As state officials and climate advocates have tried to push forward with major climate initiatives, powerful forces, including gas utilities and prominent business organizations, have for years worked to delay or undermine them.
Now, in a boon for climate action, that appears to be changing.
As business opportunities in a burgeoning clean economy grow, two influential lobbying groups now have leaders with strong environmental credentials. Meanwhile, a prominent business group parted ways with an executive who had represented gas interests, and the state’s two largest utilities have made moves that advocates believe could lead them to deemphasize their fossil fuel based operations.
For those who’ve been pushing the state to more aggressively pursue climate action, these moves suggest, at minimum, less opposition ahead.
“It does feel like we have this turning point,” said Adam Chapdelaine, the incoming president of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which lobbies on behalf of cities and towns. Between leadership changes at influential organizations, and new state and city policies cutting greenhouse gas emissions, he said, “It feels like there is this confluence of things coming together.”
Perhaps most significant among the moves, the major gas and electric utility Eversource has left the American Gas Association — a powerful industry association known for blocking climate action nationally — to focus on decarbonization. The 2022 decision by Eversource to take this step is unprecedented among utilities nationally.
The state’s other major gas and electric utility, National Grid, meanwhile, is replacing the president of its New England operations, who was a strong natural gas advocate, with Lisa Wieland, chief executive of the Massachusetts Port Authority, a move that climate advocates say could signal a shift away from gas expansion.
The Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a powerful industry group that lobbied for natural gas and against climate action in the state, has likewise hired new leadership and parted ways with its longtime energy lobbyist. A handful of other organizations across the state also appear to be leaning toward stances that favor climate action.
The changes come as Massachusetts continues to deliberate a plan for phasing out natural gas. The Department of Public Utilities, which is overseeing the planning, had allowed gas utilities to write the first draft under the administration of Governor Charlie Baker. But with new leadership installed by Governor Maura Healey, the DPU appears less likely to cater to the utilities’ wishes, according to Itai Vardi, a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute, a fossil fuel and utility watchdog group.
Those changes appear to happening at two tiers — incremental movement at the energy utilities, and a shifting of priorities among Massachusetts’ leading business associations — moving climate change and clean energy to the front burner.
Before being tapped to lead the Massachusetts Municipal Association, Chapdelaine was deputy director of the Boston Green Ribbon Commission, a group of business, institutional, and civic leaders working to address climate change. He is among a suite of new leaders at organizations across Massachusetts that did not actively oppose climate action but also hadn’t necessarily made it a top priority.
“I hope that when I step into the role — working with the team, working with the board — we can find the right way to make it very clear and explicit that climate is a leading priority,” he said.
It’s a similar story at the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a public policy group made up of chief executives from 19 of the state’s largest businesses, including Bank of America, the Kraft Group, State Street Corp., and Mass General Brigham. Rebecca Davis stepped in there as chief operating officer two years ago, after 13 years at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, where she started the organization’s climate and energy programming.
“There’s a growing recognition that we need to work collaboratively towards a transition to a cleaner energy system,” Davis said. “And so I’m not surprised that you’re seeing that in leadership across so many different organizations.”
Kyle Murray, Massachusetts program director at the clean energy advocacy group Acadia Center, who has observed the changes happening across the state’s business community, said they are driven less by the escalating urgency of the climate crisis than by a growing sense of economic opportunity.
“To be blunt about it, the business community will go where they see an opportunity to make money,” he said. “The green transition is providing a ton of jobs and a ton of new investments.”
One of the biggest draws is the billions of dollars made available by last year’s federal Inflation Reduction Act for climate and clean energy work. Doug Howgate, the new chief executive at the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business-backed research and advocacy organization, said the organization is starting to address climate change by looking at how the state can take advantage of those federal funds.
While the changes at the utilities and at Associated Industries of Massachusetts represent a shift, advocates were also adamant that there are still certain realities to contend with. After all, much of National Grid’s and Eversource’s operations still center on natural gas, and some business groups remain antagonistic to the idea of switching from fossil fuels to electricity for home heating.
In a statement, Eversource spokesperson Caroline Pretyman said the utility’s decision in 2022 to leave the American Gas Association allows it to engage further with organizations that focus on the clean energy future, such as the International Ground Source Heat Pump Association, MIT Future Energy Systems Center, and AICHE H2 Safety.
“We are taking an all-encompassing approach to explore innovative ways to decarbonize the natural gas system, such as our Geothermal Pilot program in Framingham, Massachusetts,” Pretyman said. “This was a strategic change to support our portfolio approach to decarbonization across our company.”
But she also noted, “This decision is not necessarily based on an incompatibility with the AGA, which remains an important industry group.” The decision by Eversource to leave the association was first reported by WBUR.
National Grid spokesperson Christine Milligan said via email the utility does not plan to exit the American Gas Association, adding that while it does not agree with every position of the association, “We don’t see membership and advancing decarbonization as mutually exclusive.”
When National Grid announced the appointment of Wieland as the new president of its New England business, the company noted in a press release that her presence would reinforce the company’s “credentials as a leader in the energy transition.”
It declined to comment further on the leadership change.
In their filings for the state’s “Future of Gas” proceeding on phasing out natural gas, both utilities presented a future in which more buildings are heated by electricity. But they also envision many being heated with other gas sources that the utilities claim will not have greenhouse gas emissions. However, clean energy advocates oppose those fuels, which they say are expensive, limited in supply, and require processing and delivery that results in significant climate-harming emissions. Plans that push these fuels, they say, are primarily a way for utilities to keep making money off their pipelines.
As climate and clean energy groups applaud Eversource’s decision to leave the American Gas Association, many said they are also hoping to see a stronger transition away from gas.
“Leaving the AGA is only symbolic unless Eversource demonstrates a continued transition away from natural gas to a clean, local, electrified energy system,” said Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts.