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5 Things To Know About The East Coast Effort To Curb Transportation Emissions

Dana Ripley, of Winthrop, Mass., fills the gas tank of his truck at a service station in Andover, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)
Dana Ripley, of Winthrop, Mass., fills the gas tank of his truck at a service station in Andover, Mass. (Charles Krupa/AP)

This month, a group of states, including Massachusetts, will release a plan to cut carbon emissions from the region’s biggest source — transportation. The effort is called the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI).

The states are focused on limiting carbon emissions from fuel. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration has estimated TCI could generate up to $500 million a year in new revenue for Massachusetts. A recent MassINC poll found most voters in the state support the basic idea of TCI. The initiative has also received support from advocates, local mayors and some business groups.

Here are a few things to know about the initiative:

1. What is TCI, and who is part of it?

It’s an effort by 12 eastern states and the District of Columbia — stretching from Maine to Virginia — to reduce carbon pollution from cars and trucks. That’s really important because a huge part of Massachusetts’ emissions — about 40% — come from transportation, more than any other sector.

Transportation is also the only sector where emissions continue to increase, according to Dan Sieger, the state’s undersecretary of environmental affairs.

“We see reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector as kind of a number one thing that we have to tackle to achieve all of our climate goals,” Sieger said. “I think every year all the work that we’ve done within Massachusetts has really pointed to working regionally to address this.”

Massachusetts has its own goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but the idea behind TCI is to create a regional approach because transportation and emissions cross borders.

2. How would TCI work?

The key focus is “cap and invest.” It works like this: Distributors of gas and diesel fuel would have to pay a fee for each ton of carbon emitted when the fuels they sell are burned. Over time, the price for the emissions would go up, and the cap on how much they are allowed to emit would go down.

TCI is similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which focused on reducing emissions produced by power plants in the region. TCI aims to do the same thing with transportation.

Chris Dempsey of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts said the program creates an economic and financial incentive to move toward cleaner fuels — because cleaner fuels create less pollution, so companies would need to buy fewer allowances under the cap.

“It’s a policy that is meant to put itself out of business over time,” Dempsey said. “It is intentionally meant to reduce emissions. And as those emissions are reduced, the demand for those permits should be reduced also — until we move to a much more electrified and de-carbonized transportation system.”

The revenue that comes from TCI would go to the participating states, and it’s meant to support cleaner transportation infrastructure. A bill filed by Baker would earmark half of the revenue from TCI for the MBTA.

3. Is this going to drive up gas prices?

Good question. It’s unclear exactly how much this will cost consumers. But it stands to reason that there will certainly be some costs passed on to drivers. There have been some estimates that it may add between 10 and 15 cents per gallon of gas, but the emissions cap is still be negotiated, so this remains uncertain.

4. Is TCI basically another gas tax?

It may depend on who you ask. Some argue that TCI is a fee and not a tax. A key difference: With TCI, fees aren’t collected directly at the pump. It’s a fee on fuel suppliers who may pass that cost on.

TCI may still feel like a gas tax, because drivers will likely pay more at the pump, according to Brian Moran of the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, which represents fuel sellers.

“Ultimately TCI is to likely get gasoline priced out of people’s pockets,” Moran said.

Drivers may also face a “double hit” by having TCI on top of the state gas tax, which lawmakers are also considering raising, Moran said.

“There really should be some transparency and outreach to the general public about, ‘Hey, you want greenhouse gas reductions? This is what it’s going to cost you. And this is how it’s gonna play out. And over time, you’re going to have to start to budget and plan, and think of an alternative fuel source or alternative vehicle,'” he said.

Another difference  is that the gas tax is a flat price per gallon on any type of fuel. With TCI, the cleaner the fuel, the less it costs under the program.

5. So is TCI a done deal?

Not exactly. The states will release a draft plan or “memorandum of understanding” this month. Then the states will have some time to comment on the plan and suggest changes. A final agreement is expected in the spring.

Each state also has to figure out how to implement TCI. That will likely take time because there are different regulatory processes in each state. It’s worth noting that some states may end up opting out of this plan, which could hinder the regional effort.

Here are the big questions to watch when the draft plan is released: What is the cap level? Will it do enough to cut down emissions? There are also concerns about equity and making sure there isn’t a disproportionate burden placed on certain populations, like rural residents who don’t have many options outside of driving, and lower income residents who may struggle to afford higher gas prices.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2019 WBUR

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