Climate change funds in state budget struggle

By Brian Nearing:

March 28, 2017

As President Donald Trump took a hammer Tuesday to U.S. climate change policy, the state's climate change program is again in a budgetary fight between Gov. Andrew Cuomo, state lawmakers and environmental advocates.

At issue is what to do with millions of dollars raised by the 9-year-old Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a program that charges electric power plant owners based on emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gas.

Last year, the state collected about $101 million under the program, which is the nation's first-ever plan to combat climate change by using money from polluters to pay for alternative energy and conservation programs. New York is among nine northeastern RGGI states.

There are competing ideas on what New York should do with this money. In his proposed 2017-18 state budget, Cuomo wants to move about $23 million into tax credit programs that cover residential and commercial solar photovoltaic power systems, biofuel production, heating fuel and energy-efficient buildings. He has done this in the past two years.

In the Senate, Republicans want to move the entire estimated $108 million of RGGI funds into the general fund to help balance the state budget. And Assembly Democrats, along with dozens of environmental groups, back a plan to use the $23 million from RGGI to fund smaller solar projects in poorer, predominantly urban communities.

This struggle comes as Trump signed an executive order Tuesday seeking to undo much of the climate policy launched under the previous administration of Barack Obama. Trump's administration wants to dig and burn more coal from federal lands, force through controversial oil pipelines such as the Dakota Access and Keystone XL, relax fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks, and revoke Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions from power plants nationwide 30 percent by 2030.

While Trump has said climate change is a hoax, his company last spring applied for permission to shore up a coastal golf course in Ireland, claiming a seawall is needed because of sea level rise due to climate change.

Cuomo said Tuesday that New York will continue its climate change policies in spite of Washington. In a joint statement with California Gov. Edmund Brown, Cuomo said the president's actions were "profoundly misguided and shockingly ignores basic science." Cuomo has already set a goal for the state to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030.

State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said his office will legally resist efforts "to dismantle the Clean Power Plan and leave nothing in its place. Donald Trump is trying to dial back history, but it is not going to happen."

On Monday, nearly 70 statewide and local environmental and civic groups sent a letter to Cuomo and legislative leaders urging support for RGGI community solar grants, which would be aimed at low-income communities. 

"We think the best use of RGGI would be to direct it into this new area," said Conor Bambrick, air and energy director at Environmental Advocates of New York, an Albany-based environmental lobbying group. "RGGI funds are meant to supplement state climate programs, not supplant existing ones."

Other signers of the letter included the Adirondack Council, Adirondack Mountain Club, American Lung Association of the Northeast, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, National Wildlife Federation, Protect the Adirondacks, and Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, as well as local groups from Long Island, Ithaca, Binghamton, Syracuse, Buffalo, Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Adam Flint, a member of the New York Energy Democracy Alliance, another signer of the letter, said the difference between the governor's tax credits and the proposed grants is that tax credits would primarily benefit higher and middle-income residents, while grants could be aimed at lower-income communities that often pay too little taxes to take full advantage of credits.

In New York, there is a history of RGGI being used as a budgetary cookie jar.

In 2015, Cuomo and lawmakers swept $41 million from RGGI to balance the state budget. And in 2009, then-Gov. David Paterson took $90 million from RGGI to balance his budget. While that money was legally classified as a loan, it has yet to be repaid.

Last year, Senate Republicans made an unsuccessful effort to use $100 million in RGGI funds to subsidize nuclear power plants.

Since RGGI began, New York has collected more than $1.1 billion from power plant owners.

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