A year ago, the Baker administration released a detailed road map to effectively eliminate the state’s carbon emissions by the middle of the century.
Now, just weeks after a United Nations summit in Scotland underscored the need for urgent action to address climate change, crucial pillars of those plans have collapsed.
The ambitious cap-and-invest pact known as the Transportation Climate Initiative, or TCI, promised to cut transportation emissions — the region’s largest source of greenhouse gases — by at least 25 percent over the next decade.
A separate initiative, the New England Clean Energy Connect project, sought to build a $1 billion transmission line in Maine to deliver large amounts of hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts, which would help to significantly reduce the region’s reliance on fossil fuels.
But, in what some have compared to a “one-two punch,” Maine voters rejected the transmission line, and a few weeks later, the pact to reduce transportation emissions was abandoned.
Without those projects, the Baker administration lacks a clear path to meeting its obligations under the state’s new climate law, which requires officials to cut emissions 50 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade and effectively eliminate them by 2050.
“This work to hit climate goals is not for the faint of heart,” said Kathleen Theoharides, the state’s secretary of energy and environmental affairs, in an interview. “It was always going to be difficult to get there. We’re talking about rebuilding an entire economy, and infrastructure and society, around clean energy.”
The administration is mulling its options, she said, and counting on a large infusion of federal dollars from the newly passed $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to make up for the loss of both projects. While it’s unclear how the administration will proceed, Theoharides said she is optimistic the federal aid will make a significant difference.
But environmental advocates worry the state will rely too much on that aid, a one-time infusion they worry would quickly be spent on other projects that do not have anything to do with fighting climate change.
“The federal funding is a very welcome, one-time infusion; however, it is not sufficient to achieve our 2030 or 2050 goals,” said Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “We will still need a sustainable source of revenue to support the transition to a clean, modern transportation system once those dollars are spent.”
The Baker administration is still holding out hope the 145-mile transmission line, which would cut through Maine’s North Woods, could still win approval. Avangrid, the company building the line, has sued the state of Maine, arguing the referendum was illegal. Opponents of the transmission line have urged the Baker administration to respect the will of voters in Maine, but Theoharides said they were waiting on the litigation’s resolution before abandoning hope that it could proceed.
“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,” she said. “I think that was a very deliberate move by some competitors in the industry that didn’t want to see their own assets jeopardized by this new power coming into the region.”
Theoharides said the state may have to be “creative” in finding new options to import the 1,200 megawatts of hydropower that was expected from Canada. There are other proposals to bring the power through Vermont, though those would likely be significantly more expensive. The Maine route was chosen only after the state’s initial plan to bring the power through New Hampshire failed.
“This has our full attention,” Theoharides said. “All of these projects are challenging, which is why we need to keep many different options on the table.”
The Biden administration was also frustrated with the vote and is considering how to help revive the hydropower plan. US Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm had taken the rare step of speaking out in favor of a local ballot measure, urging Mainers to allow the transmission line to be built.
“That one’s a disappointment,” Granholm said in a recent interview.
The federal government does have a new program to develop what officials consider to be nationally significant transmission lines, locating them on federal land or underground, where possible, she said.
But Granholm hasn’t given up on the power line through Maine. “We’re going to sharpen our pencils and see how we can continue to help push that,” she said.
Officials are less optimistic about the revival of the TCI. The program was designed to require hundreds of fuel distributors in a dozen East Coast states to buy pollution permits for the carbon dioxide they produce, allowing the states to invest the proceeds in clean energy and other climate friendly projects.
But after years of negotiations, only Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Washington, D.C., had agreed to proceed. Then, just a few weeks ago, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said his state wouldn’t move ahead with the program, citing rising gas prices, and Baker decided to pull out as well, despite years of efforts promoting it as key to the state’s ability to reduce emissions.
Officials at the Georgetown Climate Center, which spent years prodding states to join the pact, said they hoped it would live to see another day.
“That blueprint is available, and it is ready to apply whenever the time is right,” said Kate Zyla, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center.
For now, though, TCI’s demise leaves Massachusetts — and some of its neighbors — struggling for new ways to rein in transportation emissions, a huge source of carbon pollution. In Rhode Island, where the Legislature was expected to vote on TCI next year, state environmental officials lamented its apparent demise, calling it a “setback” for their ability to comply with emissions reduction mandates similar to those in Massachusetts.
“We can’t meet our goals without having a robust plan on the transportation sector,” said Terry Gray, acting director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, who noted that 36 percent of the state’s emissions come from transportation.
Rhode Island didn’t have the ability to go it alone, he said, so the state has been forced to consider other options, such as relying on federal aid.
“We’re now back to the drawing board, looking at coming up with a Plan B,” Gray said.
With Baker’s recent announcement that he wouldn’t run for a third term, it will be up to his successors how the state fills the gaps left by his failed plans.
Some environmental advocates were dubious that they could.
“We are definitely concerned about the Commonwealth’s ability to meet its binding goals without TCI and the transmission line,” said Alli Gold Roberts, senior director state policy at CERES, a Boston-based environmental group that promotes climate action in the corporate world.
Bradley Campbell, president of the Conservation Law Foundation, said the loss of the transmission line and TCI were a “one-two punch” for the state, especially after the recent global climate summit in Glasgow.
“The climate crisis demands we slash polluting emissions to avoid catastrophe,” he said. “There’s no question we need to cut emissions, and losing any program that would have helped is troubling.”
Still, Theoharides said she remains confident that the state will be able to achieve its emissions reductions, and that the federal money could enable the state to do more than it expected, at least in the short term. She predicted the state could receive about $9 billion — significantly more than the estimated $130 million a year that would have come from the transportation pact with other states.
Much of that money will be devoted to similar programs that TCI would have supported, such as improving public transportation, rebates for electric vehicles, building charging stations around the state, and much more, she said.
“Do I think if we’re not careful about how we spend the dollars that we won’t get to the goals we want, in terms of climate change? Absolutely,” she said. “We have to be focused on spending these funds in the most effective way to hit a broad set of goals.”
But recent events require the state to adapt to the new reality, she said.
“Chasing these climate targets and getting there requires a lot of flexibility, creativity, and a dogged pursuit of multiple options to hit these targets.”
Sabrina Shankman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.