fb-pixel

Senate climate bills would push state to adopt carbon pricing

Part of sweeping legislation proposed Thursday

Senate President Karen Spilka.
Senate President Karen Spilka.Lane Turner

Massachusetts officials would be required to pursue new taxes, fees, or other options to help drive down carbon emissions from cars and homes within 10 years, under sweeping legislation state Senate leaders unveiled Thursday to more aggressively curb the state’s greenhouse gases.

The legislative package, split into three bills that the Senate will debate next week, would also set a new statewide goal of meeting “net-zero” emissions by 2050; require the MBTA to convert to a fleet of all-electric buses within 20 years; and create a watchdog commission to track the state’s progress in meeting the legislation’s ambitious new targets.

Senate leaders said the multipronged approach is designed to accelerate the state’s response to the rapid environmental changes fueled by climate change, an effort that environmental groups largely cheered Thursday and that the Conservation Law Foundation called a “huge step forward.”

Advertisement



The policy-heavy legislation does not include specific revenue-raising measures that would immediately increase the cost at the gas pump or to heat a home, lawmakers said. But it lays out avenues for carbon pricing that state officials could pursue. They would curb emissions and likely raise prices in the future.

“We must act now. And we must act and lead on climate change since the federal government is not,” Senate President Karen E. Spilka said Thursday. “This is a race against time.”

The legislation would push the state to embrace a form of carbon pricing on transportation by 2022, commercial buildings by 2025, and residential buildings by 2030.

But it would be Governor Charlie Baker and his successors, not the Legislature, who would choose how to do so, including through a tax, a “revenue-neutral” fee, or a regional cap-and-trade system similar to a multistate agreement Baker is already pursuing to curtail emissions from cars or trucks.

The governor would be allowed to pursue the options, including a carbon tax of some kind, without legislative approval.

Advertisement



Spilka and Senator Michael J. Barrett, who has been crafting the climate legislation since June, said they both support Baker’s pursuit of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, or TCI, an ambitious but controversial pact among eastern states that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and could raise gas prices by as much as 17 cents a gallon.

But Barrett, who’s unsuccessfully pushed for years to create taxes or fees on carbon, suggested it’s more politically feasible to pursue a pricing method if the legislation includes options.

“I decided to shift focus from trying to be prescriptive to setting deadlines. If you can move from the tool to the timeline, you can actually get a lot more support," Barrett said.

“It’s not a spending bill,” the Lexington Democrat added of the Senate’s proposal. “It really is a bill to mobilize state government and have us focused in one direction.”

The concept of accelerating the state’s goals in cutting greenhouse gases by 2050 has quickly gained traction on Beacon Hill. Baker pledged in his State of the Commonwealth address to move the state toward net-zero emissions by 2050, and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo told reporters afterward that, he too, supports the new target.

The Senate bill takes a more aggressive approach, requiring the state to hit limits every five years en route to the net zero target in 2050. To help ensure it does, the legislation creates the Massachusetts Climate Policy Commission, which senators describe as an independent, nonpartisan panel that would take a “science-based view" to hold the state accountable.

Advertisement



It also requires the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority to limit bus purchases and leases to electric vehicles starting in 2030 and to convert its entire bus fleet by 2040.

Environmentalists said the details behind the pursuit of a net zero goal are crucial. After Baker said he was committed to it Tuesday, Ben Hellerstein, the state director for Environment Massachusetts, said changing the state’s target could make no difference in “accelerating the Commonwealth’s transition from fossil fuels to clean energy," given the efforts could include “dubious offsets and accounting changes.”

Hellerstein said Thursday that his group was still reviewing the details of the Senate’s legislation.

Deb Pasternak, the Massachusetts chapter director of the Sierra Club, applauded several aspects of the Senate bills, such as phasing in electric buses and embracing more aggressive emissions limits.

But her group said the legislation didn’t include language aimed at transitioning to 100 percent clean, renewable electricity. Without a more urgent timeline, Pasternak said, “it will be extremely challenging to meet the goals outlined in the bill.”

It also quickly sparked pushback from the oil industry. Michael Ferrante — president of the Massachusetts Energy Marketers Association, which represents hundreds of heating oil suppliers — said he feared the legislation’s goals weren’t realistic and could ultimately be an “economic burden” on consumers.

The Senate is slated to debate the legislation on Jan. 30. It wasn’t immediately clear what appetite DeLeo had in also pursuing different forms of carbon pricing. The Winthrop Democrat said in a statement that he’s “committed this session to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050” but said he’ll review the Senate bills when they reach the House.

Advertisement



The House last year passed a separate $1.3 billion energy and climate resiliency bill that would create a new grant program for cities and towns, funded by borrowing. Spilka said Thursday that the Senate, too, intends to address climate resiliency before the legislative session ends in July, but she did not specifically commit to the House’s version.

The merits of TCI have been hotly debated not just here in Massachusetts but across the region New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu has already opted out, and his counterparts in Vermont, Connecticut, and Maine have all thrown up caution flags, directly or indirectly, in recent weeks. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo has said she’s “fully committed” to TCI’s goals, but Nicholas Mattiello, Rhode Island’s House speaker, has signaled he’s against it.

DeLeo has specifically raised concerns about the support behind the agreement. But Spilka said she believes Massachusetts can still pursue the pact even if some “smaller states” don’t sign on.

“I think that the people of the states that do not join in will regret it,” the Ashland Democrat said.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout