Metro

Baker proposes controversial change in how Mass. spends money on global warming

04/22/2010 CAMBRIDGE, MA Julia Malik of Arlington shops for a new washing machine at the Best Buy in the Cambridgeside Galleria. Malik registered for the rebate this morning at about 10:30am and received one for a washing machine. Mass Save eligibility on a dishwasher at the Best Buy in the Cambridgeside Galleria. The sticker indicates a possible rebate through a state funded cash for appliances program. (ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE) Library Tag 08112010 Business
ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/File 2010
Currently, state spending of specific greenhouse gas funds is limited to energy-efficiency and conservation initiatives.

It’s an obscure provision in the governor’s latest budget, but it could have significant implications for how the state addresses climate change.

The controversial proposal has also exposed a rift between environmental groups over whether the state should focus its efforts more on curbing the emissions that cause global warming or trying to blunt the impact of climate change. One approach confronts the cause; the other seeks to mitigate the consequences.

In his proposed budget for the next fiscal year, Governor Charlie Baker has suggested changing how the state spends tens of millions of dollars it receives every year from its participation in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a market-based compact of nine states that effectively taxes carbon emissions from power plants and allows each state to use the proceeds to reduce pollution.

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Under state law, that money must be spent primarily on energy efficiency and conservation. But Baker wants the Legislature to let the proceeds also be spent on “adaptation” and “mitigation” measures, such as shoring up sea walls and protecting wetlands.

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Administration officials contend that the change wouldn’t come at the expense of energy-efficiency programs and would give the state more flexibility.

But critics, including several prominent state senators who have been outspoken about climate change, worry that the proposal would allow the administration to shift money from what they consider to be vital efforts to cut emissions.

“I’m extremely concerned about this language in the budget, and I need answers from the administration,” said Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat, who chairs the Senate’s Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change. “It could place greenhouse gas emissions reductions at odds with funding for adaptation and resiliency. We shouldn’t place them against each other. We need to be doing both aggressively.”

Nearly all the money from the compact now goes to subsidizing Mass Save, the state’s primary energy-efficiency program, which provides free energy audits and an array of financial incentives for everything from efficient heating systems to energy-saving appliances. The program is considered vital to reducing the state’s emissions.

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Massachusetts has received $646 million from the compact since it began in 2008, including more than $40 million last year.

If lawmakers approve the change, the state Department of Energy Resources would have the authority to spend the money on other priorities, such as aid for municipalities to catalog their vulnerabilities and protect their wetlands.

But state officials insist that the change won’t threaten Mass Save’s budget. Electricity ratepayers, by law, would be required to make up whatever was diverted to mitigation efforts to ensure the program doesn’t lose money, they said. This would likely result in an increase in costs for ratepayers.

“The administration remains committed to ensuring Massachusetts continues its nation-leading efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and implement energy-efficiency policies,” said Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

Some environmental groups support the changes.

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They note how the most recent National Climate Assessment released by the federal government estimates that $3.6 trillion in real estate, roads, and other assets are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, including billions of dollars worth of coastal homes and businesses in Massachusetts.

“The Legislature should give the governor the option to use RGGI funds to help cities and towns protect themselves,” said Jack Clarke, director of public policy at Mass Audubon. “It’s up to the state and local governments to act, especially when the president refuses to even acknowledge that climate change is real.”

For years, Clarke and others have urged the state to adjust how it spends the proceeds from the compact, with the goal of preparing for the dangers of a warming planet. Under the worst-case scenarios, seas are projected to rise as much as 10.5 feet and annual precipitation could increase by up to 16 percent by the end of the century, according to a state report released last year.

With 1,500 miles of shoreline, Massachusetts is acutely vulnerable to climate change. About 65 acres are already lost to the sea every year, and that’s likely to increase as storms grow more powerful and seas rise, according to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Between 1978 and 2013, flooding and other storm damage cost the state an estimated nearly $1 billion, according to the most recent state report on coastal erosion.

In a recent letter, officials from the Massachusetts chapter of The Nature Conservancy also called on their supporters to lobby lawmakers to approve the proposed changes.

“We are asking for adaptation measures to be in all climate change initiatives,” they wrote. “Climate change impacts on natural communities are irrefutable and need to be decreased.”

But others worry the proposal could undercut efficiency programs, particularly those aimed at low-income residents.

“The Baker administration is being cute by half, because while the Mass Save budget may not be reduced . . . the [overall] budget for energy-efficiency programs would likely get reduced,” said Senator Jamie Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, who has served as the vice chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Environment Committee.

He said the Department of Energy Resources in recent months has already reduced energy-efficiency programs, such as those that serve renters.

“I would characterize the administration as moving away from energy-efficiency programs, and toward climate resiliency, which may not benefit as many communities of color,” Eldridge said.

Lawmakers have already designated a significant amount of money to protect the state from climate change, he and others noted. Last year, for example, the Legislature approved a $2.4 billion environmental bond bill that included $600 million for adaptation efforts.

Moreover, Baker recently proposed a new tax on some real estate transactions that he estimated could raise more than $1 billion over a decade for similar programs. House Speaker Robert DeLeo also proposed spending $1 billion on similar programs to improve the state’s resiliency to climate change.

The opposition to the governor’s proposal includes the Conservation Law Foundation, the Environmental League of Massachusetts, Environment Massachusetts, and other leading environmental groups.

Amy Boyd, a senior attorney at the Acadia Center, an environmental advocacy group in Boston that has touted the benefits of the regional coalition, said diverting any money from energy-efficiency programs would be unwise.

She said she worries, for example, that money to improve insulation of low-income homes could ultimately be diverted to build sea walls to protect mansions.

“Spending RGGI funds on anything else is not putting them to their best, most cost-effective use,” she said.

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