Climate Change Legislation: Will Rep. Sánchez Go with Ambitious, or Tepid?

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Will the Massachusetts legislature act with boldness to address climate change? As the two-year legislative session comes to a close on July 31st, we will soon find out.

State Rep. Jeffrey Sanchez, D-15th Suffolk

As chair of the Massachusetts House Committee on Ways and Means, Jamaica Plain Representative Jeffrey Sánchez is one of the most powerful politicians in the Commonwealth. In this role he will have a lot of influence over what happens.

Massachusetts has long been considered a leader when it comes to climate change legislation. The 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act requires that greenhouse gas emissions be reduced 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80% by 2050. However, legislation is only as good as subsequent action. A lawsuit brought by a group of children and two environmental groups resulted in a unanimous decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2016 that the State was not on target to reach that very first 2020 target.

The stakes could not be higher. For 200,000 years, ever since homo sapiens have been in existence, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have ranged between 280-300 parts per million (ppm). Now they are over 410 ppm, and climbing higher. There have literally never been humans on the planet with carbon dioxide levels this high; the last time they were this high, millions of years ago, sea level was 50-80 feet higher than it is today.

We have seen the impacts of climate change around the country and the world with floods, droughts, wildfires, mudslides, heat waves and extreme storms.

Closer to home here in Massachusetts we recently experienced a two year drought that dried up rivers and hurt family farms; unprecedented storm surges last winter which flooded homes and subway stops, and even dislodged a dumpster in the Seaport, sending it floating down a street; and 100+ degree days just a couple weeks ago.

While Massachusetts cannot stop climate change on our own, we are a leader state that others follow. The first to legalize gay marriage, the first to provide universal health care (“Romneycare”), the first to ban bump stocks after the Las Vegas shooting -- other states look to us for guidance and leadership, and therefore it is incumbent upon us to do more.

One of the most important bills Sierra Club has been advocating for would increase the amount of renewable energy our electric utilities are required to purchase, under an existing policy called the “Renewable Portfolio Standard” (RPS).  Currently the RPS is set at 13%, and it rises 1% per year. That means in 2018 at least 13% of the electricity purchased by private utilities such as Eversource and National Grid must come from clean, renewable sources such as solar or wind. By rising 1% a year, we will be at 25% by 2030 and won’t hit 100% until year 2105.

By increasing the RPS rate of increase to 3% per year, Massachusetts will be at 50% renewable energy by 2030. That puts us in line with California and New Jersey. Even our neighboring states of Connecticut and Rhode Island have more aggressive RPS timetables than we do currently.

To their credit, two weeks ago the Massachusetts State Senate voted to increase the RPS to 3% a year. The vote was bipartisan and unanimous.  Additionally, a recent study by the New England Clean Energy Council and Mass Energy found that a 3% number would create between 10,000 and 43,000 new jobs in Massachusetts depending on how fast we adopt electric vehicles and cold climate heat pumps.

Unfortunately the House, to date, has not been nearly as bold. Their version of the RPS bill would only increase the RPS to 2% a year starting in 2019, and then moves it back to 1% starting in year 2029. At that rate Massachusetts would be at 35% by 2030 – behind California, New Jersey, Connecticut, and other states.

It should be said at this point that there are politically powerful corporate interests on Beacon Hill fighting against any increase in the RPS. Electric utilities earn higher profits by building fracked gas pipelines than they do from investing in energy efficiency or renewable energy.

On his website Rep. Sanchez claims that the House bill will bring Massachusetts near 50% renewable energy by 2030. How can this be?

When it comes to energy policy, as with so many things, the devil is in the details. Under the Massachusetts RPS only certain types of renewable projects are eligible, in order to ensure they are truly environmentally beneficial. Solar, wind, geothermal and small hydropower projects are eligible; energy generated from waste incineration and large hydropower are not. “Waste-to-energy” plants that burn trash release harmful air pollutants; the creation of large dams entail submerging vegetation which releases massive amounts of methane, which is a heat trapping greenhouse gas even more potent than carbon dioxide. Massachusetts hydropower would come from Canadian dams, which also carry a huge environmental justice cost – their construction has displaced native indigenous peoples such as the Pessamit Innu, destroying their communities and way of life. In his math Rep. Sánchez includes some of these non-eligible forms of energy, as well as credits from a separate program, the “Alternative Portfolio Standard” (APS), which includes energy used to produce heat. Thus, the APS is not primarily a tool for increasing the percentage of renewable, pollution-free electricity on the grid.

Time is running out for bold action on climate change. The House and Senate are forming a "Conference Committee," consisting of three senators and three representatives, to hash out the differences between their bills. Contact Representative Sánchez and urge him to ask the House members on the Conference Committee to support a 3% increase in the Renewable Portfolio Standard, so that Massachusetts can once again be a leader not a laggard when it comes to the climate which life on planet Earth depends on. He can be reached at 617-722-2990 or Jeffrey.sanchez@mahouse.gov.

Emily Norton is the Massachusetts Chapter Director of the Sierra Club.

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