Lawmakers should embrace clean energy

Say no to gas pipelines financed by electric ratepayers

STARK NEW ESTIMATES of the potential cost of climate change to Massachusetts’ homeowners should make the Legislature act more urgently than it already has to halt the state’s consumption of fossil fuels and resulting release of greenhouse gases.

According to a June analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists, 89,000 buildings in the Commonwealth worth a cumulative $63 billion are at risk of flooding every other week on average by 2100 due to expected sea level rise. About 178,000 people would be affected, with $413 million in annual property tax revenues at risk.

Two of the most vulnerable communities are Winthrop and Revere, home to House Speaker Robert DeLeo. Another is Quincy, home to House Assistant Majority Leader Robert Mariano. In fact, by 2045 Revere and Quincy are projected to have 600 or more at-risk homes.

Until now Massachusetts has been a leader among states when it comes to addressing climate change. Under former governor Deval Patrick, Massachusetts joined the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and with the Legislature set aggressive greenhouse gas reduction goals and established some of the nation’s top efficiency and residential solar power programs. In 2016 the Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Baker signed a nation-leading mandate for offshore wind.

But the Union of Concerned Scientists report means the state must do more. To its credit, the Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed major new clean energy legislation this summer. The bill would increase renewable energy purchasing mandates, increase offshore wind procurements, expand solar energy, and more. The House passed several standalone energy bills that are less ambitious. A conference committee comprised of House and Senate members is attempting to hash out the differences between the bills before the legislative session ends at midnight on Tuesday.

A key amendment included in the Senate bill prohibits utilities from forcing costs of new fracked-gas pipelines onto electric ratepayers. That provision reinforced a similar unanimous Senate vote in 2016 to protect consumers from the growing likelihood of being stuck with billions of dollars of stranded assets.

Gas already fuels two-thirds of the Commonwealth’s electric generation. Utilities and regional grid operator ISO New England want to make us even more reliant on gas in future years by having ratepayers fund billions of dollars in massive new pipelines.

Gas is a dirty, polluting fossil fuel that releases methane into the atmosphere. Methane is 86 times more powerful at warming the planet compared to the other major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, over a 20-year horizon.

Several analyses in the last three years from Attorney General Maura Healey, environmental groups, and university researchers all concluded that the region is far enough on the path to renewable energy and energy efficiency that no new gas pipelines are needed, and increasing our dependence on gas will ultimately defeat Massachusetts greenhouse gas reduction goals. In May, the latest such study by Synapse Energy Economics concluded that, under current policies, the region will enjoy reliable electricity with no new gas pipelines.

Yet there has been a steady drumbeat in support of more gas from utilities and business lobbies. A business-funded front group called the Massachusetts Coalition for Sustainable Energy is running ads calling for more gas pipelines. Even the Boston Globe editorial page seems to have succumbed to their charms. What gives?

A cynical person might observe that the electric utilities earn a much higher rate of return from investments in gas pipelines than they do from renewable energy, and so their lobbyists and PR firms are merely doing their jobs, which is to maximize profits for their clients, public good be damned.

Time is ticking. Sea level rise is not the only risk to our residents and businesses. We are already seeing an increase in heat waves, drought, diseases such as Lyme, and extreme storms. Who can forget the storms this past winter, and the video of a dumpster floating down a street in the Seaport?  That’s our future unless we act boldly and quickly.  While Massachusetts cannot solve climate change on its own, what we do matters more, because we are a state that others follow.

And, on the bright side, more clean energy means more jobs, more energy dollars spent here at home, and better public health.  Burning fossil fuels worsens air quality. The Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America ranked Springfield as the nation’s  No. 1 asthma capital, with Boston and Worcester ranking  No. 11 and No. 12 out of the nation’s worst 20 cities.

Meet the Author

Emily Norton

Chapter Director, Massachusetts Sierra Club
The Legislature has an opportunity to act boldly now to protect public health, safeguard property, and demonstrate to the world how to transition quickly to an economy powered by clean, renewable energy.

Emily Norton is Massachusetts Director of the Sierra Club.