The Council Implementing New York’s Climate Law Is Stacked With Industry Executives

A top energy executive, whose firm is designing pro-gas talking points, has a seat at the table charting the state’s path to decarbonization.

Lee Harris   ·   July 6, 2021
Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a law requiring New York to aggressively cut carbon emissions in July 2019. | Office of the Governor

In 2019, when New York passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), cheered as a pathbreaking carbon reduction law, it charged advisory panelswith issuing recommendations to cut greenhouse gas emissions across six sectors: agriculture, buildings, heavy industry, power generation, transportation, and waste.

Two years later, those panels have produced their recommendations to the 22-member Climate Action Council, the group drafting a “scoping plan” for New York to reach its emissions goals, which begin with reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 baselines by 2030.

But only two of the panels—the groups studying power generation and industry—are poised to achieve that requirement.

By their own estimates, the other panels’ proposals would leave their sectors significantly short. Transportation and waste sector recommendations would each cut emissions less than 18 percent. Agriculture actually expects its emissions to rise in the next decade.

One reason for the sluggish pace: The advisory groups that just sent over their recommendations are stacked with numerous industry representatives.

So is the Climate Action Council that received them. Fourteen of the 22 council members were appointed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, either directly to the panel or indirectly, as heads of state agencies. Two of the remaining eight members, appointed by legislative leadership, are energy industry executives.

“The Council and Advisory Panels represent the diversity of our state, with leaders from communities of color, labor, industry, government, agriculture, environment, housing, and academia,” said Jared Snyder, DEC’s Deputy Commissioner for Air Resources, Climate Change and Energy, in an emailed statement. “Anyone who looks at each panel’s composition can plainly see the spectrum of public, private, and community-based sectors represented, rather than domination by industry. To achieve New York’s ambitious climate goals we must have all voices at the table, including those we may disagree with.”

Industry Influence

The panel on transportation—New York’s leading source of emissions, by most counts—only proposed 16 percent cuts to carbon emissions by 2030. Airline, logistics, and trucking industry representatives sit on that board, which gestured toward goals such as increased access to public transit and incentives for purchasing electric cars, but offered few specifics.

The panel proposes to halt the sale of internal combustion engine vehicles by 2035, on track with California’s timeline for no new gas-powered car sales. Absent incentives for switching to EV, existing fossil fuel–burning vehicles would remain on the road. The panel also expects significant use of diesel by 2050.

Currently, around 71,000—less than 1 percent—of New York’s more than 11 million cars are electric vehicles.

Left-wing greens say that since tailpipe emissions are regulated at the federal level, limiting the state’s regulatory options, New York should directly pay for the transition—by taxing the rich or taxing polluters to subsidize the purchase of electric cars and trucks, or perhaps a “cash-for-clunkers” stimulus program in which the government buys, and scraps, the dirtiest vehicles. This didn’t make the advisory panel’s plan.

Dimitris Assanis, an engineering professor at Stony Brook University who sits on the transportation panel, declined to answer questions on whether he thought the recommendations are aggressive enough. His role, he said, was in “helping the panel understand the technical pros and cons of various approaches.”

The requirement for New York to cut 40 percent of emissions by 2030 is economy-wide—it doesn’t need to come from any particular sector, meaning transit’s more modest carbon-trimming proposal is allowed under the climate law.

But electrifying transit is “a heck of a lot easier” than decarbonizing buildings, New York’s other biggest polluter, said council member Peter Iwanowicz at a May meeting. Cornell professor Bob Howarth, a council member and earth system scientist, doubts it will be possible to achieve the overarching goals without transportation pulling more of its weight.

Buildings, which are the top source of pollution in New York if you count electricity, are proposing to cut around 27 percent emissions by 2030. The Energy Efficiency and Housing advisory panel could not come up with a mix of regulations and incentives to retrofit some of the oldest housing stock in the nation that would meet the 40 percent emissions reduction requirement.

That panel includes representatives from SL Green Realty, the largest owner of commercial real estate in New York City, and Vornado Realty Trust, another sprawling office-owner deeply entangled with the Trump Organization.

Participants including Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos, center left, at a recent, hybrid in-person meeting of the Climate Action Council.

Perhaps the most aggressive proposal from the housing panel is a ban on fossil fuel energy sources in new building construction, to be enacted in single-family homes by 2025 and multifamily and commercial buildings by 2030. This is often called the “gas ban,” since the biggest impact would be to phase out gas power in homes, particularly gas stoves.

Other cities are moving even faster—San Jose has mandated all-electric new construction starting August 2021, joining more than 40 California cities phasing out gas. And the longer timeline for bigger developments in New York fits with the dominant property mix in Manhattan.

It makes little sense, greens say, to keep allowing developers to break ground on new fossil fuel–powered buildings for the next decade. Retrofits on existing infrastructure, like tearing out heating and cooking systems, can be quite expensive. By contrast, building all-electric homes is already cost-competitive in much of the country.

Corporate Influence on the Climate Action Council

As more cities propose gas bans, utilities are facing down what they see as an existential threat by challenging electrification requirements in court, coordinating talking points for use by elected officials, and waging public relations campaignspromoting natural gas.

In New York, that clash could come to a head on the Climate Action Council.

National Fuel Gas Distribution Corporation, a major supplier of natural gas to Western New York, is a member of Energy Solutions Center (ESC), a national consortium of gas utilities that coordinates consistent messaging on electrification. ESC is part of the American Gas Association, the top national trade group for natural gas.

