Jim Gennaro’s third term in office ends this December, but his efforts to reduce the city’s carbon footprint and put the city on a more sustainable track will continue for decades.
In his 12 years as a councilman, during which he chaired the Committee on Environmental Protection, Gennaro passed legislation to regulate greenhouse gases, protect Jamaica Bay, and “green” the city’s buildings. The 2013 Environmental Quality Award-winner also brought the issue of hydrofracking to the forefront of the national environmental movement and starred in “Gasland,” the Sundance and Academy Award-winning documentary, by Josh Fox.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is make environmental public policy,” Gennaro said.
Sailing with his father and brother in the waters off Seaford, LI, near his childhood home in Bellmore, inspired his interest in the natural world.
Gennaro declared his geology major on Sept. 2, 1975, his first day at Stony Brook University, where he also took biology, marine and ecology courses. He stuck around and earned a master’s degree in public policy, while many of his classmates were recruited by the oil industry or became academic geologists.
He moved to Jamaica Estates 30 years ago, when he was a Queens College professor. He then worked for Peter Vallone Sr., who was then the City Council speaker, as a senior policy analyst and with Stanley Michels, then chairman of the Environmental Protection Committee.
“Then the term limits of 2001 crashed down around me,” Gennaro said.
While many of the people he worked with were ousted from their job, Gennaro decided to run for City Council himself. As the president of the Jamaica Estates Association and the president of CB 8, he had a “huge base” and a “good story to tell.”
Since he took office, Gennaro has passed 40 bills, more than any other sitting councilman, except for Speaker Christine Quinn (D-Manhattan), who has passed 43 bills, but has been there for three additional years.
“Ideally, it’s great if someone has some specific expertise to play on the city stage. Then they can really work in that area, chair a committee, set an agenda, have gravitas and get things done,” Gennaro said.
“He’s been a great champion of environmental causes,” said Walter Mugdan, the president of the Udalls Cove Preservation Society, in Little Neck.
Dan Hendrick, the vice president of external affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, described Gennaro as “a key player” and a “good partner with the Bloomberg administration.”
Hendrick noted that Gennaro was instrumental in creating the Jamaica Bay Protection Plan. He coordinated the efforts of over a dozen agencies that had purview over the bay and marshalled $150 million to upgrade sewage treatment plants that were polluting the bay and find “green infrastructure” solutions, such as reducing paved surfaces.
“Jim has shepherded everything that’s gone through the Council,” Hendricks said, and the climate legislation has had “a really profound cumulative impact.”
Gennaro said that he introduced legislation to reduce greenhouse gases by 20 percent during Mayor Bloomberg’s first term, when “Bloomberg was just a mere mortal when it came to environmental issues, before he became a national leader in urban sustainability.”
“Bloomberg’s second administration said ‘We’ll see your 20 percent and raise you 10 percent,’” Gennaro said. That became the basis for PlaNYC, which aims to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions 30 percent by 2030. Since the plan was implemented in 2007, the city has reduced greenhouse gases by 16 percent.
“PlaNYC wrote the book about what’s possible,” Gennaro said, remarking that when the recession hit, mayors in almost every city shelved sustainability as they struggled to keep cops on the street, but for Bloomberg the city’s financial woes “did not eclipse his responsibility to build a greener city.”
Gennaro also noted that by establishing the Office of Long Term Planning and Sustainability and making it a permanent part of the Mayor’s Office, future mayors are bound to stick with PlaNYC.
In 2008, Gennaro starred in “FUEL,” a documentary about biofuels. Gennaro said that it’s “a great green industry to grow,” but it almost crashed and burned due to misinformation and weird ideas that gained currency.
Nevertheless, Gennaro passed air-quality legislation in 2010 to lower emissions by eliminating the worst type of heating oil, an “almost tar-like substance” known as No. 6. Now homes and buildings are required to burn only No. 2 or No. 4 (a blend of No. 2 and No. 6), which are significantly better. However, by eliminating No. 6, No. 4 has become dramatically cleaner and less sulfurous. The law also required heating oil to contain at least 2 percent biofuel.
“Making No. 4 cleaner and adding biofuel was equivalent to taking every motor vehicle off the road in New York City,” Gennaro said. “It had a huge impact. Anytime with one ‘whoosh!’ you can do something like that, it’s a big deal.”
While the federal government regulates “criteria pollutants” mentioned in the Clean Air Act, such as ozone, particulate matter and sulfur dioxides, states can only regulate carbon dioxide, Gennaro said. However, when carbon dioxide emissions decrease, all of the other pollutants, which are byproducts of burning fossil fuels, are eliminated too.
Gennaro shaped the national conversation about hydrofracking beginning with the first press conference in New York City. He saw the need to prevent environmental destructrion from the practice in the broader context of the environmental movement, beginning with the first Earth Day, in 1970. The purpose of the movement, he said, was to establish national environmental policies and standards to “end the whipsawing of state against state.”
“We’re back to the pre-Earth Day paradigm. There’s fracking in 34 states, with 34 different paradigms, and all 34 regulatory paradigms stink,” Gennaro said.
“Governor Cuomo came into office saying what needed to be said,” Gennaro said. “He says what he means. My hunch was that when he said he was going to base his decision on science and safety, that it was going to take him down a long road; this hasn’t been done elsewhere in the country.”
Gennaro said that a lot of the scientific research on the seismic impacts of the gas drilling technique is “still emerging.”
Gennaro passed bills ensuring that fracking will not occur within or near the New York City watershed, which feeds the upstate reservoirs, from which the city receives 90 percent of its drinking water. New York is the only city with a waiver from the federal government allowing it not to filter the water, saving the city billions of dollars.
“All I ever wanted was to have some sane conversation and sane process for how this is going to be considered,” Gennaro said. “I think we have that now.”
Gennaro also boasted of the work he’s done in his district, which includes Fresh Meadows, Jamaica Estates, Hillcrest, Briarwood and Kew Gardens Hills.
The district is the No. 1 user of the Doe Fund, a program that employs former criminals to service litter baskets, clean streets and re-mulch the tree pits, he said. Gennaro also gives money directly to the Parks Department so that residents can have trees planted for free.
His district also hosts institutions used by people throughout the borough and the city, including Queens College, Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and Queens Hospital Center, all of which he contributes discretionary funds toward.
“You have to do right by the institutions that you have and get to know the various communities in the district,” Gennaro said.
In his spare time, Gennaro still enjoys sailing out of Seaford, LI on his boat, a 21-foot bayliner named “Sons of a Sailor,” which he says “ties us — me, my brother and my father — all together.”