A Baker administration plan to cut harmful greenhouse gases could have the unintended consequence of boosting carbon emissions across the rest of New England, say some environmental advocates and representatives of the energy industry.
The plan was designed to comply with a landmark 2016 Supreme Judicial Court decision that requires specific limits on sources of greenhouse gases. But while the regulations might help the state curb emissions, they could cause electricity production to be diverted to less efficient power plants outside the state that might use more polluting energy sources, such as coal or oil, critics say.
At a recent hearing at the state Department of Environmental Protection, Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, called the proposed rules "fundamentally flawed."
"While Massachusetts plants have their ability to operate severely curtailed, electricity demand will still have to be met," said Dolan, who represents the state's coal and natural gas industries. "So plants in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and other states that are less efficient and higher emitting will run more. It just doesn't make sense."
Environmental advocates acknowledge the proposed rules could, in the short term, increase emissions in neighboring states. They support the proposal overall, but are urging the state to revise the rules to make that less likely.
State officials declined to answer questions about the rules' potential to increase emissions in other New England states, but issued this statement:
"Through a robust comment period and public hearings around the state, Mass. DEP looks forward to engaging with stakeholders in an effort to ensure that the final rules are thoughtfully designed and effectively implemented."
The rules would require power plants in Massachusetts to reduce emissions 2.5 percent each year, starting in 2018. Once they reach their annual pollution limits, they would be required to shut down.
The regulations would also cap emissions for the state's fleet of vehicles, other parts of the transportation sector, natural gas mains used by utilities, and gas-insulated switch gear, such as circuit breakers.
Critics say the draft regulations would ultimately force the operator of the regional grid to draw a greater portion of its electricity from dirtier plants. ISO New England, an independent company that runs the grid, must seek power from the most efficient plants — those that provide the cheapest electricity with the least emissions — before looking elsewhere.
When the company can no longer obtain energy from those sources to keep the lights on, it turns to the region's remaining coal and oil plants, which pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Under the 2008 Global Warming Solutions Act, the state must reduce emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and 80 percent below that threshold by 2050.
Last May, the state's highest court ordered the Baker administration to limit overall emissions from specific sources, such as vehicles and power plants, and set annual limits on those emissions.
State officials say Massachusetts has already cut emissions by nearly 20 percent below 1990 levels. But environmental advocacy groups dispute that figure and say it doesn't account for the closing of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in 2019, which is likely to result in more carbon emissions from other energy sources.
Concerns about rising emissions in New England aren't hypothetical. In 2015, the year after the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant closed, the region saw emissions rise for the first time in five years.
Environmental advocates acknowledge that whatever increase in emissions elsewhere might result from Massachusetts' rules, it would disappear when more energy from offshore wind, hydropower, and solar facilities is brought online. And the increase, known in the industry as "leakage," would be minor, they say. Overall, they praise the scope of the proposed rules.
"It would be worth the possibility of a small rise in emissions, because we would be sending a clear, strong signal to the market that the future of power in Massachusetts will be clean and renewable," said David Ismay, a senior attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation .
Ismay and other environmental advocates are drafting suggestions for revised regulations that they say would reduce the likelihood of a rise in emissions. Their plan would create a kind of auction system that would allow power plants to trade emission allowances. That would encourage the grid to use newer, more efficient plants, such as one recently built in Salem, they say.
The system would be similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a cap-and-trade program that allows plants across the region to swap pollution allowances.
"The leakage argument is historically something of a 'sky is falling' one that power companies frequently make in opposition to new climate initiatives, and was made by opponents" of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, Ismay said.
Since the initiative began in 2008, it has led to reduced emissions and lower energy prices, said Peter Shattuck, director of the clean energy initiative at the Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group in Boston.
"While there may be some offsetting increases in emissions beyond Massachusetts' border, the Commonwealth has to set its own policy course," Shattuck said. "If we'd been looking over [our] shoulder at what other states were doing, we might never have pursued health care reform, marriage equality, or the Global Warming Solutions Act itself."
But power plant companies warn the proposed rules, which the state is required to issue in August, could threaten their viability in Massachusetts. Dynegy, a Houston energy company that owns nearly one-third of the state’s power plants, said the rules could force it to shutter its plants and eliminate hundreds of jobs.