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As emissions drop, Northeast should tighten CO2 cap

Three and a half years into its implementation, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is at a surprising crossroads: Industrial carbon dioxide emissions are so far below the original cap that proponents want to drop the limit even lower. The general concept of the program, which Massachusetts played a lead role in forming, is that states from New England down to the Mid-Atlantic set emissions reduction targets low enough to encourage owners of electric power plants to retrofit them to be cleaner or pay for privilege of polluting by buying emissions allowances.

But since the original targets were set, electric generation has shifted significantly from coal and fuel oil to cheaper and cleaner natural gas. While the greenhouse gas initiative encourages this trend, a presumably greater factor is the unexpected “fracking” boom that has yielded vast quantities of natural gas. As a result, emissions are currently running at 36 percent below the cap. “Mission accomplished,” proclaimed the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, obviously relieved that the reductions were more market-based than the result of mandates on companies to make massive infrastructure investments.

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