Environmental groups applauding budget victories

Photo courtesy of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Renovations to the North-South Lake Campground and Day Use Area in Greene County completed in 2019 include improvements to the campground’s accessibility and sustainability.

Despite the continued focus on fighting New York’s COVID-19 outbreak, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state’s Legislature agreed to a $177 billion budget on Friday, April 3. Included in the 2021 fiscal year budget are sweeping environmental policies that will directly combat and prepare for challenges brought on by climate change. 

From legalizing electric scooters and bikes and banning polystyrene food containers, to a statutory ban on fracking and speeding up new solar and wind energy projects, the budget had environmental groups celebrating late last week.

“Despite facing such trying and uncertain circumstances, New York state leaders have delivered a budget that will make real progress for our environment,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “Make no mistake – this budget will protect the environment and health of every New Yorker and, in doing so, put people to work.”

The environmental budget highlights include a renewed $300 million in funding for the Environmental Protection Fund — the same funding as last year — to improve and maintain environmental and recreational facilities, in an effort to “build a new NY.”

EPF money is commonly used to purchasing land for the state’s forest preserve, restore historic sites, place farmland into conservation trusts, restore habitat, control invasive species, upgrade municipal sewage treatment plants, clean up waterfront property, create public parks, and help businesses develop recycling programs, among other projects.

“The EPF has far-reaching impacts on municipalities across the state and we appreciate the hard work of state leaders who found a pathway forward in these uncertain times to keep these critical funds in place to protect our environment,” said Kate Kurera, deputy director of Environmental Advocates of New York.

The legalization of e-scooter and e-bikes in many new locations will contribute to abating New York’s reliance on fossil fuels. 

“The governor and Legislature should be commended for legalizing the use of e-scooters and e-bikes in this year’s budget,” said Conor Bambrick, director of climate policy at Environmental Advocates of New York. “Doing so will provide New Yorkers with more choices to move from point A to B while cutting down on air pollution and improving public health. This is good news for breathers.”

Cuomo and the state Legislature also used the budget to pass legislation permanently banning hydrofracking statewide. The Department of Environmental Conservation cannot approve, “permits that would authorize an applicant to drill, deepen, plug back or convert wells that use high-volume hydraulic fracturing as a means to complete or recomplete a well.” 

A complete ban on hydrofracking furthers the state’s shift to clean energy sources and promises a healthier future for New Yorkers.

The enacted budget also prohibits the use of polystyrene food containers and packing peanuts, which will go into effect by January 1, 2022.

Laura Weinberg, president of the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition, said, “Implementing a permanent ban on fracking and polystyrene will prevent carcinogens from being released into our environment which has been a priority and concern for our coalition.”

As a part of the larger Restore Mother Nature Initiative, the $3 billion Bond Act is the most aggressive form of environmental legislation the state has ever seen. It will ensure New York’s adaptability to the effects of climate change and will fund climate mitigation and environmental restoration projects. It will restore freshwater and tidal lands and preserve open space, while conserving forest areas.

The $3 billion fund would allocate up to $700 million in projects to fight climate change, including green buildings; buildings that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient from beginning to end of their life cycle. The Bond Act also includes plans to reduce flood risk by investing in resilient infrastructure, as well as systems aimed at reducing pollution from agricultural and storm runoff. 

The borrowing will need to be approved by voters, which is why it will appear as a ballot referendum in November. Later this year the Budget Director will assess state finances and economic outlook to determine the feasibility of selling $3 billion in environmental bonds for the Bond Act.

Photo courtesy of the Governor’s Office
New tax credits and approval procedures in the 2021 state budget are aimed at expanding the number of solar projects, and other renewable energy projects, across New York state.

Another major budget program — the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act — is aimed at speeding up the permitting and construction of renewable energy projects. A new Office of Renewable Energy Permitting is being created to streamline the process for large-scale renewable energy projects across New York.

Cuomo has a goal to mandate that 70 percent of the state’s electricity comes from renewable energy sources.

“The renewable energy sitting reforms passed as part of the budget will finally break the backlog of wind and solar projects across the state and inject hundreds of millions into local economies,” Bambrick said.

Additionally, the budget creates a Green Jobs Tax Credit, totaling up to 7.5 percent of wages for each net new “green” job created, as well as a refundable, discretionary Green Investment Tax Credit, totaling up to 5 percent of qualifying new capital investments that benefit the environment.

Kathleen Curtis, executive director of Clean and Healthy New York and Co-Leader of the JustGreen Partnership, said, “It is easy to be a fair-weather friend to environmental health, but Governor Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, Assembly Speaker Heastie, and State Legislative Leaders chose to push a broad and ambitious agenda at a time when New York is in crisis.”

She continued, “We are so grateful for and inspired by their exemplary leadership on these crucial issues in the face of so much adversity.”