Baker all talk on regional carbon limits

Governor MIA on greenhouse gas initiative

AS PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP moves forward with his efforts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan and accelerate the extraction of coal, oil, and gas on federal lands, it’s worth taking a look at our own record here in Massachusetts. While state officials speak the language of “climate leadership,” their actions have often fallen short.

Case in point: Last August, officials in Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration announced their support for doubling the strength of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a program to limit carbon pollution from power plants and invest in clean energy and energy efficiency in Massachusetts and eight other northeastern states.

These proposed changes would reduce emissions by 5 percent per year, as opposed to 2.5 percent under the current program rules — enough to cut an additional 100 million metric tons of pollution by 2030. That’s the equivalent of making more than 1 million homes run entirely on solar power.

We were thrilled to see Massachusetts become the first state to support doubling the strength of RGGI, and we joined other environmental advocates in praising the administration’s move.

But since August, Baker and his administration have been missing in action. The governor and his top officials have largely stayed silent on the issue of RGGI. When pressed by reporters, administration spokespeople have issued mealy-mouthed statements expressing vague support for RGGI but without any specifics on how strong the program should be.

Has Baker backed away from his commitment to double the strength of RGGI and reduce carbon pollution more quickly? It’s hard to say for sure, but absent any definitive statement from the governor or top officials such as Matthew Beaton, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, and Martin Suuberg, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, it’s clear that the administration’s priorities lie elsewhere.

If Baker wants Massachusetts to be a leader in the fight against climate change, he needs to be a vocal champion for strong limits on carbon and a vigorous supporter of clean energy programs. Instead of leading the way, the governor’s officials are hedging their bets with vague statements.

Unfortunately, the governor’s actions on RGGI follow a troubling pattern, where actions on clean energy and climate solutions often fall short of initial rhetoric and promises. We’ve seen a similar story from the Baker administration on multiple fronts, including solar energy and carbon pollution regulations, as well as the administration’s misguided support for expanding gas pipelines.

That’s why Environment Massachusetts recently joined the Environmental League of Massachusetts and other organizations in giving the Baker administration a C+ for their record on energy issues.
For RGGI in particular, the governor’s inaction is hard to understand. In the decade since it was created, RGGI has brought major benefits to Massachusetts and other northeastern states. Carbon pollution from power plants has declined by 61 percent in Massachusetts, and RGGI has emerged as the most successful regional climate program in the United States.

Limits on carbon pollution have also led to reductions in other forms of harmful pollution from power plants, including soot and smog-forming emissions. One study estimated that pollution reductions from RGGI have saved as many as 830 lives, prevented up to 9,900 asthma attacks, and helped avoid 39,000 to 47,000 missed days of work.

At the same time, RGGI has generated more than $400 million in funding for clean energy and energy efficiency projects in Massachusetts through revenue from the sale of emissions allowances. Funding from RGGI helped the towns of Swampscott and Wenham install efficient LED streetlights, cutting carbon pollution by an estimated 294 metric tons each year while reducing annual energy costs by more than $100,000.

Strengthening RGGI is a clear political winner. In fact, 81 percent of Massachusetts residents responding to a recent survey said that they support strengthening the program.

With that in mind, there’s no reason for the governor to stay on the sidelines. Baker and his aides should vocally support doubling the strength of RGGI. Massachusetts and other states participating in RGGI will make a key decision about the future of the program in June, so there’s no time like the present for Baker to take a strong stand.

The governor should also take bigger steps to expand solar, offshore wind, and energy efficiency, as well as emerging technologies such as electric vehicles and energy storage, while rejecting proposals to expand gas pipelines and deepen our dependence on fossil fuels.

With the right support from state leaders, we can get off of fossil fuels and power our society entirely with renewable energy in the coming decades. Businesses such as Amazon and Johnson & Johnson, as well as cities from San Diego to Burlington, Vt., have committed to a goal of 100 percent renewable energy. In Massachusetts, Sen. Jamie Eldridge and Reps. Sean Garballey and Marjorie Decker recently introduced a bill to repower the entire state with 100 percent clean, renewable energy.

Meet the Author

Ben Hellerstein

State director, Environment Massachusetts Research and Policy Center
Our climate and our health won’t wait. In the era of Donald Trump, we need Baker to truly lead the nation in addressing climate change and switching to clean energy.

Ben Hellerstein is the state director for the Environment Massachusetts Research & Policy Center, a statewide organization dedicated to protecting Massachusetts’ air, water and open spaces.