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Massachusetts Senate Agrees To Sharp Shift In State Climate Policies

Emitting carbon would come with a new price in Massachusetts and the state would embark on a more aggressive timeline for reducing its greenhouse gas emissions under a bill that overwhelmingly passed the state Senate Thursday night.

Aimed at bolstering the state's response to the international challenge of climate change, the bill calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, an acceleration beyond the target spelled out in current law.

It sets deadlines for the state to impose carbon-pricing mechanisms for transportation, commercial buildings and homes, but leaves the critical specifics up to the executive branch.

State Senator Michael Barrett, the Senate chair of the Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee, said the bill's features are "precedent-setting." He said it establishes an ambitious but not unreasonable approach.

Barrett told the News Service there was a "surprising amount of underlying consensus" on the legislation and not much disagreement among the senators.

"People wanted to get radical, they wanted to get dramatic, and I think we gave them the bill they were looking for," he said after the Senate adjourned Thursday night.

The bill (S 2477) cleared the Senate on a 36-2 vote. The legislation is one piece of a trio of climate-related bills senators passed, along with others addressing energy efficiency and electric vehicles.

The electric vehicles bill (S 2476) directs the MBTA to limit its bus purchases and leases to zero-emissions vehicles starting in 2030 and operate an entirely zero-emissions passenger bus fleet by December 31, 2040. It also makes permanent an existing rebate program for consumers buying electric cars.

The energy efficiency bill (S 2478), which passed on a 35-2 vote, sets efficiency standards for a range of products, including new faucets and showerheads. According to Environment Massachusetts, the standards are projected to reduce utility bills by $282 million in 2035 and, by that same year, reduce the state's carbon annual emissions by 271,000 metric tons, the equivalent of taking 57,000 cars off the road.

"Together the three really do constitute an historic new moment in the fight against climate change," Barrett said on the Senate floor. "This does lift the state to a new level in combating global warming."

A view of microphones inside the Massachusetts Senate chamber.
Credit State House News Service
State House News Service
A view of microphones inside the Massachusetts Senate chamber.

Republican Senators Dean Tran and Ryan Fattman, representing half of the diminished Senate Republican caucus, voted against each bill.

The bills now move to the House for its consideration. Governor Charlie Baker and House Speaker Robert DeLeo have each said they want the state to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but it's unclear if they'd be on board with the Senate's exact approach.

Baker's energy secretary, Kathleen Theoharides, said last week that she plans to issue a letter of determination soon to formally establish a policy of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Jacob Stern, the deputy director of the Sierra Club Massachusetts chapter, said the Senate bill will help reduce carbon pollution but that his group was "disappointed that despite broad support from the advocacy community, there wasn't a commitment to transition the state to 100% clean, renewable electricity in the final legislation."

"The responsibility to act now falls to the Massachusetts House of Representatives," Stern said.

Sean Garren, the northeast senior director of Vote Solar, said his organization looks forward "to working with House leaders to ensure the final bill helps to maximize opportunities for the expansion of solar power as a critical part of the Commonwealth's response to the climate crisis while reclaiming our leadership on renewable energy."

A 2008 law requires the state to reduce its emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. Emissions must be 25 percent lower by 2020, and the most recent data show that Massachusetts emissions in 2017 were down 22.4 percent from 1990 levels.

The Senate bill would require more regular check-ins, with interim targets every five years including a 2030 limit of at least 50 percent below 1990 levels. On carbon-pricing, it calls for a market-based compliance mechanism to be in place for the transportation sector by 2022, for commercial buildings by 2025, and for residential buildings by 2030.

The bill also establishes a Climate Policy Commission, modeled after the state's Health Policy Commission, to serve as an independent watchdog over government's response to climate change, and it creates the first mission statement for the Department of Public Utilities, requiring it to prioritize safety, security, reliability of service, affordability, equity and emissions reductions.

It increases membership on the Board of Building Regulation and Standards, calls for the development of a net-zero energy code that municipalities could opt into if they choose to move away from fossil fuels as a heating source, and requires that solar energy incentive programs set aside a portion of future allocations for low-income neighborhoods.

Senators filed more than 120 amendments to the bill and spent several hours working through them. Proposals to consider the needs of rural communities and low-income households in emission reductions efforts were among those adopted, as was a Sen. Paul Feeney amendment creating a training program to teach new skills to workers who are displaced by emissions reduction and green technology advancements.

Feeney said such a program will ensure that workers from the fossil fuel industry won't be "breathing clean air while standing in the unemployment line."

On the topic of rural communities, Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton said a carbon price should not disproportionately burden areas that lack access to public transportation and rely on driving.

Senators also agreed to an amendment from Sen. Marc Pacheco adding an emergency preamble to the bill and stating that its purpose is "to drastically lower our greenhouse gas emissions to confront our world and Commonwealth's climate emergency."

Many of the amendments were withdrawn by their sponsors without a vote. Sen. Eric Lesser, as he withdrew an amendment regarding home energy audits, said he understood the Senate at this point was "not getting into a lot of specifics about how we will reach that 2050 goal."

Minority Leader Bruce Tarr's efforts to add in provisions that would inform consumers of cost impacts from carbon pricing were ultimately unsuccessful.

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