Governor David Paterson’s First 100 Days: A Green Governor?

l cohen Governor David Paterson’s First 100 Days: A Green Governor?On March 17, 2008, Lieutenant Governor and former State Senator David Paterson was suddenly placed in the center of Albany’s storm and assumed the Office of Governor. While it may seem premature, we decided to review the environmental record of his first 100 days. New York State’s League of Conservation Voters is known for their thoughtful representation of the electorate’s interest, so we asked them for their view of our accidental governor’s environmental record. Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters observed that:

"In the course of his first 100 days, Governor Paterson has shown that he can work effectively with the Legislature and that he understands the importance of an environmental agenda. But the real tests lie ahead. New York will mostly likely miss the deadline for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative launch in September, and there is an enormous gap in funding for the MTA that grows larger each day. A strong executive will be essential to meeting these challenges."

Some specific accomplishments include:

  • Renewable Energy – Net Metering A few weeks ago Paterson announced "an agreement with the Legislature on energy legislation that will authorize increased development of renewable energy with a process called net metering", which should foster investment in renewable energy in the areas of solar, wind and farm waste. This law gives small scale generators of electricity the right to add the electricity to the grid and then only be charged for their net subtractions of electrical power after they get credit for the power they added. As Paterson noted; "… those businesses with large roof areas present enormous opportunities for hosting solar energy facilities. If those kinds of resources are fully realized, it could relieve significant stress from our already over-burdened utility grid and improve our energy independence."
  • Brownfields Legislation. One of the unanticipated impacts of the 1980 Superfund toxic waste clean-up program has been to make it difficult for businesses to operate on land that had been contaminated with toxic waste. This is because as soon as you take title to the land you also own all the potential liability from any toxics that ever escaped from the land. This has had the effect of causing industry to abandon inner city "brownfields" and build factories on exurban and even rural "greenfields". Greenfields have no toxic liabilities. Ever since this problem became known, governments have been trying to encourage brownfield redevelopment without losing the benefit of Superfund’s rigorous liability provisions.
On June 23 Paterson announced an agreement to reform the brownfield program to continue offering companies a tax break for cleaning up and redeveloping contaminated sites. Whereas the reimbursement rate has been 22 percent, "Under the brownfields revisions, companies will get half of the cost of cleaning a site to the point it can be redeveloped," Paterson said.
According to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis: "So far, not enough cleanup money has found its way into the urban core of our cities, where thousands of Brownfield sites perpetuate blight, create public health risks and discourage needed investment. This agreement reforms the Brownfield cleanup program to make it smarter, more effective and more accountable to taxpayers."
  • Green Procurement In April Paterson signed an Executive Order to create a New York State "Green Procurement and Agency Sustainability Program," which will help State agencies to procure green products and services.
  • CO2 Sequestering Coal Plan. In June, Paterson announced "State support for an advanced coal power plant in Jamestown. Advanced coal technology could represent the next major step in addressing global climate change while also helping to diversify the state’s energy supply and create "clean-tech" jobs Upstate. The plant – which would be the first of its kind in the world – will serve as a demonstration facility for a promising new technology that captures carbon dioxide (CO2) and sequesters it underground for permanent storage."

As the Governor correctly pointed out: "There is no silver bullet to solving the twin threats of climate change and growing energy demand, and New York should have a comprehensive strategy to address both. As a state and a nation we need to be less dependent on foreign energy supplies. China is building one new, uncontrolled coal plant every week. Therefore, we must act immediately to find ways to generate electricity, use energy wisely maintain energy diversity and create jobs locally. This comprehensive strategy has the potential to drive technology and innovation, improve our energy security, reduce energy price volatility, and create clean-tech jobs throughout the State, particularly Upstate."

  • Congestion Pricing and Mass Transit. . Although it had no practical impact, the Governor did support New York City’s Congestion Pricing plan. He also convened the MTA’s Ravitch Commission to look at the problems of funding mass transit in New York over the next decade. Improved mass transit is one of the highest priority items on the state’s sustainability agenda.
  • Green Buildings. He won approval of a new program that will enable the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) to provide financial incentives to New Yorkers who "go green." The Governor and First Lady Michele Paige Paterson have also initiated the "Greening the Mansion" initiative, to retrofit the NYS Executive Mansion to enable it to be certified as a green building.

While all these steps provide an indication that Governor Paterson cares about environmental issues, we do not yet know how effective he will be. On the biggest early test of his clout, congestion pricing, he was boxed out of the action by Shelly Silver. Perhaps we should attribute that to rookie miss-steps. (Not the kind of "green" governor we are after…)The next test will be far less visible but far more important. The 1996 Environmental Infrastructure Bond has been fully spent, and a new Environmental Infrastructure Bond Act is needed to improve outdated environmental infrastructure across the state. Sewage treatment and water filtration plants that were built in the 1980′s and 1990′s are due for modernization.

Governor Paterson has replaced the ridiculous confrontational style brought by disgraced former Governor Spitzer with a calm, consensus building approach. People like him and want to cooperate with his program. His obvious intelligence, determination, good humor and charm are tremendous assets to his emerging administration. Can he overcome the dysfunction and pay-for play tradition of one of the worst state governments in the United States? Can he build a governing coalition that acts in the public interest instead of for the benefit of special interests? The jury is out, but I remain hopeful.

I am grateful for the research assistance of Rachel Dannefer, Masters Student, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.