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New York shows the challenges of phasing out fossil fuels, even in blue states

The Climate 202

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! This newsletter often focuses on climate policy at the national level, but with Congress in recess this week, we thought it was a good opportunity to highlight a key state-level battle:

New York shows the challenges of phasing out fossil fuels, even in blue states

In December, when the New York City Council voted to ban natural gas use in new buildings, environmentalists in the Big Apple barely stopped to celebrate.

Instead, they set their sights on a bigger target: making New York the first state in the country to phase out gas use in new buildings, a significant source of air pollution and planet-warming emissions.

But the environmentalists suffered a setback last week, when the New York State Legislature omitted a building electrification measure from the state budget, delivering a victory to industry groups that argued the bill would raise utility bills.

While climate activists pledged to keep pushing for the measure, the ongoing battle underscores the challenges that advocates face in seeking to curb fossil fuel use, even in blue states like New York that have set aggressive climate goals.

The stakes are high. In 2019, lawmakers approved a landmark bill committing the state to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and at least 85 percent by 2050. Energy used for heating, cooling and lighting in buildings accounts for about 60 percent of emissions in New York. 

Dan Zarrilli, the former chief climate policy adviser to former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), said that New York risks missing its climate targets if new buildings are allowed to use gas appliances such as furnaces and stoves, rather than electric appliances such as heat pumps and induction cooktops.

“We can’t keep installing new fossil fuel infrastructure if we hope to meet our goals,” Zarrilli told The Climate 202. “You know, when you’re in a hole, you’ve got to stop digging.”

Karen Harbert, president and chief executive of the American Gas Association, a trade group, disagreed.

“It would be a mistake to prevent homes and businesses in New York from signing up for natural gas service,” Harbert said in a statement. “I doubt New Yorkers will be happy about their policymakers raising their bills on a whim that will not achieve their environmental goals and forecloses on future emissions reduction opportunities.”

Blame game

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) included a ban on gas use in new construction by 2027 in her executive budget for the next fiscal year. But the measure was absent from the final budget deal announced last week. 

Alex Beauchamp, Northeast region director for Food & Water Watch, said he thinks that Hochul bears some responsibility for the outcome in addition to State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

“Governor Hochul probably shares a part of the blame,” Beauchamp said. “This is clearly a governor who, if she had pushed, could have gotten this done and for whatever reason didn't feel the need to push on it.”

A spokeswoman for Hochul rejected that notion.

“Governor Hochul put forth one of the boldest and transformative climate plans the nation has seen and decarbonizing buildings is critical to those plans and meeting New York's Climate Act,” the spokeswoman said in an email, adding, “The State will redouble its efforts to decarbonize the building sector through a broad suite of energy efficiency and electrification programs.”

Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Heastie, said that building electrification didn't belong in the budget in the first place.

“Everyone knows we didn't include policy in our budget proposal,” Whyland said in an email. “The fact is, whatever anyone wants to believe, we are trying to get a budget done that primarily focuses on the financial issues facing the state.”

Industry opposition

Climate advocates are now urging state lawmakers to pass the measure as a standalone bill before the end of the legislative session in June, and ideally by Earth Day, said Pete Sikora, climate and inequality campaigns director with New York Communities for Change.

But advocates will need to reckon with a group called New Yorkers for Affordable Energy, which has argued that banning gas use in new buildings would harm consumers. The members of the group's steering committee include the utility company National Grid, the pipeline company Enbridge and the American Petroleum Institute New York, according to its website.

“We share the goal of reducing emissions, but this is a misguided policy that would eliminate consumer choice and deprive New Yorkers of access to affordable, reliable natural gas,” Dustin Meyer, the American Petroleum Institute’s vice president of natural gas markets, said in a statement.

However, Sikora rejected the industry’s argument that gas appliances are more affordable, pointing to research by the think tank RMI that found electrification reduces homeowners’ costs over the lifetime of the appliances.

The legislative session ends on June 2. Earth Day falls on April 22.

Agency alert

EPA to allow summer sales of gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol

The Environmental Protection Agency plans to allow summer sales of gasoline blended with 15 percent ethanol under an emergency waiver, The Washington Post's Jeff Stein and Evan Halper report

The announcement, which comes as President Biden visits an ethanol plant in central Iowa, is aimed at reducing gas prices as the White House braces for a new report that will show inflationary pressures on Americans have intensified this year.

The fuel blend, known as E15, is not allowed to be sold in most states between June 1 and September 15 because it is believed to contribute to smog in summer heat. Scientists have long debated the carbon footprint of ethanol, with one recent study finding that corn-based ethanol is worse for the climate than gasoline. But senior administration officials touted biofuels’ environmental benefits on a call with reporters Monday evening.

“The long term play here is going require us to increasingly leverage homegrown fuels that have a lower carbon intensity that provide a decarbonization pathway in places where we’re not going to find it,” said one of the officials, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity because the announcement was not yet public.

The officials said that E15 could save families 10 cents per gallon on average, adding that the EPA will work closely with states to ensure there are no significant air quality concerns as E15 becomes more accessible this summer.

Pressure points

What should America do with its nuclear waste?

Spent nuclear fuel is stored in roughly 80 locations in 35 states without any long-term plans for disposal, despite the federal government being legally responsible for sequestering it in a permanent underground repository, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow reports for The Washington Post Magazine. There has been no plan for fulfilling that obligation since the Obama administration halted a nuclear waste storage project at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain in 2010. 

Scientists and government officials agree that the best solution is to eventually bury nuclear waste in a deep geological repository. But that is a long-term goal, and in the meantime, many are pushing to move the fuel to just a few facilities in non-vulnerable areas. 

Experts say that a better waste management strategy is necessary if nuclear power, which provides almost half of the country’s low-carbon electricity, is to play an essential role in transitioning to a power grid that does not rely on fossil fuels. The Biden administration has called for additional investments in nuclear reactors to reach its goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Biden administration provides roadmap for rural funding

The White House on Monday unveiled three initiatives aimed at helping rural communities implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

  • President Biden announced a $1 billion America the Beautiful Challenge, which combines $440 million in taxpayer funds with private and nonprofit contributions to bolster conservation programs over a five-year period. States, tribes, local groups and nonprofit organizations can apply for the funding.
  • A Rural Playbook details more than 100 efforts, costing over $14 billion, to clean up abandoned oil wells, upgrade drinking water systems and prevent wildfires, among other initiatives.
  • Top Biden administration officials, including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, kicked off a month-long tour of 30 rural communities across the country to promote the infrastructure measure.

Extreme events

Climate change is worsening cyclones in Africa

Heavy rainfall in southern Africa has become more intense and more frequent because of climate change, according to a study released Monday by the World Weather Attribution group, Wanjohi Kabukuru reports for the Associated Press

The team of 22 international climate scientists analyzed the tropical storms that slammed into Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique earlier this year using weather observations and computer simulations.

However, gaps in data due to a lack of weather stations in some areas made it difficult to determine the full impact of a warming world, particularly for people or infrastructure that are the most vulnerable, said Sarah Kew, a participant in the study from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute

In the atmosphere


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