Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides, who has led the state’s ambitious efforts on climate change since 2019, is resigning her post, the Baker administration announced Wednesday.
Her departure comes as the state is working on several fronts to fight climate change — from lowering emissions in transportation and buildings to greening the grid — and months before Governor Charlie Baker’s administration ends. Her last day will be May 6.
“Secretary Theoharides has been dedicated to making Massachusetts a national leader in climate solutions, including guiding the development of the offshore wind industry,” Baker said in a press release. “Katie has done a tremendous job leading our administration’s statewide efforts to comprehensively plan for the effects of climate change, and I wish her all the best in the future.”
Theoharides said she was “leaving for a new professional opportunity,” though did not specify what it was.
Theoharides has been with the Baker administration since 2016, when she joined as the director of climate and global warming solutions. Since then, the Baker administration has signed a law requiring the state to cut emissions to 50 percent below 1990 levels by the end of the decade and hit net-zero emissions by 2050, with Theoharides overseeing the work toward accomplishing those goals.
As part of that process, the state has some big deadlines looming, including setting emissions limits and sub-limits for 2025 and 2030, as well as the creation of a “clear, comprehensive, and specific” plan for attaining those goals by June 30 of this year.
The departure of Theoharides, whose tenure also saw big developments on offshore wind, could present a challenge, said State Senator Mike Barrett, but if the rest of the management team remains in place, it would be surmountable.
“On the other hand, a drip, drip, drip of important resignations would be a problem,” he said. “In the 2021 Climate Act, we tasked the EEA and its agencies with important new responsibilities. There are deadlines that await throughout 2022. We need to meet them.”
Beth Card, who has been serving as the undersecretary of environmental policy and climate resilience, will be taking over from Theoharides. Baker said that Card “has a deep knowledge of environmental policy and a wealth of experience in leading climate resiliency efforts in state government.”
At a press conference announcing Theoharides’ departure, Card said Theoharides is a “tough act to follow.” Asked about her initial priorities on the job, Card named an act Baker put forth last week which aims to invest $3.5 billion in state infrastructure and job creation, while also noting the importance of continuing to work to achieve the state’s climate goals by electrifying transit and expanding renewable energy.
Theoharides, who is trained as a field biologist, came to the Baker administration after having worked in conservation.
“It’s been particularly meaningful for me to serve in the field that I love, that I’ve been passionate about since grade school,” Theoharides said at Wednesday’s press conference. “This job has always been my dream job, and it’s one that’s very hard to leave because of the team the governor and lieutenant governor have assembled, and the importance of this work.”
Some in the advocacy world say they especially appreciated her background when it came to protecting natural lands.
“We are grateful for Secretary Theoharides’ leadership, collaboration, smarts, and savvy,” Deborah Markowitz, the Massachusetts director for The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental organization based in Virginia, told the Globe in an email. “Her vision weaving together nature-based solutions and climate justice has set the standard for years to come.”
Congrats to @EEASecretary on many yrs of impactful service & climate leadership! MA is lucky to have had you and now lucky that Beth Card taking the role at a critical time. She is a rockstar & will make sure @MassEEA doesn’t slow down a single step on the climate fight https://t.co/DeqtZhbfJA— Alicia Barton (@abartontweets) April 27, 2022
Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the climate change policy advocacy group Environmental League of Massachusetts, also praised Theoharides’ role in offshore wind expansion, reducing transit emissions, and boosting climate resilience.
“She has also worked uncommonly hard to make herself available to stakeholders and constituents,” Henry wrote in an email. “We wish her well in her next chapter!”
THANK YOU @EEASecretary Kathleen Theoharides for your leadership on #ClimateResilience!— Charles River Watershed Association (@charlesriver) April 27, 2022
2020 Rita Barron Public Official Award Winner, @ClimateKatie was a vital partner in helping our watershed prepare for #ClimateChange with the #MVP Program. #mapoli https://t.co/ntGVNYgxOf
Theoharides has touted the success of the state’s Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness Program as being among the things she was most proud of. The program provides support for 95 percent of cities and towns in Massachusetts as they adapt to and prepare for the impacts of climate change, and received Baker’s praise at Wednesday’s announcement.
“I can tell you what percentage of communities in Massachusetts had a municipal vulnerability plan before Katie started on that. That answer would be zero,” Baker said.
Theoharides traveled twice to the United Nations climate change conference, in 2017 and in 2021, where she represented the state on the international stage.
Her time in the Baker administration was also marked by some setbacks, including last year’s failure of the multi-state Transportation and Climate Initiative, a regional program that aimed to place a cap on vehicle pollution and require hundreds of fuel distributors to buy permits for any carbon emissions they produced beyond that cap. Theoharides championed the initiative and was set to chair it for the state, but Baker ultimately withdrew his support when other states pulled out from the pact.
“We look forward to helping or holding accountable the next person who fills this position, as we did Climate Katie,” Paul Diego Craney, a spokesperson for Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative group that was a key opponent of the Transportation and Climate Initiative, wrote in a statement.
Some of the state’s efforts on climate change under Theoharides also faced criticism from advocates who took aim at the slow place of heat pump and electric vehicle adoption, and an effort to chart the future of natural gas that critics said the state has allowed the natural gas utilities to lead.
"Climate Katie" said words that sounded good, but upheld the gas ind. while she was in office. Her husband works for National Grid as Director, US Gas Business 'Future State' & Strategy Activation. Next time, can we get an EEA Sec that *isn't* married to the gas industry?— 🦉AndreaHonoré (@grumpygrumpyowl) April 27, 2022
On Wednesday, Theoharides noted the importance of “keeping that focus on the future outcomes we’re driving towards for climate and the environment.”
“It’s kind of like planting a tree, right? You plant a tree, you don’t expect to see it grow into a big, tall oak, but you have to have the vision that it will someday,” she said.
Dharna Noor of the Globe staff contributed to this report.