Governor Charlie Baker on Sunday returned to the Legislature a sweeping climate change bill he had previously vetoed, this time asking lawmakers to consider scaling back some of the core features aimed at drastically reducing carbon emissions by 2050.
Baker’s decision to return the legislation with amendments was expected after lawmakers, in a show of defiance, overwhelmingly approved an identical version of the bill that had died on Baker’s desk early last month. But on Sunday, legislative leaders expressed willingness to consider and potentially incorporate some of Baker’s proposals.
“I think we found considerable common ground,” said Kathleen A. Theoharides, the state’s energy secretary. “There is a shared sense of the urgency of addressing climate change as strongly as we can, while making sure we’re doing it through clear, practical, equitable, and cost-effective measures.
“Getting a bill of this magnitude right on the technical details really matters,” she said.
The far-reaching bill would accelerate the requirements of electric utilities to buy a certain amount of renewable energy, increase the contracting of offshore wind power, and establish new energy-efficiency standards for appliances.
It also seeks to guide the state and its various industries toward the goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a target both Baker and legislative leaders share. But they differed on the methods of reaching it, and in some cases, what they could cost.
The legislation, considered the state’s most sweeping climate change measure since the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act in 2008, would require the state to reduce its emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade.
Baker, however, favored a goal of cutting emissions by 45 percent by 2030. In his veto letter last month, Baker said a state analysis suggested it would cost Massachusetts $6 billion more to reach the Legislature’s more ambitious goal, a figure one legislative leader said was exaggerated.
Baker is now proposing the state reduce emissions by a range of 45 to 50 percent by 2030, and by 65 to 75 percent by 2040. The administration would be authorized to select specific targets within those ranges based on that “best available data,” Baker wrote in a nine-page letter to lawmakers Sunday.
“This flexibility will also help the Commonwealth avoid the costs that are expected to result from imposing a higher limit, particularly on those who can least afford it,” he wrote.
The change worried some environmental advocates, given the Legislature’s bill, for example, required emissions be cut “at least” by 50 percent by 2030.
“The 50 percent [target] was the floor. Now it’s the ceiling,” said Caitlin Peale Sloan, interim Massachusetts director of the Conservation Law Foundation.
State Senator Michael Barrett, one of the bill’s chief sponsors and lead negotiators, said Baker’s proposal “opens an entirely new policy suggestion, and it’s coming late in the game.” But he said legislators would seriously consider his amendments.
“I’m not going to prejudge the outcome,” said Barrett, a Lexington Democrat. “Overall, this is a good-faith effort to read a complicated statute and suggest some decent modifications.”
The Legislature’s bill established mandatory emissions limits for six sectors of the economy, from transportation to residential heating and cooling. Baker is asking legislators to soften the language on specific sectors by changing the sector-specific legal requirements to “planning tools” if statewide reduction goals are being met.
The change has the backing of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, an influential employer group that in a letter to lawmakers argued that some sectors might be better suited to cost-effective carbon reductions than others.
“Binding subsector limits would be a distraction,” said Robert Rio, the group’s senior vice president. “What we should be caring about is the overall goal.”
The bill has been the subject of intensive lobbying, particularly its provision allowing communities to adopt rules requiring that new buildings produce net-zero carbon emissions as soon as a year from now. Developers had expressed concerns, which Baker shared, that the mandate would increase construction costs and cause delays.
Under Baker’s proposal, the state would develop an updated energy code, which municipalities can opt into, with the goal of making new buildings “super efficient” but without using the term “net-zero,” Theoharides said.
Tamara Small, chief executive of NAIOP Massachusetts, a development trade group, said it could still be “a significant leap” for projects to meet the proposed energy requirements within the 18 months that Baker is suggesting.
Small urged lawmakers and the Baker administration to review the cost and technical feasibility of any energy code changes to ensure housing construction and economic development isn’t unduly affected.
Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts, an advocacy group, called Baker’s proposals a “mixed bag.” He applauded Baker for preserving some provisions, such as energy efficiency standards for appliances, but said his changes would temper local efforts to set stronger energy efficiency requirements for new buildings.
“Legislators should reject any weakening amendments — and, most important, they should act quickly to pass this bill into law,” he said.
The Legislature now must choose whether to accept, reject, or further amend the changes proposed by Baker. The House passed the bill by a 144-14 margin last month while the Senate passed it without a roll call.
Lawmakers could not override Baker’s veto of the original bill last month because they sent it to his desk just before their two-year session ended. Baker said at the time he would probably have proposed amendments then had he been given more time.
Baker also offered changes to provisions aimed at advancing environmental justice that he said would make them “even stronger,” including a requirement that the state Department of Environmental Protection conduct cumulative impact studies before issuing permits for projects. Normally, the state would evaluate how a project itself would affect air quality, but under this change officials would also consider the existing impact from local industries and infrastructure, Theoharides said.
Representative Thomas Golden, a Lowell Democrat, said Sunday the House wants to make sure the environmental justice language “stays intact or becomes stronger, if it can be.”
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