After attending last month’s climate summit in Glasgow, Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, returned home to find that crucial pillars of the Baker administration’s plan to address climate change had collapsed. Maine voters rejected plans to build a vital transmission line through their state to bring large amounts of hydropower to New England. A few weeks later, Governor Charlie Baker announced he was withdrawing his support for a pact with other East Coast states to reduce transportation emissions. In an interview with Globe environmental reporter David Abel, Theoharides discussed how the administration plans to respond. The interview has been edited and condensed.
What was it like to be away when an important part of the state’s climate plan — the effort to bring hydropower from Canada — seemed to be rejected?
Well, I think the challenge to this particular project highlights a challenge that I heard loud and clear from leaders all over the conference. That transmission, interstate transmission, is really key to hitting any of our goals and states across the country in other countries. It was a challenge in Scotland. It’s a challenge in New York. If you go back to our 2050 roadmap, what we showed is that interstate transmission to clean resources throughout the region is one of the least costly, most effective ways to get the scale of the clean electricity we need to power our homes, businesses, and vehicles.
Should Massachusetts continue to support the plan to build the transmission line, given that a clear majority of Mainers rejected the plan?
It’s important for the clean energy goals of the region. It doesn’t just benefit Massachusetts ratepayers to benefit all of the players in the region, the entire regional grid. Mainers stood to gain significant investment across their state as well as jobs. And one of the things that stopped immediately when Avangrid [the company building the power line] shut down work were the payments they were making to the state of Maine and the jobs that they deployed. We believe this project was misunderstood and deliberately cast by others in the energy space in a way that Maine voters would see it in a very negative way. Look, if you read the ballot initiative question, it said, “Do you approve of the high impact transmission line through a wildlife corridor?” And for most people, that’s all they heard.
At this point, is the administration considering a Plan B, such as another other route for hydropower from Canada?
I’m not going to go into details of this now, but we’re certainly in touch with the companies who are involved in it, looking at a variety of options and also continuing to really keep up with any new developments in this situation.
The Baker administration spent years heralding the promise of the Transportation Climate Initiative, which would have been among the nation’s most ambitious efforts to address climate change by reducing tailpipe emissions. Why did the administration decide to withdraw its support?
I think we’ve always been clear that we believed in the power of a regional cap and invest program to address transportation sector emissions, to improve outcomes in environmental justice communities, and to provide the funds we needed to transition to a clean transportation sector, much as we did through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative [a similar pact for power plant emissions]. And so an important underlying principle of all of this was that it would be done in a regional manner, and we dug in and fought really hard for a number of years to bring the region together. Unfortunately, a number of factors, not least of which was the pandemic, changed the direction a lot of other states were moving in. And as we learned where other states were, it was clearly no longer possible to move forward with a regional program.
How much of a blow is it to the administration’s climate plan to see TCI effectively abandoned?
Bringing together 12 states is a very difficult but compelling opportunity that we pursued because we believed it had a lot of promise. And, you know, sometimes these things don’t come together. The important piece here is knowing when it’s time to move forward, and this infusion of [federal] funding allows us to do that. I agree with you there are going to be a lot of demands on this funding, but a lot of it is specifically set up to address some of the things that we were planning to fund through TCI, including specific carve outs for electric vehicles and their infrastructure, including carve outs for public transit, which was an important part of TCI funding.
You have said the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill could play a significant role in helping the administration meet its obligations under the state’s new climate law. How confidant are you that the state will be able to reduce its emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030?
I absolutely think we will be able to hit our 2030 target. Our wind projects are coming online. The federal administration is supportive of key climate priorities in the state, and we’ve made significant progress under Governor Baker to advance offshore wind, to advance the amount of solar we have in the state. We’re significantly revising our three-year energy efficiency plans in a way that will be focused on going after our emission reduction targets, not just cost savings for repairs. We’ve invested significantly in [battery] storage. We are investing significantly in transportation options, clean transportation options, and we’ll be able to do a lot more of that. What I would say is, this work to hit climate goals is not for the faint of heart. We’re talking about rebuilding an entire economy and infrastructure and society around clean energy. And so anyone who thinks that’s going to be easy, or that the course and the path is always going to be straight, is wrong.