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Marty Nathan: Lobbying hard for right climate future

  • The Massachusetts State House in Boston



Friday, July 15, 2016

 

I am friends with lobbyists. Not the kind with ties and Rolexes and seven-figure salaries, but grandmothers, retired teachers and college students who volunteer their time to talk with legislators about the climate crisis and its human toll, and urge them to include these urgent issues in bills to be taken up by the Legislature.

Most of these volunteer lobbyists never imagined knocking on doors on Beacon Hill to ask legislators and their aides to help put an end to the burning of fossil fuels.

These folks are members of Climate Action Now, Mass Power Forward, and other grassroots and institutional environmental groups. They are driven by acute awareness that the numbers – the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, global temperatures and sea levels – all are rising faster than predicted.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that 2015 was the warmest year on record. Global surface temperatures rose above the record set last year by 0.29 degrees Fahrenheit — “the largest margin by which one year has ever beaten another since official records began in 1880,” the NOAA report states.

David Carlson, director of the World Climate Research Programme, reports that polar ice was melting in March and May at rates not normally seen until July. “Once-in-a-generation rainfall events,” he said. “Abnormal is the new normal.”

Volunteer lobbyists in Boston have had a rollercoaster month. The Legislature has been working on what was termed the Omnibus Energy Bill, dealing with the rapidly changing energy needs of the Commonwealth as coal-fired power generators and the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant all come offline. Meanwhile, the fracking industry is pushing for more domestic consumption and overseas distribution of “natural” gas, yet scientists and the changing climate are telling us we have to stop burning fossil fuels and rapidly transition to clean energy. The state committed to cutting carbon emissions when it passed the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which demands a 25 percent reduction of Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050.

The Supreme Judicial Court recently reinforced that those cuts were required — not soft targets. The Legislature’s new energy bill must begin to construct the framework for implementation of the law. Viewed that way, the law that emerged from the House in June was a deep disappointment. Activists privately called it a “minibus” rather than an “omnibus” bill.

What was actually needed was:

A huge boost in construction of offshore wind turbines but the bill included only 1,200 megawatts.

A commitment to increasing the percentage of electricity that comes from renewable sources (the Renewable Portfolio Standard, or RPS) which up to now has been increasing by just 1 percent per year. The bill did not address this.

A ban on charging electric customers to pay for fracked gas pipeline construction which was also ignored.

However, there was a pleasantly surprising amendment requiring the repair of gas pipeline leaks that spew climate-destructive methane into our air from old leaky pipes beneath our streets.

Overall, though, there was little joy in Mudville at the beginning of June. One friend complained, “Do they only listen to the fossil fuel lobbyists? How can we say this more convincingly? Don’t they get what we are facing?”

What the House did not understand, the Senate did. Its energy bill, S.2372, which passed July 1, includes the essentials and more. That bill would raise the Renewable Portfolio Standard to 2 percent per year beginning in 2017, setting Massachusetts on track to challenge California as the leader in the development of renewable energy.

It would commit the state to 2000 megawatts of offshore wind, the amount necessary to lower its cost-per-watt to consumers. Plus, an amendment by Sen. Patricia D. Jehlen would outlaw charging electric ratepayers for the construction of new gas pipelines. Another adopted amendment would require repair of significant gas leaks when roads are under construction. But that isn’t all. It would require all homes sold in the state to have an energy efficiency assessment made available to the buyer. It would create incentives and policies supporting zero emissions vehicles. It contains measures to encourage the development of storage batteries to make electricity produced by wind and sun available when needed at other times.

It calls for the Department of Public Utilities to study modernizing the electric grid to meet the demands of efficiency and adaptability necessary for the clean energy transition. It is the kind of bold and creative legislation we need to meet today’s challenges.

The struggle between the House and Senate bills now disappears behind closed doors in House-Senate Conference Committee. Out of sight but by no means out of mind.

To get the final legislation we need from the Conference Committee, each of us must adopt the new role of climate lobbyists. Call your representative (617-722-2000) and tell him or her to contact Speaker Robert Deleo and request that the final energy bill include provisions for more wind and renewables, an increase in the RPS, no pipeline taxes and repaired gas pipeline leaks. This is the course that will give us clean air, good jobs, and a sustainable future.

Marty Nathan, M.D., a regular contributor on climate issues, is a physician at Baystate Brightwood Health Center and a member of Climate Action NOW. She lives in Northampton.