Columnist Marty Nathan: Legislature’s opaque process hurts climate fight

  • In this May 8, 2009 file photo, Len Bicknell walks from his house to his garage where his solar energy panels are mounted on the roof in Marshfield, Mass. AP

Published: 8/5/2020 5:01:20 PM

The goings-on of the Massachusetts Legislature are the subject of jokes for many who try to improve the laws that govern us. Its rules are obscure, its proceedings opaque and the process, particularly on the House side, is controlled by entrenched leadership who determine which bills advance and which die in committee in every session.

Though formal session is eighteen months, very little law is produced before the last week at the end of July. And in the final days of formal session, legislators scramble to replace critical lost bills by amending those that leadership introduce with a wave of their hand and shove through with impressive force and virtually no debate.

It has become less funny as time has gone by, particularly for those who grasp the gravity of our climate emergency. We face an imperative to cut global emissions nearly in half by 2030 to have any hope of avoiding the catastrophic changes that will befall our planet when temperatures increase more than 2 degrees Celsius. The broken legislative system has repeatedly blocked an adequate response by our state to the crisis.

Well, it’s 2020 and it seems to be happening again, with some notable exceptions.

It’s not as though there were not good, forceful bills introduced and supported in this session, which started in January 2019. The statewide climate coalition, Mass Power Forward, had prioritized:

■The 100% Renewable Energy Act, which called for 100% of our electricity to be produced renewably by 2035 and 100% of all our energy to come from renewable sources by 2045;

■The Environmental Justice Acts would have protected front-line communities — low-income and non-English-speaking and communities of color — from the siting of toxic energy infrastructure;

H.2810 for equitable carbon pricing, which would have placed a fee on fossil fuels, to be rebated with a preference for low-income people and used to build renewable energy infrastructure.

These and other important bills were in committee when the Senate passed a multidimensional climate bill, S.2500, in February. The climate bill has a lot going for it. It adopts staged cuts in state greenhouse gas emissions and demands a plan to reach those cuts. (Note that the ultimate 2050 goal is cutting net emissions to zero. The state could use sleight of hand substituting, say, payment to maintain tropical rainforests while continuing to pollute.) It requires climate justice, prioritizing emissions reductions and job and small business support in front-line communities. It supports equitable “market-based compliance mechanisms” that can well translate to putting a fair price on carbon.

S.2500 creates a “climate policy commission” to oversee and certify the implementation of greenhouse gas emissions reduction. It also calls for a training program to support workers displaced from the fossil fuel industry and those in front-line communities to fill jobs in the new clean energy economy. It supports marketing of efficient electric heat pumps to replace fossil fuel furnaces and “stretch” building codes that afford higher energy efficiency in new buildings. It requires measurement and reporting of building energy use to the state. It offers grants for solar installations to nonprofits serving the poor and makes special provisions for access to solar energy by low-income people.

Importantly, it would revise the mission of the Department of Public Utilities to include a consideration of greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals as it carries out its duties permitting new infrastructure.

Meanwhile, despite huge popular support and multiple co-sponsors (90 out of the 160 representatives co-sponsored the carbon pricing bill and hearings were packed with supporters!), both the carbon pricing and 100% bills died in committee.

Instead, just a few days prior to the end of formal session — voila — House leadership introduced an “omnibus” climate bill, H.4912. Though it is technically an amendment to the Senate’s bill, it wiped out most of the progressive aspects of S.2500, offering only a few morsels for those who care about planetary survival. It, too, commits to monitoring and regulating greenhouse gases, creating interim goals with, again, that slippery “net-zero” emissions goal by 2050.

It, too, supports clean energy workforce development. It strengthens MassSave’s energy efficiency program, particularly for low-income households. It allows solar arrays built in areas like western Massachusetts, where land is more easily available, to serve families across the state.

For the first time it makes the state’s municipally-owned utilities (like Holyoke’s) responsible for reporting and reducing their emissions. However, for those “munies,” it creates a category of energy that can be substituted for coal, gas and oil to reach the required greenhouse gas emissions reductions. “Non-carbon-emitting” energy can include biomass burning and nuclear power production. Yet burning biomass is dirtier by public health standards and emits more carbon than coal, and nuclear power is dangerous and pollutes with radioactive waste.

The definition of “non-carbon-emitting” energy includes biomass burning and nuclear power production. In fact, biomass is dirtier by public health standards and emits more carbon than coal, and nuclear power is dangerous and pollutes with radioactive waste.

A scrum ensued to amend the bill into something of greater value in the fight against pollution and climate change. Because of leadership’s condensed timeframe, almost all of the more than 100 amendments were withdrawn under pressure. A few important ones passed: Environmental Justice protections, a rise to 3% in the yearly required increase in renewable energy on the grid (not producing 100% until 2090!) and an increase in the state’s offshore wind power procurement to 3600 megawatts.

The House and Senate bills now go to a Conference Committee to meld into one. We don’t know yet who the conferees will be. We do know, though, that beyond the bills to be considered, our state must adopt a plan to attain 100% renewable energy and fair carbon pricing to facilitate it. Further we know that those sworn to represent us and protect us against environmental catastrophe are trapped in an opaque, undemocratic institution where our interests are not being well served.

Marty Nathan is a retired physician, mother and grandmother who writes a monthly column on climate change. She wishes to thank climate (s)heroes/friends Adele Franks and Mary Jo Maffei for their input.


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