Metro

State approves major new rules to cut carbon emissions

Power plants in Massachusetts are among those most affected by the new rules.
David L Ryan/Globe Staff
Power plants in Massachusetts are among those most affected by the new rules.

A little more than a year after the state’s highest court ruled Massachusetts had to do more to cut carbon emissions, state officials Friday will issue sweeping new regulations that set specific limits on sources of greenhouse gases, the emissions linked to climate change.

The new rules, swiftly criticized as insufficient by environmental advocates and unfair by the power industry, aim to reduce the state’s carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as required by state law.

The tougher standards, which will focus on the transportation and energy sectors, could cause utility costs for ratepayers to climb as much as 2 percent a year, state officials said.

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“Combatting and preparing for the impact of climate change remains a top priority of our administration,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement. “These regulations will help ensure the Commonwealth meets the rigorous emission reductions limits.”

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The new regulations, which take effect in January, seek to reduce emissions from natural gas leaks, power plants, the state fleet of passenger vehicles, other parts of the transportation sector, and electrical system components.

In a meeting with reporters on Thursday, Matthew Beaton, the state’s secretary of the energy and environmental affairs, said he was “very confident” the stricter emissions limits will allow the state to comply with the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, which mandated the 25 percent decline.

“We feel we’re in a good position to meet the immediate goals,” he said.

Energy and environmental officials said that, as of 2014, the state had already reduced emissions by 21 percent, a figure that environmental advocates dispute.

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For that reason, some environmental advocates contend that the new rules don’t go nearly far enough and belie Baker’s pledge to intensify efforts to reduce emissions since President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord in June.

Craig Altemose, executive director of 350 Mass, an environmental advocacy group in Cambridge, called them “weak regulations.’’ “This move shows Baker’s stance on climate is more posturing than policy,” he said.

But Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, said the rules “violate the intention and plain reading” of the 2008 law, which also required the state to reduce carbon emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

“In doing so, these regulations are expected to increase regional emissions and costs for consumers,” Dolan said. “That simply cannot be what was intended.”

Under the state’s plan, nearly 90 percent of emissions reductions will come from the electricity sector, although the state’s power plants have already reduced emissions by 60 percent since 1990, far more than any other sector, he said.

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While the regulations might reduce emissions in Massachusetts, they could backfire by causing electricity production to be diverted to less efficient power plants outside the state that might use more polluting energy sources, such as coal or oil, Dolan has said.

“These regulations make the problem worse, not better,” he said.

Beaton noted the regulations mainly aim to comply with the 2020 requirements, and aggressive action is necessary to meet 2050’s targets.

He also said Massachusetts needs to do more to reduce transportation emissions, which now account for more greenhouse gases than any other sector of the state’s economy.

“The whole world is wrestling with the transportation sector,” Beaton said. “We are cognizant that we won’t hit our 2050 goals without transportation.”

State officials said they’ve been working with other states, as well as provinces in Canada, on regional solutions to reducing transportation emissions.

The state has already joined others in the region in a pledge to register 300,000 electric vehicles by 2050; the state has 11,000 electric vehicles, or less than 1 percent of all registered vehicles in Massachusetts.

The rules also require utility companies and other power providers to obtain 16 percent of their energy from clean sources, such as wind and solar, in 2018. That requirement will increase by 2 percentage points a year until 2050, when 80 percent of their power must come from emissions-free sources.

The state’s remaining 21 fossil fuel power plants will be required to cut emissions from nearly 9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018 to 1.8 million metric tons in 2050.

The regulations also require the state Department of Transportation to set specific, declining annual limits on emissions from their vehicles. Utilities will be required to set similar, declining limits on methane leaks from natural gas mains.

Advocates from the Conservation Law Foundation, whose 2014 lawsuit led to last year’s ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, had mixed feelings about the state’s regulations.

“While we’re disappointed that these regulations exempt these towns from having to purchase clean energy, they do put the commonwealth as a whole back on track to meet our near-term carbon pollution limits and establish a clean, renewable energy future,” said David Ismay, a senior attorney at the foundation, which is in Boston.

He noted that the regulations exempt 44 town-owned utilities — which are responsible for about 15 percent of the state’s electricity supply — from the requirement to buy an increasing amount of renewable energy every year.

Other advocates said they were concerned about the lack of emissions caps between 2020 and 2050, and urged the Legislature to set interim requirements for reducing carbon emissions in 2030 and 2040.

“This will ensure that this and future administrations constantly focus on emission reductions as statutory requirements and not as aspirations,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon.

Beaton noted that the administration has already set targets for 2020 and 2030, but he declined to say whether the administration would support the bill that would make the targets legal obligations.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.