Clean-air goals can’t overlook economic climate

Massachusetts made another stride toward its goal of eliminating carbon-based emissions with the Legislature’s passage of a comprehensive environmental bill that aims to curb the effects of climate change.
The bill, which now awaits Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature, comes on the heels of the governor’s decision to join a regional coalition to reduce transportation emissions by 25% over the next decade.
Language in the bill mandates that the state reduce its emissions by 50% below 1990 levels by the end of the decade — a slightly more aggressive plan than the one released by the Baker administration.
Beyond that, under this legislation, the state must trim emissions 75% below 1990 levels by 2040 and 85% below those levels by 2050.
This bill also sets mandatory limits for electric power, transportation, commercial and industrial heating and cooling, residential heating and cooling, industrial processes and natural gas distribution and service.
The bill won support from some of the state’s largest business groups and power plant operators.
“AIM supports the bill because it not only sets aggressive goals to meet the state’s climate change objectives, but importantly for businesses, it provides many of the tools needed to achieve these goals,’’ said Robert Rio, a senior vice president at the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, a trade association of businesses.
However, these sanguine expressions of solidarity were tempered somewhat by the realities of the current Massachusetts energy market.
Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association, called the bill and the Baker administration’s plan “a new economic pathway.’’
However, he further stated: “The future that this bill outlines will require major investments in new clean electricity supplies as well as continued maintenance of many existing power plants to preserve reliability.’’
While he didn’t mention natural gas specifically, given this state’s current reliance of that energy source to fuel power plants and serve as a backup for green-energy alternatives, that undoubtedly was his message.
Though this bill obviously seeks to replace natural gas over time as the primary generator of electricity with wind and solar, that will take years to accomplish.
Natural gas still fuels at least half of the electricity used in New England — more on days when temperatures spike higher or lower during summer and winter. Without the reliability and availability of natural gas during polar vortex episodes in recent winters, many New England homes would have been left out in the cold.
And not every industry sector was enamored with this legislation.
NAIOP Massachusetts, a major commercial and real estate development association, raised concerns about its practical effects, due to the increased costs associated with the potential adoption of municipal building codes requiring new construction to provide net-zero emissions, which likely would preclude the use of cheaper natural gas.
The far-reaching objectives in this bill will likely be forced to overcome its bedeviling associated details, the primary of which is cost.
That regional transportation emissions coalition fizzled over a gasoline tax increase likely to be shouldered by those who could least afford it.
And saddling a construction industry recovering from a pandemic with additional building costs will only hamstring this state’s economic recovery.
That’s the fine line these lofty climate-change proposals must walk.

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