Massachusetts Senate will vote on landmark measure to price carbon

Source: Benjamin Storrow, E&E News reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Massachusetts Senate is set to vote on a carbon pricing proposal Thursday.

The measure, included in part of a wider energy bill that would increase the state’s renewable energy requirements, would require the governor to establish a “market-based mechanism” for pricing carbon. A cap on emissions would be phased in over time, beginning with the transportation sector by 2020, the industrial and commercials sectors by 2021 and the residential sector by 2022.

Carbon emissions in the commonwealth’s power sector are already capped under the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a nine-state cap-and-trade program.

“We’ve got to get moving in terms of climate policy and embracing a clean energy future,” said state Sen. Marc Pacheco, a Democrat who helped author the bill. “It’s easy to have the press conference, to talk about these issues, but at the end of the day, you have to pass policies that will allow you to meet the goals that are in statute.”

The bill is significant for several reasons. If passed, it would make Massachusetts the second state after California to impose an economywide cap on carbon emissions.

It also addresses the Bay State’s leading source of emissions in transportation, which accounted for 39 percent of Massachusetts’ greenhouse gas output in 2014. Power-sector emissions were 19 percent that year. The state no longer has any operating coal plants.

By requiring the state to put a carbon cap on other sectors of the economy but leaving many of the details to the governor, the bill’s proponents hoped to avoid the type of infighting that has doomed carbon pricing proposals in Washington state. Efforts to tax carbon there fizzled earlier this year.

The lack of specifics also figures to aid regional efforts to address transportation emissions, proponents said. Massachusetts’ vote comes amid renewed momentum for the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a collaboration of Northeastern states seeking to limit tailpipe emissions.

“Instead of mandating a specific approach, it dovetails with the current momentum,” said David Ismay, an attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation in Boston. “But it would make it much more real because Massachusetts would really be moving forward. If Massachusetts commits, it’s a lot easier for other people to commit.”

The bill’s prospects looked dim earlier this year after state Senate President Stanley Rosenberg, a Democrat supportive of the legislation, was forced to resign after his husband was accused of sexually harassing legislative staff and lobbyists on Beacon Hill.

But its odds have improved considerably. Incoming Senate President Karen Spilka (D) chairs the Ways and Means Committee, which reported the legislation favorably to the full chamber for a vote.

Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican who supports climate action, has largely remained tight-lipped about the proposal. He has expressed reservations over carbon pricing in the past. But advocates said they are increasingly confident he can be won over. The governor has talked positively about TCI in recent months.

“They know we need alternative strategies to get the emissions down in the transportation sector,” Pacheco said. “They are very engaged in looking at various options out there.”

The harder test may be in the state House of Representatives, where advocates will need to win over Speaker Robert DeLeo, a moderate Democrat who rules the House with a tight grip.

The bill also contains a number of provisions to boost renewable energy. It would increase the state’s offshore wind goal from 1,600 megawatts to 5,000 MW. State officials recently outlined plans for a project that would produce 800 MW of offshore wind.

The state’s renewable portfolio standard currently requires 13 percent of state power to be derived from clean sources. That figure increases by 1 percent annually. Under the bill, the annual increase would be 3 percent.

And it would abolish a cap on net metering while requiring distribution utilities to essentially provide smart meters and time-of-use information to residents with solar on their homes, enabling them to better manage a newly instated demand charge.

“It is a great way to increase renewable energy in the commonwealth,” said Eric Wilkinson, general counsel and director of energy policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts.