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As Lawmakers Plan Vote On Climate Bill, A Showdown With Baker Seems Likely

The Massachusetts State House. A six-member conference committee has to negotiate House and Senate versions of a state voting reform bill. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House. A six-member conference committee has to negotiate House and Senate versions of a state voting reform bill. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
This article is more than 2 years old.

Both branches of the Legislature plan to vote again Thursday on the climate policy bill that Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed at the end of last session, launching a back-and-forth most likely to end with an override of another gubernatorial veto or with lawmakers agreeing to some of the changes Baker has suggested.

Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano confirmed Tuesday afternoon that the House and Senate will each vote Thursday to pass the bill designed to push Massachusetts toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, establish interim emissions goals, and address needs in environmental justice communities.

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said Tuesday that the administration has had detailed conversations with lawmakers in both branches about the governor's concerns and said she isn't convinced the Legislature has the data or analysis to back up its preferred emissions reduction target for 2030, one of the thorniest sticking points between the two sides.

The House and Senate spent about five months last year negotiating a compromise bill but did not send it to the governor until the final days of the two-year session. Baker vetoed the bill earlier this month but said he would have rather returned it with proposed amendments, as he could have done if the Legislature had passed the bill sooner.

Theoharides said Tuesday that "there are areas of significant agreement around needed climate action in the bill and the urgency of this challenge" and that Baker "is very enthusiastic to partner with the Legislature to address the areas in the bill where we have significant agreement, and then some areas of the bill that we think there could be changes" made.

"But as the bill is currently written, it could increase the cost of housing significantly. It could potentially impact large sectors of the economy just as the commonwealth is beginning to recover from a pandemic," she said. "And I think one of the challenges we've seen with the bill is that it's not necessarily based on data or analysis and there's no information on the costs that would be incurred if the bill is implemented."

At the heart of the bill, which was refiled last week, is the state's greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for 2050 and the legislation trains the state's attention on the work of getting there.

Though Baker supports the 2050 net-zero goal — in fact, his administration committed to it before the Legislature could agree amongst itself on a bill to codify the goal — the governor said in his veto message that he is concerned with the interim emissions reduction target for 2030 of 50 percent below 1990 levels, which he said would cost $6 billion more than the target of 45 percent that his administration wrote into its 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap.

Baker administration energy officials said Tuesday that there is no appreciable climate benefit to getting to a 50 percent emissions reduction by 2030 instead of 2033 or 2034 and that the Legislature's target would require the state and residents to pay more money to get to the same end result, which is net-zero emissions by 2050.

"The 45 percent [target] strikes the balance in terms of not wanting to increase costs to people's bottom line for no marginal benefit on the climate side," Theoharides said.

The lead Senate negotiator of the bill, Sen. Michael Barrett, said he was "not persuaded" by the arguments Baker laid out in his veto letter and suggested that the governor's decision to veto rather than sign the bill — his only options given how late in the session it reached his desk — was "really about politics, not policy."

Though she did not mention Barrett or any other lawmaker specifically, Theoharides pushed back Tuesday on the notion that the administration is the side that doesn't have a solid grounding for its positions.

"I think when you're doing something as practical as setting an emissions target, you shouldn't be picking something out of thin air or based on aspirations, you should really be picking something based on, as we did, two years of analysis of data," the secretary said. "And so I think this has been a rather one-sided conversation where we've been asked to prove our work. We have, and I'm not sure the Legislature has any cost estimates for what their bill would cost or the benefits that would provide."

To hit the 45 percent target that the administration favors, the secretary said, Massachusetts will have to retrofit a million homes, put 750,000 electric vehicles on the road, bring all authorized clean energy procurements online, and procure another 2,000 additional megawatts of clean energy by 2030.

Getting from 45 percent to 50 percent, she said, would require the reduction of an additional 4.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, the replacement of another 400,000 vehicles with electric vehicles (at a cost of roughly $2.4 billion in new/additional costs over eight years), a new regional low carbon fuel standard that would be 50 percent more stringent than any in the United States (at a cost of about $400 million), and the complete elimination of all heating oil in Massachusetts (retrofitting in total would cost an additional $3 billion over 10 years). It would also require the procurement of an additional 4,000 MW of clean energy, which would be challenging given permitting processes, construction timelines and other constraints related to clean energy projects.

Theoharides said the administration's plan to reach its target of a 45 percent reduction by 2030 aims to get there in an equitable fashion. Take electric vehicles; in order to increase the fleet of EVs on Massachusetts roads by 1.15 million vehicles by 2030, she said her office has determined that Massachusetts would have to increase the per-vehicle incentive by about 600 percent in order to convince people who are not planning to replace their existing gas-powered car to trade it in for an electric model. The money for those incentives comes from electric ratepayers in Massachusetts.

"The question is, how much do you want to charge a low-income ratepayer to foot the bill for someone's new EV?" the secretary said.

What the state should establish as its target for greenhouse gas emissions reductions by 2030 emerged as a flashpoint between the Legislature and administration even before legislative negotiators finalized the compromise House/Senate bill. During a hearing of the Senate Global Warming and Climate Change Committee on Dec. 31, Theoharides tangled with Barrett over whether a 45 percent or 50 percent target was a better fit.

Barrett argued that the 45 percent reduction target was "too pessimistic" and that the administration did not take into account that the incoming Biden administration has indicated its eagerness to tackle climate issues.

He said the target of a 50 percent reduction by 2030, which the Environmental League of Massachusetts and others have advocated for, is something that "both branches of the Legislature feel is an aspiration, is a stretch goal, but an attainable goal."

Theoharides told Barrett that her office's modeling showed any target above a 40 percent reduction by 2030 would put Massachusetts on track to meet the 2050 goal, and that there is a risk that going beyond 45 percent could be unnecessarily disruptive to the economy and extremely costly.

But the administration's estimate of $6 billion in additional costs was never mentioned until Baker vetoed the bill.

"We had a lot of topics to cover at that hearing. But we did talk to him extensively about the 45 percent target we were setting," Theoharides told the News Service on Tuesday when asked why she didn't point out the $6 billion cost estimate before the Legislature filed, debated or passed the bill.

At the same hearing, Barrett also indicated that he would be willing to move from his position and consider setting the 2030 target at something other than a 50 percent reduction.

"In any event though, we have 2021 and if there's a little disagreement on where we should get to by 2030 in anything that should come out of the Legislature, it is up for further discussion in 2021 and subject to compromise if that's where we need to go," he said Dec. 31.



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