A business-backed lobbying push over one controversial provision could end up sinking a far-reaching climate and energy bill that the Massachusetts Legislature passed on the penultimate day of its two-year session.
The point of contention: one sentence in the 57-page bill that would allow cities and towns to adopt rules requiring new buildings to be “net zero,” presumably with regard to greenhouse gas emissions.
The climate bill’s success, seemingly assured just over a week ago, now hangs in the balance. Environmental advocates are increasingly jittery that months of work could be in jeopardy. Governor Charlie Baker has until the end of the day Thursday to decide whether the concern over net-zero buildings and any other issues outweigh all the bill’s potential benefits, such as sparking more offshore wind and solar projects.
The Legislature didn’t end up passing the bill until roughly one day before the two-year session ended last week. For that reason, Baker cannot send the bill back with amendments. He can either sign it or reject it by either explicitly vetoing it or not signing it, a “pocket veto.”
Among the groups calling for a veto: development lobbyist NAIOP Massachusetts, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and the Home Builders and Remodelers Association of Massachusetts. Among those urging support: environment-focused nonprofits such as Ceres and RENEW Northeast, and a coalition of municipal leaders in 17 cities and towns in Greater Boston.
For some in the business community, the debate mirrors one that played out during the past year or so over banning new natural-gas hookups in several cities and towns. Those efforts hit a big setback in July when Attorney General Maura Healey ruled that a ban in Brookline was preempted by state law.
While advocates for builders and developers support most aspects of the climate bill, they worry this net-zero building provision in particular could derail the state’s economic recovery by creating a new source of construction costs and delays.
There is no specific definition of “net zero” in the particular section of the bill. But the context of the bill implies that lawmakers are referring to greenhouse gas emissions. A primary goal of the bill is to bring the state to achieve “net-zero” status by 2050, meaning that any greenhouse gas emissions are offset in some way.
Supporters say such net-zero rules for buildings are crucial to reaching this target. Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, is among the advocates who sent letters to Baker urging him to sign the bill. In a statement, Henry said that “without the new net-zero code, we will certainly miss an opportunity to accelerate progress towards reducing our overall emissions.”
Meanwhile, Boston Society for Architecture president Gregory Minott sent a four-page letter to Baker, focused on the net-zero building code provision. The BSA, in its letter, argued that the costs of net-zero buildings have been overblown, particularly when operational costs are factored. The group argues that any upfront costs would be marginal and the impact over time would translate to lower costs to homeowners and businesses.
The BSA also pointed to examples of affordable housing projects with net-zero standards, to underscore the group’s argument that transitioning to a renewable-energy future will not hurt low-income families.
But a number of businesspeople argue that this kind of construction can indeed be cost-prohibitive, at least with current technologies.
Last week, Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce chief executive Jim Rooney sent a letter to Katie Theoharides, Baker’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, saying the provision could be used by cities and towns to slow or halt new development. Rooney, in his letter, said this measure could hinder the effectiveness of Housing Choice — a long-awaited bill, and a priority of Baker’s, that lawmakers passed last week that would reduce the voting threshold required to approve many local land-use changes and permits.
Rooney didn’t explicitly call for a veto in the letter. But now that it’s clear Baker can’t send the bill back with an amendment, the chamber is calling for an outright veto, according to Carolyn Ryan, a senior vice president at the chamber. Ryan said the chamber now argues the bill should be redone quickly in the new two-year session, using the legislation that was just passed as a foundation.
NAIOP Massachusetts chief executive Tamara Small was more direct in her letter. Her group “strongly urges” Baker to veto the bill.
A one-year timeline to develop and implement energy codes for net-zero buildings as envisioned in the bill is far too aggressive, Small said. In particular, she cited concerns about the impact on commercial buildings, saying very few net-zero labs or office towers have been built. These new rules, she wrote, would push up barriers for companies to enter the state and threaten job creation and retention during an economic crisis.