They could seem the most bureaucratic of appointments, just a few of several that Governor Maura Healey has made since settling into office. But her administration is casting her two climate-friendly nominees to help lead the Department of Public Utilities as a first step toward overhauling a critical agency that she has lambasted as ineffectual and too cozy with natural gas interests.
The new appointments — Jamie Van Nostrand, a law professor and clean energy advocate from West Virginia, and Staci Rubin, a Boston-based environmental justice specialist at the Conservation Law Foundation — starkly contrast with the commissioners they replace.
Both departing commissioners were career department employees seen as sympathetic to the interests of utilities, particularly gas. The outgoing chair, Matthew Nelson, worked for Eversource for four years before returning to the DPU as a director and then being named commissioner. The other departing commissioner, Robert Hayden, ran a Tea Party-tinged campaign for congress in 2010, opposing the Affordable Care Act and business regulation. “The government needs to back off and get out of the way,” he said then.
The new commissioners take over a department that historically was among the more obscure and hidebound of the state’s regulatory bureaucracies, with a primary function of ensuring gas and electric utilities are safe and reliable and charging fair prices. But with the growing urgency of the climate crisis and new state laws requiring aggressive cuts in greenhouse emissions, it has been put in a position of heavy influence over the speed and direction of climate action in the state.
Many climate advocates and government observers now see it as perhaps the state’s most important tool for making swift progress on the massive energy transition needed to drastically reduce emissions. And if not changed, they say, it could potentially be one of its greatest obstacles.
“There is no entity in the state government that has more responsibility for transitioning us from a fossil fuel based economy to an electricity and renewable based economy,” said Ann Berwick, who chaired the DPU commission from 2010 to 2015, during the Deval Patrick administration. “It’s absolutely at the core of what we have to do.”
The department has been accused in recent years of dragging its feet on approving a program to incentivize solar projects across the state and taking too long to review cities’ and towns’ plans to adopt so-called community aggregation, an arrangement that can allow them to purchase carbon-free energy rather than rely on local utilities.
The department came under especially intense criticism after revelations in 2021 that it allowed gas utilities to take the lead on drafting a proposed state plan for phasing out natural gas, which some saw as an acute conflict of interest. Healey, who as attorney general had requested the department create the plan, last May sharply criticized the department’s actions in a 106-page filing. “We should be setting the path for an energy system that is equitable, reliable, and affordable — not one that pumps more money into gas pipelines and props up utility shareholders,” she said at the time.
Under the Healey administration, the DPU will operate “as a partner in achieving climate goals, including through facilitating rapid renewable energy growth, building a modern grid, and promoting resiliency,” officials said in a statement this week.
The administration also said the famously opaque department would open its doors to the public through modernized communication tools and better community engagement. In addition, Healey said, the DPU should knit equity into its decision-making, and respond to concerns from environmental justice communities and low-income ratepayers. The new commissioners will also have responsibility for DPU’s oversight of the MBTA, a role that the Federal Transit Administration last year found the DPU was failing in.
People familiar with the department’s inner workings said the new commissioners will have exceptional power to quickly change the department’s priorities, in part because they effectively act as judges atop a bureaucracy organized by the principles of the judicial system.
“It’s like a court,” said Amy Boyd, vice president of Climate & Clean Energy Policy at the Acadia Center, which advocates for clean energy. “They can choose how to sequence their docket, and the commissioners decide what takes priority.”
State Senator Michael Barrett, an architect of the state’s climate laws, said his response to the new appointments was “undiluted enthusiasm.”
During the Baker administration, Barrett said, the DPU “existed in a kind of parallel universe where reliability and affordability — important considerations — were its total preoccupation. Climate didn’t seem to enter.” Now, he said, “the DPU is coming into the 21st century with a very loud huzzah, and I’m very happy to see it.”
Spokespeople from the state’s biggest gas and electric utilities, National Grid and Eversource, each said they were looking forward to working with the new commissioners to help achieve the state’s climate goals. “We are encouraged to see the Healey Administration name commissioners with significant education and experience in the important issues that need to be addressed to promote a successful transition to our shared clean energy future,” Caroline Pretyman of Eversource said in a statement.
A curiosity in the appointment process is a statutory requirement that both political parties by represented. Two of the three commissioners are now Democrats, including one who was appointed by the administration of Charlie Baker, Cecile Fraser. Healey’s choice for the required Republican, Van Nostrand, is a maverick in his party who for years has been an outspoken critic of leaders opposing a transition to carbon-free energy.
In West Virginia, where he is a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law and directs the college’s Center for Energy and Sustainable Development, he has sharply criticized what he said was a failure to confront the decline of coal and embrace a clean energy revolution.
The appointment of Rubin, meanwhile, puts an environmental justice advocate in a key decision-making role.
“Staci’s commitment to environmental justice populations is real,” said Dwaign Tyndal, executive director of Alternatives for Community & Environment, in a statement. “She has a deep understanding of how Black, Brown, immigrant, and low-income residents are excluded from policymaking, and she’ll know how to bring them into the process.”