Legislature approves climate bill, sends back to Governor Baker

Source: By David Abel, Boston, Boston Globe • Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2021

Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

State lawmakers in the House on Thursday joined their Senate colleagues in overwhelmingly backing a revised climate bill that would mark one of the nation’s most far-reaching efforts to reduce planet-warming carbon emissions.

The measure passed both chambers by large enough margins to override a potential veto by Governor Charlie Baker, who rejected a previous version of the bill earlier this year. The Legislature then sent Baker the same bill, which he returned last month with a host of amendments.

It was unclear whether Baker would sign the latest bill, but administration officials indicated it was likely. He can no longer amend the bill and lawmakers rejected some of Baker’s more significant proposals.

Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said the bill included 42 of 47 changes Baker had proposed and that he was pleased with the final bill.

“Our tone is very positive,” she said.

The bill seeks to put Massachusetts on a path to effectively eliminate its carbon emissions by 2050 by promoting renewable energy and reducing its reliance on fossil fuels. It calls for increasing energy-efficiency requirements for appliances and requiring utilities to buy significantly more offshore wind power. It also has potentially broad ramifications for the business community, touching everything from the solar industry to municipal light plants.

With more than enough votes to ensure the bill becomes law, representatives and senators were looking ahead to the next steps.

“We’ve passed a big, ambitious bill, but for legislators, the work isn’t over,” said Senator Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat and one of the bill’s chief sponsors and lead negotiators. “Now the executive branch has to roll out everything in line with legislative intent. Making sure this happens is going to take continuing oversight on our part.”

He said the Baker administration will soon have to produce “a comprehensive, clear and specific plan” for achieving emissions limits for 2025.

“I’m unimpressed with a draft plan the administration has already published for the year 2030,” Barrett said. “That document doesn’t comply with conditions set in this new law, so they’re going to have to do better.”

While lawmakers approved most of what they described as “technical” changes that Baker had proposed, they rejected amendments to lower the target for reducing emissions by decade’s end. The bill requires the state to reduce emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Baker had called for reducing emissions by 45 percent, saying it would cost the state $6 billion less than the Legislature’s plan.

Theoharides said other changes in the bill were likely to offset some of those projected costs. The initial bill, for example, called for emissions limits in six distinct sectors of the economy, such as transportation, manufacturing, and natural gas distribution. But the revised bill no longer makes those limits legally binding if the state is able to meet overall emissions targets by decade.

“This allows us to realistically pursue the more ambitious goals in a manner that we believe is more cost-effective,” Theoharides said.

She said Baker also appreciated the inclusion of stronger language to promote environmental justice. Those provisions give communities with a disproportionate amount of pollution a greater voice in approving local developments.

“This is a significant addition to the bill and will permanently reduce public health impacts on these communities,” Theoharides said.

Lawmakers also made changes that delay requirements for the state’s building codes to promote more “net zero” construction. Baker, under pressure from the real estate industry, had raised concerns that the requirements would increase construction costs and cause delays.

Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a development trade group, said she was grateful to lawmakers for addressing their concerns. The revised bill gave the state six more months to issue new energy rules for new construction and allows so-called “green communities” to maintain their status if they don’t adopt the new building codes.

“We believe the Legislature took steps to address the concerns of the business community,” she said. “We recognize that, if enacted, the bill will require a robust stakeholder process to ensure a thoughtful and practical implementation.”

Caitlin Peale Sloan, interim director of the Conservation Law Foundation in Massachusetts, called the legislation “a momentous step forward in confronting the climate crisis and protecting communities that suffer first and worst from climate change.”

Before the vote, State Rep. Thomas Golden, a Lowell Democrat who shepherded the bill through the chamber, noted it was the fourth time the Legislature was voting on the bill in less than a year.

“There was no way the Legislature was backing down from our ambitious goals,” he said.

State Rep. Jeff Roy, a Franklin Democrat invoked former President John F. Kennedy’s speech about sending men to the moon, saying, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

“This is an incredibly comprehensive, groundbreaking piece of legislation,” Roy said. “It ensures our path to decarbonization is fair, equitable, and inclusive.”