per customer on that line! But a new memo from Alliance for a Green Economy shows how NY HEAT would redirect money NYS is already spending on costly gas investments toward climate-friendly solutions, while saving money for hardworking New Yorkers.
Last year, NY HEAT (formerly known as the Gas Transition and Affordable Energy Act) enjoyed support from Governor Hochul, Senate leadership and environmental groups, but a campaign financed by the fossil fuel industry that spread disinformation and lies derailed the bill. The industry set up a front group called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy to preserve the status quo. A report from Little Sis reviewed the organization’s tax filings which show that its mission is “to expand natural gas service.” The group is meant to have the appearance of a grassroots coalition, but it was founded and is run by fossil fuel executives. From the report: “The coalition is backed by a range of fossil fuel companies and lobbying groups, including utility companies National Fuel and National Grid; pipeline companies Williams, Enbridge, and Millennium Pipeline; and the American Petroleum Institute. Other backers include corporate lobbying groups like the Business Council of New York State, regional chambers of commerce like the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and fossil fuel industry trade groups like Independent Power Producers of New York and Energy Coalition New York.”
Nationwide, the fossil fuel industry is still heavily involved in misinformation efforts against necessary legislation like this. The New York Times reported recently about the Propane Education Research Council sponsoring HGTV star Matt Blashaw. Blashaw calls propane – which contributes to climate change and is the most expensive heating fuel – “an energy source for everyone.”
Background on the Packaging and Recycling Infrastructure Act
The Packaging Reduction and Recycling Infrastructure Act (A5322/S4246) would require companies to cut their plastic packaging in half in 12 years and redesign what’s left to make it reusable, refillable, or actually recyclable. When packaging is discarded, the bill requires the companies who produced it to pay to collect, sort, and manage what’s left, shifting the burden off New York’s taxpayers while providing critical funding for municipal waste reduction and recycling infrastructure. The Packaging Reduction & Recycling Infrastructure Act also bans a dozen toxic chemicals from packaging, including PFAS and formaldehyde. The Packaging Reduction legislation is sponsored by the chairs of the Environmental Conservation Committee in both houses, Assemblymember Deborah Glick and Senator Peter Harckham
More than 40% of plastic production is to make single-use items like packaging. Most plastic is not recyclable, and winds up buried in landfills, or burned in incinerators like the Wheelabrator incinerator in Peekskill, along the Hudson River. New York’s 10 municipal waste incinerators produce greenhouse gases and other air pollutants and toxic ash. New York City alone spends $429 million each year to export its waste to incinerators and landfills in other states or to the Finger Lakes in upstate NY.
The production, use, and disposal of plastic is one of the greatest environmental and health threats of our time. Not only are plastics turning our ocean into a watery landfill, plastics also pose a threat to our ability to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Made from chemicals and fossil fuels, plastics produce climate-warming greenhouse gases from extraction to disposal. The New York Climate Law scoping plan specifically calls on the Legislature to pass a strong extended producer responsibility bill this year to fulfill the state’s climate and environmental justice obligations.
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About Better Buildings New York (BBNY)
BBNY is a network of organizations working for the equitable decarbonization of homes and buildings in New York State. We are committed to environmental justice and a just transition to all-electric homes and buildings.