Metro

Environmentalists sharply critical of Charlie Baker’s policies

Governor Charlie Baker’s record on environmental issues may be his most vulnerable flank in his bid for a second term, one that has left him exposed to repeated criticism from advocacy groups and his opponent, Jay Gonzalez.
Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe
Governor Charlie Baker’s record on environmental issues may be his most vulnerable flank in his bid for a second term, one that has left him exposed to repeated criticism from advocacy groups and his opponent, Jay Gonzalez.

Governor Charlie Baker has long championed the expansion of natural gas pipelines into Massachusetts, even declining to change his position after last month’s explosions in the Merrimack Valley. His environmental record has consistently received middling grades from conservation groups. And he admits that he has failed to honor his primary environmental pledge from his 2014 campaign — devoting at least 1 percent of the state budget to environmental agencies.

A popular Republican in a blue state, Baker has adeptly bridged the partisan divide on many issues, drawing support from traditionally Democratic constituencies. But most environmental groups have remained sharply critical of his policies, saying the governor hasn’t taken sufficient action to address global warming.

Baker’s record on environmental issues may be his most vulnerable flank in his bid for a second term, one that has left him exposed to repeated criticism from advocacy groups and his opponent, Jay Gonzalez.

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“Governor Baker has failed in providing the leadership we need in the environment, across the board,” said Gonzalez, the Democratic nominee for governor. “There has been a lack of leadership on climate change, slow-walking our transition to renewables, and in some ways hindering our transition.”

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Baker declined to be interviewed. In a statement, Terry MacCormack, his campaign spokesman, praised the governor’s environmental record, calling Baker a “global leader in the fight against climate change.”

He also cited a list of the governor’s environmental accomplishments, including Massachusetts’ repeated ranking as the nation’s most energy-efficient state, legislation that seeks to increase hydropower from Canada and create some 1,600 megawatts of offshore wind power, and a $2.4 billion initiative that seeks to protect the state from climate change, among other goals. “Governor Baker and Lt. Governor [Karyn] Polito . . . are proud of their record advancing clean energy through the largest offshore wind procurement in US history, reducing carbon emissions while keeping Massachusetts’ commitment to meeting targets in the wake of the president’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement,” MacCormack said.

But critics say a governor from a state like Massachusetts should make environmental protection a greater priority and do more to speak out against the policies of President Trump, who has pulled out of the Paris climate accord and sought to gut a host of environmental regulations.

In an annual report card assessing the administration’s environmental record, a coalition of advocacy groups, including the Environmental League of Massachusetts, Conservation Law Foundation, and the Massachusetts Rivers Alliance, gave Baker a “C” each of the past three years.

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In this year’s report, they handed Baker a failing grade for his effort to assume the responsibility of regulating state waterways from the federal government, which critics saw as a way to weaken oversight. They also issued an “F” for the administration’s record on waste facilities, specifically its approval of a landfill expansion in Saugus, which allowed the plant to dump an additional 500,000 tons of toxic ash beside a vital estuary.

The coalition’s most recent report card also praised the Baker administration for its efforts to reduce food waste at institutions such as universities and hospitals and to remove dams and restore the natural flow of rivers throughout the state. And some environmental advocates praised the governor’s environmental record.

“I would rate the governor’s record on environment and energy as good,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon. “Overall, both candidates’ positions on the environment are progressive, especially when we look at what is going on nationally in both parties.”

Still, critics haven’t forgotten that Baker, in his first run for governor eight years ago, declined to take a position on whether humans are primarily responsible for global warming, telling the Globe he was “not smart enough” to know the answer. Nearly all climate scientists have said for many years that humans are responsible for the rapid warming.

“Governor Baker’s response to climate change and environmental issues has been utterly inadequate,” said Vignesh Ramachandran, an organizer for 350 Mass Action, one of two environmental groups that have endorsed Gonzalez. None have endorsed Baker. “Baker’s eventual acceptance of climate science is . . . barely better than the Trump administration’s assault on federal environmental regulations.”

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Environmental advocates have also criticized Baker for taking tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies, such as NiSource, whose subsidiary was responsible for the explosions in the Merrimack Valley, while advocating that ratepayers subsidize new natural gas pipelines across the state. They say that Baker only acted to implement the Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires that state cut carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, after being sued by environmental groups. They blame him for rolling back regulations at the state Department of Public Utilities, which oversees energy issues, and for hiring a relatively inexperienced secretary of energy and environmental affairs.

At a recent forum at the Museum of Science that focused on environmental issues, Baker apologized for “not delivering on my promise” to boost the budgets of environmental agencies.“We didn’t get this one done,” he said.

Wearing a large green pin that read “1 percent for the environment,” Gonzalez pledged to increase funding and staff at the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, saying the agencies’ budgets had been “decimated.”

“I believe government is our instrument, not our enemy,” Gonzalez said. “The environmental agencies are a key example of protecting us, and our natural assets, and we are failing at that right now.”

The Globe reported last year that the DEP’s workforce had shrunk by nearly a third over a decade, and that enforcement of air and water quality regulations had fallen sharply.

When asked at the forum about whether he has reconsidered his plans for new gas pipelines in light of the Merrimack Valley disaster, Baker wouldn’t provide a direct answer, despite being pressed twice by the moderator.

“Our focus needs to be on the existing infrastructure and ensuring that it’s safe,” Baker said. “That’s going to be our focus.”

Gonzalez responded by emphasizing his opposition to natural gas. He said he would do “everything in my power to stop the expansion of natural gas pipeline infrastructure in this state.” In an interview, he said he would press the state to accelerate its transition to renewable energy, so that 50 percent of its energy comes from sources such as solar and wind by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.

He also pledged not to take money from fossil fuel companies and said he would appoint energy and environmental officials dedicated to addressing the effects of climate change.

In light of the most recent report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change , which suggested that global warming could cause catastrophic consequences as soon as 2040, he insisted that the state should start levying taxes or other fees on carbon immediately.

“We need real leadership in this area now,” he said. “We can’t afford to not move forward with an ambitious agenda to take on climate change.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.