For a Republican governor, Charlie Baker is all in on fighting climate change, and now it’s up to his Environmental Secretary Katie Theoharides to do the fighting.
Already she’s facing headwinds on the Transportation and Climate Initiative, as other New England governors cast doubt, or, in the case of New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, have become outright hostile toward the proposal.
But no one should underestimate Theoharides and Baker’s resolve to get buy-in on the ambitious, multistate program that aims to cap fossil fuel use by vehicles and in the process increase the cost of filling up at the gas pump by as much as 17 cents per gallon.
“She has great analytical and political skills,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Cambridge environmental advocacy group. “If anyone can pull it off, I think she can, especially since she is getting huge help from her boss, the governor.”
Even with Baker’s unequivocal support, Theoharides knew getting others on board would be hard. She faces a spring deadline to get states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic region to agree on meaningful limits on emissions.
“States are going to be in somewhat different places politically,” acknowledged Theoharides, who also serves as chair of the coalition of a dozen states looking at implementing TCI. “People hate any time we are looking at things that affect the price of gas.”
For those keeping score in New England, only Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo is publicly enthusiastic, with her office reiterating this week that she is “fully committed” to the goals of TCI and an “aggressive approach” to lowering carbon emissions.
Theoharides is hesitant to say how many states need to commit before the program begins in 2022, but obviously the more the better. “Really our goal now is to get as many as we can,” she said.
TCI aims to reduce vehicle emissions, which account for 40 percent of climate-changing greenhouse gas pollution. Under TCI, fuel distributors in participating states would need to buy pollution permits for the carbon dioxide they produce.
States could then take the money generated from the permits — estimated to be in the billions of dollars — and invest them in public transit and an alternative fuel infrastructure that would, for example, motivate consumers to switch to electric vehicles.
Gas prices are likely to rise because it is widely expected that fuel distributors will pass their additional costs onto consumers.
While TCI may seem like it came out of nowhere, Massachusetts officials across different administrations have been working with other states for a decade on reducing transportation emissions. States began to coalesce around a TCI concept in 2017, and that’s when Theoharides got involved in her prior role as the state’s director of climate and global warming solutions. Baker promoted 37-year-old Theoharides, who is trained as a field biologist, to the top environmental job in May when Matthew Beaton left for the private sector.
If Theoharides seems unfazed by the resistance to TCI, it’s because environmentalists pushing for transformative change have been here before. TCI is modeled off the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multistate, cap-and-invest system that is viewed as a national model for sharply reducing power plant emissions without raising electricity rates.
But it was far from sure thing in 2003, when governors from nine states in the Northeast began deliberating RGGI. The proposed compact had its share of naysayers and critics: Would it increase the price of electricity? Could it hurt the reliability of power? Would a cap-and-invest program even work?
When it came time to sign RGGI’s first memorandum of understanding in 2005, the Republican governors of Massachusetts and Rhode Island at the time (Mitt Romney and Donald Carcieri) got cold feet and refused to participate.
Two years later, Carcieri had a change of heart and Rhode Island joined RGGI, as did Massachusetts under then Governor Deval Patrick. Maryland also signed up at the time.
Martin Suuberg, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department for Environmental Protection and the current chairman of RGGI, said TCI advocates are also drawing lessons on how to reach consensus, such as having a transparent process and collaborating closely with counterparts in other states.
“A lot of the states that are in TCI also did RGGI. It was an important template. We tried to incorporate a lot of the elements,” said Suuberg, while “recognizing that everyone would bring their own perspective.”
While a recent MassINC poll indicates broad support for TCI among voters in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, the politics are difficult even in Massachusetts. Senate President Karen Spilka supports TCI, but Speaker Bob DeLeo is actively mapping out other ways to raise additional money to fix the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure.
Raising the gas tax, for example, could complicate the state’s pursuit of TCI.
“It would be very difficult to get both approved at the same time,” said Theoharides. “I worry if we try to do both at the same time we don’t get TCI.”
It’s hard to see a scenario in which Beacon Hill signs off on what would be a double-whammy at the gas pump. But here’s the case for TCI: Designed right, the program can break us out of our dependence on fossil fuels. A gas tax is just a gas tax. If you believe climate change is an urgent problem, you get behind TCI, which across multiple states affects the habits of 70 million people and 52 million vehicles.
Theoharides said she has made TCI her top priority, taking up nearly a third of her time. She has dug deep because Baker has too. Last week during his State of the Commonwealth address he committed the state toward net-zero emissions by 2050.
“Net-zero hinges on us doing something large-scale like TCI,” said Theoharides.
Of Baker’s big bet on TCI, Theoharides added: “It’s not an easy thing for him to lead on ... He is personally sticking his neck out on this. I feel a real obligation to keep as many states in as we can and to make it a success."
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.