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Hydropower plan vital in climate change fight, officials say

State environmental officials are vigorously lobbying lawmakers to pass a controversial energy bill they consider critical to cutting greenhouses gases that contribute to climate change, but they worry it won’t get a vote with the legislative session ending this week.

The so-called Clean Energy Resources bill, opposed by some environmental advocates and industry groups, remains stalled in committee. With three days left in the session, administration officials have even drafted a last-ditch amendment that they hope to tack on other legislation.

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“Frankly, it’s up for grabs . . . and they’re almost out of time,” Governor Deval Patrick told reporters on Monday as he entered a private meeting with legislative leaders.

The bill would require utility companies in the state to sign long-term agreements to buy large amounts of hydroelectric power from Canada.

With coal, oil, and nuclear plants shutting down in the next few years — and solar and wind power remaining negligible sources of energy — the bill would compel the utility companies to coordinate the purchase of about 2,400 megawatts of clean energy, much of which would come from hydro.

That would be enough to power some 1.2 million homes.

Administration officials said the bill is vital because the region’s electrical grid is likely to lose about 8,300 megawatts of power by 2020 and must be replaced.

They say it would also help curb greenhouse gases — required by law to fall 25 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade — and reduce the increasing reliance on natural gas, which accounts for a growing portion of the state’s carbon emissions and is subject to great price swings.

Last year, 46 percent of electricity in the six New England states came from natural gas, up from 15 percent in 2000, according to ISO New England, an independent company in Holyoke that operates the region’s power grid.

“This bill is a way of addressing issues that we face now,” said Mark Sylvia, undersecretary for energy at the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, noting natural gas prices nearly quintupled last January since 2012.

“Clean energy projects, the transmission associated, and the procurement process, take time. The more that this gets pushed down the road, the more time it’s going to take to address these critical issues.”

Environmental advocates have opposed the bill, in part because they’re concerned that long-term contracts for hydropower could stall efforts to build wind and solar power at a large scale, both of which they view as having significantly fewer environmental drawbacks. Hydropower can destroy ecosystems in dammed rivers, and the transmission lines from Quebec could pass through sensitive areas, such as the White Mountains.

“This bill opens the door too wide to imports from large hydropower in a way that would thwart rather than support the cleanest renewable energy resources,” said Sue Reid, director of the Boston-based Conservation Law Foundation.

She also questioned the effort to pass much of the legislation as an amendment, a draft of which she described as “laughably bad.”

She worried the amendment wouldn’t guard against the utility companies signing contracts that benefitted them more than ratepayers.

“The amendment is a way of slipping something really big through quietly,” she said.

Representatives of the utilities and other energy companies said they also opposed the bill, but for different reasons.

“The ultimate policy problem is that we can outsmart the marketplace by locking ourselves into long-term contracts with a provincially owned utility in Canada,” said Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, a Boston-based trade group.

He said prices and technology could change to make hydropower more expensive and less environmentally friendly than other energy sources.

“We’re resource-neutral,” he said. “We want to see a level playing field. Why shouldn’t natural gas or nuclear be able to compete?”

Other industry groups, however, support the proposed legislation.

“We think the bill is a valuable way to move clean energy initiatives forward,” said Peter Rothstein, president of the New England Clean Energy Council, which represents wind and solar power companies.

Senator Barry Finegold, an Andover Democrat who cosponsored the bill, said he was holding out hope that the proposed legislation would emerge from the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I think we’re letting perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said. “We’re still batting around different ideas.”

He said he worries about what will happen to prices for energy as well as the impact on air quality, as the state now gets more than 50 percent of its power from natural gas.

“I don’t think it’s good for our economy and for the environment,” he said. “This bill would provide more diversity in our portfolio.”

Michael Levenson of the Globe staff contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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