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CHESTO MEANS BUSINESS

Powerful business group adds climate change to its priorities

A truck was submerged on a highway ramp in lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012.
A truck was submerged on a highway ramp in lower Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. (JUSTIN LANE/EPA/File)

The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership helped sink the state’s first offshore wind energy project, the ill-fated Cape Wind.

So what’s this low-profile but powerful business group doing now, taking on climate change as a priority? It may sound surprising — or ironic. But these chief executives now view the issue as a major potential threat to the state’s economic competitiveness, one that needs to be tackled head on.

When the Partnership’s members reworked their committee structure last week, the group broadened the mission of its energy committee to include climate matters as well. Another big shift: The Partnership, largely consisting of older white men, added tackling racial diversity to the responsibilities of its women’s advancement committee. Chairman Bob Reynolds says the group’s formal and more engaged work on climate and diversity will help ensure that the Partnership is a leader on both issues.

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This is the same Partnership that once lobbied behind the scenes in Washington to kill Cape Wind, and helped pay for full-page newspaper ads to publicly lambaste it. The ostensible concern: Cape Wind would contribute to high electricity prices, making the Massachusetts economy less competitive. (The fact that a few members also had coastal homes nearby did not go unnoticed.)

But there’s a new wind industry in town now, and the Partnership is all for it. Partnership chief executive Jay Ash says his group supports the Baker administration’s effort to get large-scale wind farms built further offshore. The fact that the first of these, from Vineyard Wind, will be roughly one-third the cost of Cape Wind is a big selling point. But Ash makes it clear that the group is thinking about these turbines’ climate ramifications as well.

Ash joined the Partnership in January from the Baker administration. As the new arrival, Ash is helping the members reassess the group’s priorities. It’s too early to say what this left turn into climate concerns will mean. Ash says the Partnership is still in its fact-finding stage, identifying ways to advance good policy on climate. Ash, for example, traveled to Norway last month for a conference on sustainable cities.

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On Monday, Ash joins a contingent of Boston business and civic leaders headed to New York City for a daylong session on climate issues. First on the agenda: a walking tour of Lower Manhattan, to check out the area devastated by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The trip is being organized by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, another powerful business group that has recently added climate readiness to its list of policy priorities.

Several Partnership members were already engaged. State Street Corp. chief executive Ron O’Hanley cosigned a Boston Business Journal column in February, calling for “comprehensive climate action” in the state, for example, while Vertex Pharmaceuticals chief executive Jeff Leiden joined a coalition led by the Trustees of Reservations and chaired by O’Hanley to identify ways to make the Boston Harbor coastline more resilient to storms and rising seas. And Eversource, led by Partnership member Jim Judge, has teamed up with Danish energy giant Orsted to invest in offshore wind projects.

Environmentalists say they welcome the Partnership to the party: better late than never. Emily Norton of the Charles River Watershed Association says it’s in the companies’ self-interest to worry about potential damage from increasingly frequent storms and floods. Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, head of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, echoes that sentiment: She says climate change represents a huge threat to the state’s economy, and many Partnership members are already mitigating emissions and building resiliency into their operations.

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Don’t get too excited yet, ELM. The Partnership still supports expanding the natural gas capacity in New England, a position that has earned the ire of the greenies. Ash says the group views gas as a necessary “bridge fuel” until the region has enough clean energy sources to meet its needs. Gas is better for the environment, he says, than burning up coal and oil on cold winter days when there isn’t enough gas to go around.

These former foes won’t always agree. But the Partnership and other corporate lobbying groups realize that preparing for climate change is becoming a business imperative, to be embraced instead of opposed.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.