7 takes on Senate climate change debate
Lots of harmony, plus some political intrigue
IN BUSINESS-LIKE FASHION, the Senate passed a sweeping package of climate change legislation on Thursday night that sets a net-zero target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, creates an independent commission to watchdog that effort, and requires the MBTA to start buying all-electric buses by 2028 and go all-electric by 2040.
Even though the issue of climate change is full of political minefields, there were few serious policy disputes over the course of the day. More than 150 amendments were filed to the three bills, but many of them were withdrawn by members who went along with appeals from leadership to stay focused on the task at hand. Votes were lopsided, with the three bills passing by votes of 36-2, 35-2, and 35-2.
“There was a very high harmony quotient with that debate,” said the architect of the package, Sen. Michael Barrett of Lexington.
Here are seven observations:
Barrett thinks an independent watchdog is essential. He has raised concerns with the Baker administration about the current three-year lag in emissions data, which in practical terms means officials won’t know if Massachusetts met its greenhouse gas emissions target for 2020 until 2023. Barrett’s legislation requires that timetable to be cut to 18 months, but he says that type of pressure for action is what an independent commission will bring to the table. “We need an independent, authoritative, expert, and credible source of perspective on whether all of us are doing our jobs,” Barrett said.
Carbon sequestration – The net-zero emissions goal means some greenhouse gas emissions could be offset by carbon being sucked up by trees and other plant life. Tarr won passage of an amendment that would require state officials to develop a baseline figure for the carbon sequestered in forests and the natural landscape and goals for increasing that amount. Some environmentalists privately worry the sequestration goals could conflict with clean energy goals – if, for exampl4e, solar farms were blocked because they would result in trees being cut down.
Natural gas — Many senators filed amendments dealing with the safety of natural gas and its infrastructure, but then withdrew them after receiving assurances from Senate President Karen Spilka that a separate bill on this issue would be taken up later this year.
Renewables – Several senators were eager to speed adoption of renewable forms of energy, specifically offshore wind, hydro-electricity, and solar. Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro proposed an amendment authorizing an additional 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind; other senators wanted to eliminate any restrictions on offshore wind development entirely. The push evaporated when Cyr withdrew his amendment, much to the chagrin of the Sierra Club, which called for a commitment to 100 percent clean energy.
It’s unclear why the push for more renewables fizzled, but sources said there were no guarantees about bringing the issue back in a future bill this session. Some senators said the Baker administration pushed back against more offshore wind procurements, in part because of ongoing concerns about Trump administration resistance to offshore wind.Low-income residents – The climate change legislation calls for putting a price on the carbon contained in automobile and heating fuels, which is likely to mean higher prices. The original bill had a number of protections for low-income residents, but additional ones were added via amendment. Two amendments were adopted making it easier for low-income residents to take advantage of solar power. One amendment added “equity” to the list of future priorities for the Department of Public Utilities. Another amendment required state officials to draft regulations to meet emission reduction targets “in a manner that mitigates the effects of increased energy and transportation costs on low-income and moderate-income households, improves their economic condition, where feasible, and creates additional employment and economic development of the commonwealth.”
Thermal energy – An amendment authorized natural gas utilities to launch pilots testing the delivery of thermal energy to homes and businesses and allowing the companies to bill ratepayers for the cost.