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Mass. House Drops Major Climate Bill Into Busy Week

(State House News Service)
(State House News Service)

The House is teeing up its response to the Senate's suite of climate-related bills for debate Thursday, which would put that significant public policy topic in position to be handed off to a six-member conference committee by the end of the week to negotiate a final bill.

The bill cleared the House Ways and Means Committee without dissent Wednesday and addresses topics including the 2050 emissions reduction roadmap, solar energy net metering, grid modernization, workforce development, energy efficiency, and municipal electric and light plant clean energy targets.

"Under Speaker DeLeo, the House once again is showing — the 2016 bill, the 2018 bill, GreenWorks, the fact that we forwarded Green Recovery — that we are working to make sure the grid of tomorrow is cleaner and greener," Rep. Tom Golden, House chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, said. "This is a serious step towards another successful piece of legislation that the speaker charged the committee to put together."

It's the fourth major bill that representatives have been asked to take up in rapid succession, following on the heels of policing accountability, eonomic development and health care bills moving through the House.

Both branches have already passed major climate-related legislation this session. The House last July unanimously approved a roughly $1.3 billion bill — the so-called GreenWorks bill -- centered around grants spread out over 10 years to help communities adapt to climate change impacts, and at the end of January the Senate overwhelmingly passed a package of climate bills that called for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and set deadlines for the state to impose carbon-pricing mechanisms for transportation, commercial buildings and homes.

The bill that the House plans to debate Thursday would put Massachusetts on a path to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and would require that the executive branch set interim emission reduction targets of at least 50 percent below 1990 emission levels by 2030 and at least 75 percent below 1990 levels by 2040. It also adopts parts of a 2050 roadmap bill (H 3983) filed by Rep. Joan Meschino to require the Baker administration by the end of 2021 to file a plan detailing how Massachusetts can meet the 2050 target.

That course would give Massachusetts a more aggressive timeline for emissions reductions than larger states like California and New York, both of which require emissions to be at least 40 percent lower than 1990 levels by 2030, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The House approach also requires each of the 41 municipal lighting plants in the state to establish a greenhouse gas emissions standard and requires that half of the power sold to retail end-user customers by 2030 be "non-carbon emitting energy," that 75 percent be "non-carbon emitting energy" by 2040 and that municipal lighting plant energy sales achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Sen. Michael Barrett, Golden's Senate counterpart at the Committee on Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy, said the House's bill would make it nearly impossible to monitor the state's progress towards those goals, and said he favors the Senate's approach of installing interim targets every five years rather than every 10 years.

"Here we have goals widely spaced apart with no accountability back to the public or the Legislature in the House bill," he said. "There's a reason the Senate proposed a standalone, independent climate policy commission. That's because the executive branch charged with realizing the goals cannot also be left to report on whether they've achieved them. You've got to separate out implementation and monitoring, and I'm deeply disappointed that the early drafts of the House bill leave the two roles together."

The House bill would also change the definition of "direct emissions." The relevant state law currently defines direct emissions as "emissions from sources that are owned or operated, in whole or in part, by an entity or facility including, but not limited to, emissions from factory stacks, manufacturing processes and vents, and company owned or company-leased motor vehicles."

The House bill would update that definition to include "emissions from sources that are owned or operated, in whole or in part, by any person, entity or facility including, but not limited to, emissions from any transportation vehicle, building, structure or residential, commercial, institutional, industrial or manufacturing process."

Golden likened the new definition to ripping a Band-aid off and said the new definition will give policymakers a more accurate picture of how and where Massachusetts emits carbon. "We need to have the real numbers, we need to know it's real accounting for direct emissions," he said.

With an eye towards a future in which energy usage is vastly different than it has been for decades, the House bill directs the Department of Public Utilities to establish a Future Utility Grid Commission to study and make recommendations around "the establishment of a long-term grid modernization plan to facilitate upgrades to the electric and gas distribution systems located in the commonwealth" including infrastructure and investments necessary for the state to meet its emission reduction requirements.

The House bill expands a solar incentive program to allow businesses to install solar and energy storage on their premises, which Golden said will help cut their energy costs — addressing the high cost of electricity in the region, one of the most frequent complaints about doing business in Massachusetts — while also helping to take load off of the grid at key times.

The bill establishes a Clean Energy Equity Workforce and Market Development Program at the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center to provide workforce training, educational and professional development, job placement, startup opportunities, and grants to minority- and women-owned small businesses, people living in environmental justice communities and workers displaced from the fossil fuel industry.

It also directs the Department of Housing and Community Development to conduct an audit of the affordable housing units it controls or oversees funding for. That audit is intended to identify opportunities for public housing developments to participate in various programs meant to reduce carbon emissions or improve energy efficiency.

One major environmental group was not impressed with the House bill after it was unveiled Wednesday.

"A climate scientist recently said that we're risking a planet-wide 'five-alarm fire' with global warming. Now's the time to show up with a fire hose. Instead, the House is bringing a toy squirt gun," Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts, said. "With its weak 'net zero emissions' target, this bill would allow the use of dirty, polluting oil and gas for decades. At a time when we must move swiftly to end the use of fossil fuels, this bill postpones action in favor of studies and 'roadmaps,' requiring nothing to be done for three years. While the bill takes some positive steps to expand solar energy, it falls far short of what's needed to protect our health and help ensure a safe future."

Barrett echoed the last point: "There's good stuff in here about grid modernization and encouragement of the solar industry. In general, the bill has some interesting things to say about the industry, but not very interesting things to say about emissions reduction."

Despite, or because of, his feeling that the Senate's approach is a better one, Barrett said he and Golden have a very good relationship and he sees no reason why an eventual conference committee wouldn't be able to reconcile the two bills into one compromise piece of legislation.

"I think it's very doable," he said. "If we can scale back on the endless plans and scale up on policy execution, we might actually drive down some emissions and make some progress."

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