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A 2020 Chevrolet Bolt EV is displayed at the 2020 Pittsburgh International Auto Show in Pittsburgh. General Motors says a pending breakthrough in battery chemistry will cut the price of its electric vehicles so they equal those powered by gasoline within five years. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

ALBANY — Green energy activists and progressive Democrats contend a state carbon tax could coax more people to use public transportation and buy electric vehicles, leaving cleaner air to breathe.

But business leaders and many Republicans argue the proposal introduced in both the Senate and the Assembly would leave New York motorists paying an extra 55 cents per gallon of gasoline pumped into their fuel tanks.

The measure would also impose a charge of $55 per ton of fossil fuel emissions. That would increase the overhead of factories, office parks, school districts and for any company using natural gas, heating oil, propane or other fossil fuels to heat their buildings and run their equipment.

At a recent legislative hearing, John Bartow, director of Empire State Forest Products Association, a trade group, estimated the paper companies and other firms he represents would see costs rise by some $1 billion annually as a result of the measure dubbed the Climate and Community Investment Act.

The pollution charge is projected to result in the collection of $15 billion in revenue each year over the next decade. The funding would go to several initiatives consistent with the goal of countering global climate change, including renewable technology, transportation improvements, energy efficiency projects, and power grid stabilization.

Assembly Kevin Cahill, D-Kingston, noted the fund would also support job skills training and apprenticeships.

The carbon tax is being promoted as a way to advance the goals of landmark legislation enacted in 2019 that puts New York on a path to have zero emission electricity by 2040 and an 85% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050.

Environmental activists say the targets contained in the latter measure, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, have made the state a national leader in grappling with climate concerns.

However, Ken Pokalsky, vice president of the Business Council of New York State, said when the emission-reduction goals were set in 2019, "One piece that was missing from the conversation was: How much is this really going to cost and how is it going to get paid for?"

Along came the bill this year sponsored by Cahill and Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, which creates the funding mechanism for advancing the emission goals.

Pokalsky said he is pleased the new legislation is throwing a spotlight on "just how broad-based these cost are going to be and how big they are going to be."

"Having said that, I don't think the state is ready for another $15 billion in new taxes this year," he added.

Coupled with other mandates imposed on New York businesses, Pokalsky said, the effect of the measure is that New York would be a more challenging environment for companies doing business here.

Peter Iwanowicz, director of Environmental Advocates, an advocacy group, said Republican lawmakers who are criticizing the carbon tax as unaffordable are engaging in "scare tactics" and ignoring the consequences of not addressing the climate impacts from fossil fuel emissions.

He also suggested economic opportunities will result from investing in renewable energy, noting the Port of Albany has become a center for the production of equipment used with wind turbines.

"There is a massive global race going on as to who is going to be the real winner in clean energy technologies," Iwanowicz said. "States like New York that act first are going to be the ones that reap the benefits."

The proposed carbon tax has an uncertain chance of passage before the end of the legislative session in June. But it is already fueling political attacks, with the current frontrunner for the GOP nomination for governor, Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-Long Island, noting the Business Council projects it will boost the cost of home heating oil by 26%.

"It's no surprise that New Yorkers are fleeing, tired of the constant attacks on their wallets, their freedoms and their safety," Zeldin said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat who has indicated he is making plans to run for re-election, has yet to stake out a position on the Parker/Cahill bill.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jgmahoney31@gmail.com

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