Donna DeCarolis, president of National Fuel, sits on the council, alongside Gavin Donohue, president and CEO of the Independent Power Producers of New York, a statewide trade association for the energy industry.

Internal documents and emails shared with New York Focus and the Prospect show National Fuel sought materials from ESC that would help the utility make its case to the Climate Action Council. (The Energy and Policy Institute, a think tank, originally obtained the documents in public records requests.)

“In NY we are dealing with the CLCPA, which has very strict climate goals that need to be achieved by 2050,” National Fuel is quoted saying in response to a question about how utilities would use ESC talking points. “Our company leadership is VERY engaged and looking for deliverables to help educate our customers, local politicians, trade groups, and ultimately, the Climate Action Council.”

Another slide asks, “How might your company use studies produced by the consortium?” An unidentified respondent writes: “Provide data to Climate Action Council, use it to back up our positions.”

A National Fuel spokesperson disputed any negative characterization of ESC’s activities.

“The consortium’s focus is to gather, discuss and develop products and materials to educate stakeholders and end users about the potential impacts of full electrification on residential and commercial consumers,” spokesperson Karen Merkel said in an emailed statement. “Any classification of the Electrification Consortium as ‘anti-electrification’ is inaccurate and misleading.”

The consortium, which as of 2020 comprised 55 gas distribution companies, frames its pro-gas push in the language of individual freedom and energy choice.

“Protection of homeowner or business right to choose,” one messaging documentreads. “Greater good is benefitted by diversity of energy sources.”

“Protecting affordable energy choices is a social justice matter. Consumers should be able to choose the energy form that aligns with their values,” read the meeting notesof an executive from one member firm.

“Important part of the future, not a bridge fuel,” a bracketed note adds.

Gas utilities link natural gas to social justice by reasoning that renewables are unaffordable. That was once true, but improved technology, subsidies, and the pandemic, which curbed global energy demand and spurred investments in renewables, have driven falling costs in wind and solar.

Still, opponents of building electrification argue that eliminating gas would hurt poor and nonwhite households—a strategy explicitly geared at attracting Democratic voters.

A pamphlet circulated by an executive at Municipal Gas Authority of Georgia, an ESC member, explains the importance of targeting key Democratic Party voting blocs.

“Success for the natural gas industry will be rooted in whether we can message to the left and the Democratic base of Black and Latino and age 18 to 34 voters as effectively as we have messaged to the right,” the pamphlet explains.

“Black and Hispanic/Latino audiences engaged with campaign content at a higher rate than Caucasian audiences … This provides a significant opportunity to engage a critical component of Biden’s Democratic base constituency to counter the progressive left.”

DeCarolis, National Fuel’s president, is actively advocating for the gas industry’s interests on the council. She has circulated studies commissioned by the gas industry to the council, one member said.

When the housing panel presented its recommendations for building decarbonization in May, DeCarolis countered by proposing “hybrid heating solutions” as an alternative that might avoid the cost and reliability pitfalls she said were associated with a rapid pace of electrification.

“So many studies are coming out recently that use, sort of, a broad array of solutions. So, you’ll see a high-electrification case versus more of a diversified approach, or a lower-electrification case—whatever the consultant might call it,” DeCarolis said. “I’m curious why we went to what seems to be a very high-electrification or an uber-, I would call it, electrification case for buildings.”

“These could be costly,” she added, questioning the impulse “to have that kind of potentially costly impact as a mandate.”

“An Old Playbook”

Some green activists say they wouldn’t be surprised if New York reached 2030 without hitting its 40 percent carbon-cutting requirement, given the state’s track record.

Gov. David Paterson in 2009 signed an executive order committing New York to 45 percent renewable energy by 2015. (He created a Climate Action Council, too.) In 2020, renewables comprised about 27 percent of New York’s electricity mix.

That number might soon take off—in contrast with other panels, power generation has frontloaded its decarbonization, with solar and offshore wind projects poised to come online. But that makes the electric sector the exception, not the rule, said Howarth.

“State agencies, leadership, the governor’s office have been focusing on electric generation for quite some time, so they have some momentum,” said Howarth. “Efforts to cut emissions in other sectors are something the state really has not been thinking about, so it’s much more of an uphill battle.”

Liz Moran, environmental policy director at New York Public Interest Research Group, likened the CAC to the Drinking Water Quality Council, which she said has spurred the Department of Health to take new action on drinking water that was always within its authority, but on which it had languished for decades.

“The Climate Action Council is coming up with a climate action plan. Well, that’s a repeat of an old playbook—New York has done a climate action plan before,” Moran said. “This isn’t to diminish the role of the council, but it’s not rocket science what the state needs to do to meet our goals. Much of the technology has been around for decades. It’s very simple.”

But she is hopeful that this time around, the proceedings could spur the same public engagement that fueled the movement to ban fracking. Climate hawks in New York’s legislature could also act as counterweights to fossil fuel industry pressures, Moran said.

“It’s really a matter of political will,” she concluded.

This piece has been updated with a comment from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

Lee Harris co-founded New York Focus and currently works part-time on strategy and development as contributing editor. She is also a staff reporter at The American Prospect, where her reporting focuses on climate, finance, and labor, and her work has appeared in outlets… more
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