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Baker pulls support for regional pact that would address climate change

Governor Charlie Baker
Governor Charlie BakerElise Amendola/Associated Press

It would have been among the nation’s most ambitious efforts to fight climate change.

For years, the Baker administration prodded other states in the region and beyond to join Massachusetts in a controversial cap-and-invest pact that would have led to substantial cuts to transportation emissions, the nation’s largest source of greenhouse gases.

On Thursday, the administration announced that it was pulling its support for the so-called Transportation Climate Initiative, likely a death knell for the agreement.

“The Baker-Polito administration always maintained the commonwealth would only move forward with TCI if multiple states committed, and, as that does not exist, the Transportation Climate Initiative is no longer the best solution for the commonwealth’s transportation and environmental needs,” said Terry MacCormack, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker, in a statement.

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He suggested the initiative was no longer necessary, given the state’s economic rebound from the pandemic and the large infusion of federal aid to Massachusetts, as a result of Congress’s recent passage of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

The additional tax revenue from the recovery and an estimated $10 billion for transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts “make the commonwealth better positioned to upgrade its roads, bridges and public transportation systems, while also making investments to reduce transportation emissions, deliver equitable transportation solutions and benefits, and meet the state’s ambitious climate goals,” he said.

The administration’s announcement deeply disappointed some state lawmakers and environmental advocates, who viewed the initiative as a key part of the state’s ability to comply with the landmark climate law that Baker signed earlier this year. The law requires the state to cut is carbon emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade and effectively eliminate them by 2050.

“This is a serious challenge to our climate planning,” said state Senator Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat and one of the climate bill’s lead negotiators. “Plan B needs to be brought along quickly.”

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He and others said the state must come up with a new way of curbing transportation pollution, which before the pandemic was responsible for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions nationally and 40 percent of the region’s emissions.

“While we had hoped that other states would join us, we can’t lose sight of the critical need to address carbon emissions from the transportation sector,” said Nancy Goodman, vice president for policy at the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “We cannot meet our net-zero mandate without doing so. The infusion of resources from the federal level can help us move in that direction, but must be spent effectively and with an explicit goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Baker’s decision comes after Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont this week made a similar announcement to pull his support from the pact. Unlike Massachusetts, Connecticut and other states require a vote by their Legislature for the pact to take effect.

Lamont, a Democrat, acknowledged such support was unlikely, even though his party controls power in the Legislature. He blamed rising gas prices, which he said had reached a seven-year high in Connecticut.

“I couldn’t get that through when gas prices were at a historic low, so I think the Legislature has been pretty clear that it’s going to be a pretty tough rock to push when gas prices are so high,’’ Lamont told reporters on Tuesday, acknowledging that the cost of gas was likely to rise as a result of the initiative.

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The initiative was envisioned to mirror a similar pact known as the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. That nine-state regional cap-and-invest system helped reduce power plant emissions from Maryland to Maine by at least 40 percent below 2005 levels without raising electricity prices.

Last year, as Baker administration officials led negotiations, they hoped 11 other states and Washington, D.C., would join the pact, which aimed to reduce tailpipe emissions by a quarter over the coming decade from Maine to Virginia. It would have required hundreds of fuel distributors in participating states to buy permits for the carbon dioxide they produce.

The tax on fuel distributors was expected to raise billions of dollars over the coming decade for investments in public transit and other cleaner forms of transportation, while encouraging fuel efficiency and subsidizing electric vehicles and charging stations, and other measures that would promote the transition away from fossil fuels.

But it was controversial because it was expected to also lead to higher gas prices throughout the region, as fuel distributors would have passed their costs on to drivers. Gas prices were expected to rise 5 to 9 cents a gallon when the rules took effect in 2023, with some estimates suggesting it could add as much as 24 cents to the price of a gallon.

When the final agreement was announced last December, only Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C., signed up to take part. Other key Northeast and mid-Atlantic states that had considered joining the program, including New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, declined to participate.

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At the time, Baker said the “price of doing nothing is very big.”

Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs and the administration’s chief champion of the pact, said at the time that the initiative was “committing to bold action to achieve our ambitious emissions reduction targets, while positioning the jurisdictions and the region to grow the clean transportation economy.”

Theoharides did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday.

Opponents who have long criticized the initiative applauded Baker’s decision.

“Today is a major win for the taxpayers of Massachusetts,” said Geoff Diehl, a former Republican state representative now running for governor. “The Baker administration has finally acknowledged what we have known all along, and what I have said while meeting with countless working families across this state — joining TCI was a bad idea from the start, and it would cost our state too much money.”

Paul Diego Craney, a spokesman for the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, called the initiative “a regressive gas tax scheme that would have hurt middle class and the working poor.”

“We are so pleased to finally see it defeated in Massachusetts,” Craney said.

While proponents of the initiative said the large infusion of federal dollars would help the state achieve some of the goals envisioned for the pact, they raised deep concerns about how the state would now be able to reduce emissions.

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Baker’s decision, they noted, comes just after Theoharides and thousands of environmental officials and activists met in Glasgow this month for a climate summit that underscored the need for states and nations around the world to sharply reduce their emissions.

“Today’s announcement leaves us with a steep hill to climb,” said Jordan Stutt, carbon programs director at the Acadia Center in Boston. “The region’s tailpipe emissions have been trending in the wrong direction, and now we’re rolling back a critical component of the commonwealth’s clean transportation strategy.”

Janet Domenitz, executive director of the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, blamed the governor for failing to lead.

“We’re disappointed that Governor Baker is ceding, rather than leading the way on TCI,” she said. “What our climate needs more than anything right now is leadership.”


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.