10 Public Officials to Watch in 2016

There are public officials throughout federal, state, and local government who champion New York’s environment, as well as those we have to keep an eye on.  And then there are those who say one thing in public, but behave differently behind closed doors.

Here, in no particular order, are the 10 public officials to watch on environmental issues in 2016!

Assemblyman Steven Englebright

Entering his first full session as Chair of the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, Mr. Englebright holds enormous sway over climate action, budget priorities like drinking and wastewater infrastructure investments, and more. In 2015, the Assembly passed priority legislation such as his Child Safe Products Act, as well as eight other positive environmental bills. Just one was signed into law, as the Senate did not vote on any others. The Chairman has his work cut out for him to negotiate with the Senate and break the logjam, and we look forward to seeing what he will deliver.

Senator Tom O’Mara

This is his first full session as Chair of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee. Unfortunately, his committee never got off the ground in 2015. It’s where common-sense legislation died, including the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which was sponsored by the Chairman himself. With Senate leadership openly denying the science on climate change and disputing that diesel exhaust has health effects, it might be a lift for Senator O’Mara to deliver for New York’s environment in 2016, but he’ll be one to watch.

PSC Chair Audrey Zibelman

The Public Service Commission (PSC) is an agency much of the public is not aware of, but it is here that many of the most significant decisions on issues concerning energy, telecommunications, and more, are made. Under her leadership, the PSC is shepherding several projects that will achieve full implementation of the Governor’s clean energy and climate commitments. Chairwoman Zibelman has demonstrated an impressive ability to take intimidating concepts and turn them into an action plan – good news as the success or failure of many critical initiatives rests on her shoulders. 

Acting DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos

The acting Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) awaits Senate confirmation, and has many issues on his plate – most of which relate to climate change (e.g. the Pilgrim Pipeline, and more). Late last year, Governor Cuomo said New York must generate half of our electricity from clean renewables by 2030 and that we’ll be powered by 100 percent clean energy by 2050. The acting Commissioner will play a critical role in delivering on the Governor’s commitments. Codification of these commitments will ensure a statewide, economy-wide, climate action plan, the end to bad decisions like expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, and benchmarks required by law.

Speaker Carl Heastie

The Assembly Speaker is positioned to use his first full year as leader to make New York an environmental, climate, and public health leader. The Assembly passed legislation to keep toxic chemicals out of children’s products, and with Governor Cuomo’s commitment to work with the Legislature to adopt the Child Safe Products Act, can bring the administration and Senate to the table to ensure a strong agreement passes this year. Among his first acts as Speaker, Mr. Heastie convened a climate change task force, a body expected to lead codification of the state’s clean energy and climate goals – and provide New York the roadmap it needs to be a true global climate leader.

Assemblyman Todd Kaminsky

The freshman lawmaker built a strong environmental record during his first year and is planning to run for the Senate seat left vacant by the conviction of former Majority Leader Dean Skelos. Despite representing communities devastated by Hurricane Sandy, Mr. Skelos – according to materials provided during his trial – stalled environmental legislation to help his family profit. Assemblyman Kaminsky represents many of these same communities, and the race for this seat will hold significance on who controls the state Senate where climate action remains stalled. 

Representative Elise Stefanik

The freshman Member of Congress representing the North Country ran as a Republican who is committed to climate action. Unfortunately, she failed her first two tests, voting first to roll back the federal Clean Power Plan (CPP), then casting an even more egregious vote to end the plan while also gutting the Clean Air Act. She explained her vote by implying that a cap on carbon pollution would raise New Yorkers’ electric bills. But we’ve had an even more aggressive cap than the CPP since 2008. In 2016, the public will be watching to see whether her actions start to align with her words on the environment.

Senator Brad Hoylman

There was no greater champion for our environment in the state Legislature in 2015 than Senator Hoylman. Despite the Senate’s Majority Leader and Deputy Leader both questioning climate science, and the Environmental Chairman stalling his very own legislation, Senator Hoylman has been a strong advocate, informing the public about bad proposals – like the ongoing delay of a law to reduce diesel emissions – and fighting for a fair vote on legislation like the Child Safe Products Act to protect kids from chemicals such as arsenic, mercury, and lead. The Senator will be a key player in 2016 as polluters and industry continue to weaken, block or delay common-sense standards that will protect public health and the environment.

Mayor Bill de Blasio

In 2015, New York City committed to an 80 percent reduction in carbon pollution by 2050. Not only does that mean that in 34 years there are no more fossil fuels, but it includes such efforts as a mass retrofit of buildings, which account for 70 percent of NYC’s emissions. The Mayor has advanced other proposals like a 90 percent reduction in waste sent to landfills by 2030. In 2015, NYC’s ban on plastic foam containers was rejected by the courts on a technicality, but the City is building on its reputation as a place for bold ideas. 

Governor Andrew Cuomo

Much of the success or failure of New York’s environmental agenda – ranging from issues carried out by his administration, to legislation voted on by the Senate and Assembly – is determined by Governor Cuomo. During his first term, he had a bit of a rocky relationship with the environment, with bad proposals like re-firing fossil fuel plants, a RGGI raid keeping the state from becoming the climate leader the nation needs, and the ill advised attempt to take $500 million in clean water funds to help build the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. However, Governor Cuomo has shown a deeper appreciation for the green agenda  in 2015, first by finalizing the State’s fracking ban, launching a grant program to help communities fix their drinking and wastewater infrastructure, and then committing to formalize the State’s clean energy and climate goals. Still, it’s unclear whether the Governor will pursue legislation to codify his goals, and his SFY2016-17 Executive Budget proposal is a mixed bag on the environment. The nation needs New York to lead on climate action and, in 2016, the country will be watching if Governor Cuomo seizes the opportunity to turn his commitments into reality.