At a Beacon Hill hearing in November, Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton was asked whether the state, if it continues current policies without taking new action, would meet its legal obligation to make substantial cuts to its carbon emissions by the end of the decade.
“Not a chance,” he told members of the state Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, even as he stressed that the administration supports new steps, such as importing hydroelectric power, to reduce emissions.
That answer, which alarmed some lawmakers, has been cited as evidence in briefs to the Supreme Judicial Court that the state has failed to take sufficient action to comply with the state’s 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the state to cut its greenhouse gases 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.
This week, lawyers for the Conservation Law Foundation will argue before the state’s top court that the administrations of Governor Charlie Baker and former governor Deval Patrick have violated the law by not enacting policies that would result in the required emissions reductions. The challenge of making those cuts, they note, will be greater with Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station — the state’s largest provider of clean power — set to close as early as next year.
“The delay in implementing the law is egregious,” said Bradley Campbell, president of the foundation. “There have been no efforts to implement the additional policies called for in the state’s clean energy and climate plan.”
State officials say they hope to meet the law’s requirements, but they say it will be far easier if lawmakers help out by passing a bill that would compel utilities to sign long-term contracts to buy hydroelectric power from Canada.
Beaton declined to be interviewed.
In a written statement, he said: “Massachusetts remains a nationally recognized leader on combating climate change, but action is needed on existing policies and the administration’s proposal for cost-effective, low-carbon hydroelectric power generation.”
Environmental advocates insist the state has fallen behind and needs a major course correction — not just action on the hydro plan — to meet the law’s requirements. They also note that even if lawmakers pass a hydroelectric bill, the expensive power lines might never get built. They would probably pass through New Hampshire, where the proposal remains highly controversial.
In 2014, before Pilgrim announced it would close, a collaborative effort by local environmental groups called the Global Warming Solutions Project released a report that projected that Massachusetts would cut its emissions by only 20 percent below 1990 levels. A more recent report by the Conservation Law Foundation, which factors in the closure of Pilgrim, estimates that the state, without any significant policy changes, is more likely to cut its emissions between 16 percent and 19 percent.
In their lawsuit against the Department of Environmental Protection, which the justices will hear on Friday, lawyers for the foundation will argue that the state has fallen behind because regulators have failed to mandate annual limits on specific emissions, which they say the law required to be set in 2012.
They also blame the Baker and Patrick administrations for focusing more on extending natural gas pipelines than on promoting offshore wind and solar energy, increasing energy efficiency in buildings, and a range of other policies that don’t require legislation, including pressuring utilities to seal methane leaks more quickly, adding incentives for electric vehicles, and planting more trees.
“Massachusetts passed a landmark law that made us a leader in addressing greenhouse gases, but if we allow significant portions of the law to go unmet, it’s simply an empty gesture,” said Jennifer Rushlow, who will be arguing the foundation’s case. “This is a law that does have teeth, but we’re not using them.”
In its response to the lawsuit, which was dismissed by a Superior Court judge last March but taken up by the SJC on appeal, state officials argue that the Global Warming Solutions Act requires the agency to set targets — not caps — on emissions. They also say that the law gives the agency broad discretion on how to cut emissions.
They also note that the agency has enacted specific policies to reduce greenhouse gases, such as limiting leaks of sulfur hexafluoride, a potent greenhouse gas used in electricity distribution switches, a cap and trade program between states designed to cut emissions, and the adoption of a California program that curbs emissions for certain types of vehicles.
“We’re working hard to meet the goals,” said Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
He said the hydropower plan would play a crucial role, reducing the state’s carbon emissions by an estimated 5 percent below 1990 levels. Asked what would happen if the power lines are delayed or rejected by New Hampshire, Suuberg said: “We’re doing a suite of policies to make sure we meet the goal, and this is one element. . . . We’re not putting all of our eggs in one basket.”
He declined to comment on the lawsuit but said: “We’re fully anticipating carrying the day in the SJC decision.”
Ken Kimmell, who served as the department’s commissioner during the Patrick administration, said the law may have set unrealistic requirements. He also blamed the potential shortfall on unexpected developments, such as the failure of Cape Wind to build turbines on Nantucket Sound and the closure of Pilgrim.
“Part of the problem is that the goal is ambitious,” he said. “We could have set 20 percent, and we would have been there.”
He urged the Baker administration and lawmakers to invest more in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and new ways to heat buildings that go beyond switching from oil to gas.
“That needs to happen now, because the infrastructure needs to get built to meet the deadline,” he said. “It’s up to all of us to figure out a solution. People would be right to be disappointed if we don’t meet this goal.”
Supporters of the lawsuit said they hope the court prods the state to act soon, noting that 2020 is just four years away.
A dozen environmental groups, in a brief to the court, compared the state’s efforts to climbing a mountain at night “without the benefits of trails or guideposts.”
“With no mandated emissions limits to light the way, the commonwealth is adopting and rejecting energy policies and projects blindly,” they wrote. “The only way that such an approach could result in the commonwealth meeting the 2020 mandate is by pure chance.”
After hearing Beaton testify in November, Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat who chairs the Global Warming and Climate Change Committee, said he was “extremely concerned” that the state wouldn’t meet the requirements.
He blamed both administrations for not doing more, noting the legislation also calls for cutting the state’s emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. He plans to push a bill in the coming months that would require specific emissions cuts for 2030 and 2040.
“We can do this,” he said. “But right now I just don’t see the urgency of getting it done. We need some political will to move us forward.”David Abel can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.