March 6, 2009
A Need to Clear the Air
Gov. David Paterson of New York, whose list of friends in the political world seems to be growing shorter by the week, could soon be forced to cross off another group: the environmental community.
Environmentalists — and for that matter anyone who worries about climate change — were disturbed to learn on Friday that Mr. Paterson had agreed in a closed-door meeting with energy executives last fall to reopen rules governing New York’s participation in a landmark pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The news followed other setbacks, including proposed budget cuts that seemed to environmentalists to disproportionately impoverish the Environmental Protection Fund, which finances critical open-space projects. The governor has promised to refill the fund with a new and more ambitious bottle redemption program. But the new bottle bill is hardly a sure thing, and the beverage industry has hired some of Albany’s most powerful lobbyists to beat it.
No program is more important to environmentalists than the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a laboriously negotiated agreement aimed at gradually reducing power plants emissions of carbon dioxide across 10 states. The agreement requires power companies to buy allowances for every ton of pollution they emit — partly as a disincentive to discourage pollution, and partly to raise money for clean energy investments.
Some of the state’s power producers that negotiated long-term contracts to sell power years ago complain that the program squeezes them unfairly because they are now forced to absorb the additional costs of the allowances — without being able to adjust the contracts. They are asking for more free allowances than the modest number the program already provides. This would help their bottom line but would also reduce the amount of money flowing to clean energy projects.
The power generators tried out their argument last year on the state’s top environmental officials and got nowhere. So, last fall, they went directly to Mr. Paterson, where they found a sympathetic ear and a promise to reopen the agreement to see whether more free allowances could be provided.
The governor’s office says that any changes would have to follow a careful, transparent rule-making process. It has the feel, however, of a done deal. In any case, his apparent willingness to listen to only one side of the case raises serious questions about the way he makes decisions. It also sends a bad signal to other states, which for years have looked to New York for leadership — not backsliding — on climate change.