By failing to pass an energy plan that would have increased the amount of clean energy flowing into Massachusetts, the Legislature has dealt a setback to the Commonwealth’s climate agenda. Massachusetts set a goal of reducing its carbon emissions by 25 percent by 2020, but is not currently forecast to meet that target. The bill would have put the state back on track, and its failure was a case study in the perfect being the enemy of the good: Lawmakers lost sight of the overriding goal of cutting carbon emissions amid important, but ultimately secondary drawbacks. If, as most environmentalists believe, climate change is the crucial challenge of the 21st century, lawmakers need to meet it with more clear-headed urgency, realizing that it may not be possible to craft responses that make everyone happy.
The crux of the problem is that while Massachusetts has largely weaned itself from coal, it’s actually increasing its reliance on natural gas. In the short term, that’s progress; coal is about as dirty a fuel as exists. But natural gas also emits carbon when burned. Ideal power sources instead would be locally produced wind and solar energy, and the Patrick administration has rightly lavished help on those sectors, including supporting the Cape Wind development. Massachusetts utilities are now required to buy a share of their power from those sources, a quota that rises every year. Still, the numbers are just not adding up. Now over ten years on the drawing board, Cape Wind is advancing on a timetable more fitting for fine wines than global crises.
The approach proposed by state Senator Barry Finegold, and backed by Governor Patrick, would have left the requirements to buy wind and solar in place, while also prodding utilities to buy clean energy that likely would have come from hydropower sources in Canada. There are many legitimate concerns about hydro power: It depends on the destruction of forests, and requires expensive and sometimes unsightly transmission lines to reach New England. It would make the state more dependent on foreign energy. But the crucial fact is that generating hydropower does not create carbon pollution, which is ostensibly the state’s goal. (That hydropower is proven and reasonably cheap, and that Canada isn’t Saudi Arabia, are nice ancillary benefits.)
The problems with hydropower, while worth discussing, are small when compared with the threat of rising sea levels and extreme weather disruptions — so the plan’s critics went a disingenuous step further, claiming that the legislation would have undermined locally produced wind and solar power by flooding the market with cheap power. Although that was true of some earlier proposals related to Canadian hydro, it was a mischaracterization of this particular plan. The Finegold-Patrick plan left in place the mandates on utilities to buy renewables like wind and solar; while utilities would have been encouraged to buy hydropower, they would not have been allowed to count it toward renewable-energy requirements.
The legislation has failed, but the problems it tried to address have not gone away, and the clock is ticking. Massachusetts can pat itself on the back all it wants for its strong climate goals, but those goals won’t mean much if they aren’t met. Critics who torpedoed the plan need to offer a plausible pathway for the state to meet its pollution targets by 2020. Failure to do so would send the message that Massachusetts cares about reducing carbon emissions — until it gets difficult.