Passage of the Renewable Capitol Act: A Moral Imperative

The following Commentary appeared in the 3/8/2024 Albany Times Union:

For Albany residents, the Capitol is the polluter next door

By Bob Cohen

Across the globe, marginalized communities have historically borne the brunt of environmental degradation and climate change impacts, despite contributing the least to the underlying issues. Even here in New York’s capital city, systemic injustices are embedded in our environmental policies.

The state Capitol complex should be a star example of clean, renewable energy and environmental justice. Instead, it continues to burden the surrounding communities with pollution, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and health disparities.

The Sheridan Avenue Steam Plant, which heats and cools the Empire State Plaza complex, has polluted the low-income communities of color in Sheridan Hollow, Arbor Hill and West Hill for over a hundred years through the burning of coal, then oil, then garbage and now fracked gas.

In legislative testimony earlier this session, the commissioner of the Office of General Services said the state is aiming for a 50 percent reduction in Empire State Plaza carbon emissions over the next decade. That 10-year timeline to achieve just a partial reduction reflects a disregard for the history of environmental injustice in Sheridan Hollow, along with a disregard for the people who live there.

But New York has an opportunity to confront this injustice head-on: This session, lawmakers can pass the Renewable Capitol Act, which would invest $50 million this year to make the Capitol, Empire State Plaza and other downtown Albany facilities served by the Sheridan Avenue Steam Plant 100% renewable — heating, cooling and power. This is a groundbreaking opportunity for Albany to spearhead a cleaner, greener and environmentally just future.

The Renewable Capitol Act will emphasize community empowerment and collaboration, creating an advisory committee with members drawn from the affected neighborhoods to plan, implement and manage the project. This approach will ensure that the project aligns with residents’ needs and priorities.

New York’s legislative leaders must recognize that environmental justice is an integral part of the broader fight against climate change. The Renewable Capitol Act, part of the People’s Climate Justice Budget, will help rectify the injustices faced by marginalized Albany communities.

Climate justice starts at home. In the face of a climate crisis that knows no borders, the passage of the Renewable Capitol Act is a moral imperative.

Bob Cohen is policy director at Citizen Action of New York.