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Reluctantly, governor vetoes Mass. climate change bill, but it may soon be back on his desk

Protestors marched to the State House in December 2019 to call for action on climate change.
Protestors marched to the State House in December 2019 to call for action on climate change.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Governor Charlie Baker vetoed a far-reaching package of climate change and energy legislation Thursday, rejecting — perhaps temporarily — a bill that would have set the state on a path to in effect eliminate its carbon emissions over the next three decades.

The move disappointed but didn’t surprise lawmakers and advocates, who had feared the Republican governor would veto the bill, despite having laid out his own ambitious plan to achieve zero emissions on a net basis by 2050.

The legislation, considered the state’s most sweeping measure to address climate change since the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, would have required the state to reduce its emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade.

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In a letter to the Legislature, Baker said he shared lawmakers’ goals but differed with them “on how these goals should best be achieved.”

“Reluctantly, I cannot sign this legislation as currently written,” he wrote.

Baker could only sign or veto the 57-page bill, since lawmakers passed and sent it to him one day before their two-year legislative session ended last week.

With more time, Baker said, he would have returned the bill to lawmakers with proposed amendments.

His five-page letter cited a list of reasons why he refused to sign the bill. He said it would have countered a recently enacted law that seeks to promote affordable housing; lacked provisions to help fortify the state against rising seas and other impacts of climate change; would potentially harm regional efforts to procure clean energy; and was not supported by scientific analysis.

He also cited the uncertain consequences of the bill on the state’s economy as it emerges from the pandemic. “As we are all learning what the future will hold, I have concerns about the impacts portions of this bill will have for large sectors of the economy,” Baker said.

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But his veto may be short-lived. Democratic leaders in the Legislature have vowed to rush the bill back to Baker’s desk, potentially within days, quickly reviving a package free of the parliamentary limits that Baker suggested had tied his hands.

The legislation called for increasing energy-efficiency requirements in appliances and requiring utilities to buy more megawatts of offshore wind power. It carried potentially broad ramifications for the business community, touching everything from the solar industry to municipal light plants.

The Baker administration had set, in some cases, different goals, such as reducing emissions by 45 percent below 1990 levels by decade’s end, rather than the 50 percent goal the Legislature set forth. In his veto letter, Baker said a state analysis suggested it would cost Massachusetts $6 billion more to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent in such a short time.

Baker’s plan includes a range of ambitious measures, from mandating that only zero-emissions vehicles be sold in the state by 2035 to dramatically increasing offshore wind power and other forms of renewable energy.

At a news conference Thursday, Baker said he was concerned about the legislation’s possible impact on housing.

He cited lobbying by “folks who are in the building and home construction businesses, who’ve said certain pieces of this bill . . . literally may just stop in its tracks any housing development in the Commonwealth.”

“Those words get my attention,” he said. “We’ve got to build more housing that’s less expensive, not less housing that’s more expensive. And that issue, in particular, really rings true for me, especially as we come out of this terrible period we’ve been in.”

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One point of contention was language that would allow cities and towns to adopt rules requiring new buildings to be “net zero,” presumably with regard to greenhouse gas emissions.

Advocates for builders and developers, while supporting most aspects of the climate bill, worried the net-zero provision could derail the state’s economic recovery by creating a new source of construction costs and delays.

Tamara Small, the chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a development lobbyist, said the net-zero provisions were “unworkable as written” and applauded Baker for rejecting the bill. “NAIOP looks forward to working with the Legislature and the administration to secure our climate future in a practical, feasible way,” Small said.

But legislative leaders dismissed those concerns. State Senator Michael Barrett, one of the bill’s chief sponsors and lead negotiators, said the legislation would not have overburdened the real estate industry, saying it would give the state and municipalities flexibility about its implementation.

“The Legislature is not bringing any kind of construction to a dead halt by giving localities this option,” Barrett said, adding that the bill “is not anti-development. This is pro-green development.”

“I really don’t get the industry’s reservations at this point,” he said. “We heard them. I think our language reflects their worries.”

He said Baker and his staff had failed to engage with lawmakers over the past year, noting that the Senate had passed its version of the bill nearly a year ago and that it included the same language related to reducing emissions in buildings.

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“For months, we asked them to say what they are now saying,” he said. “They didn’t utter a peep for all of 2020. They’re very late for this rodeo.”

Environmental advocates who had previously cheered Baker for pursuing a path to net-zero emissions were quick to criticize him Thursday, arguing his veto does little but delay changes that have wide support in the Legislature and business community and, in many cases, align with Baker’s own plans.

“Stalling these critical advances is excruciating,” said Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.

House Speaker Ronald Mariano and Senate President Karen E. Spilka said this week that they were prepared to return the legislation to Baker’s desk within days. Baker on Thursday indicated he’d welcome Mariano and Spilka’s plans.

“What that says to me is that the House and Senate would like to get, quote, a significant bill done on this issue,” Baker said. “So would we.”

Jon Chesto of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.