Senate climate bill runs into obstacle

Sens. Rausch, Eldridge, Creem, Spilka, Rodrigues and Barrett (left to right) speak to reporters at a press conference on the Senate's climate bill.

Sens. Rausch, Eldridge, Creem, Spilka, Rodrigues and Barrett (left to right) speak to reporters at a press conference on the Senate's climate bill. STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

By COLIN A. YOUNG

State House News Service

Published: 06-21-2024 9:28 AM

BOSTON — With the Bay State gripped by a heat wave on the summer solstice, the Massachusetts Senate on Thursday planned to pass legislation to speed up siting and permitting for clean energy projects and also provide more direction for the state’s shift away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner or non-emitting sources of energy.

But those plans wilted Thursday when a Republican senator used a parliamentary technique to delay debate until Friday at the earliest. Sen. Ryan Fattman exercised his right to lay the bill on the table, which is non-debatable and automatically postpones consideration of a bill until the next session.

Shortly after Fattman made his late-afternoon motion, the Senate adjourned its formal session with plans to meet again Friday at 1 p.m.

Motions to lay bills on the table are typically allowed three times in the Senate before Democrats who run that branch consider the motion dilatory, and proceed to debate. Senators also sometimes delay action on a bill by moving to print amendments in the Senate Calendar.

A spokesman for Senate President Karen Spilka said she respects every senator’s right to raise questions about legislation, but said she “is disappointed that climate change will outpace climate action for yet another day.”

The bill Senate Democrats planned to tackle Thursday takes aim at the complicated process to approve clean energy projects, which Gov. Maura Healey’s administration has said is essential for the state to meet its mandated emissions reduction targets, and also incorporates a package of reforms aimed at modernizing the electric grid to accommodate more energy from cleaner generation sources and tweaking how Bay Staters receive power. The expansive bill touches upon the future of natural gas in Massachusetts, electric vehicles, third-party electric suppliers, multistate procurement of clean energy, and utility rates.

The bill also seeks to make the first steps toward addressing “embodied carbon,” the term used to describe the greenhouse gas emissions associated with manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal of building and infrastructure materials. It would expand the powers of the Board of Building Regulations and Standards to include the development of uniform standards for the reduction of embodied carbon, which the Massachusetts Climate Action Network has said accounts for between 11 and 23% of annual global emissions.

Sen. Michael Barrett, the lead architect of the Senate’s climate bill, used a press conference held ahead of Thursday’s Senate session to call for expansive climate action from Beacon Hill.

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“Anyone who proposes that this is the time to slow down, that this is the time to take measured steps only, we ask you to reconsider your position in light of our failure to deal with natural gas and our failure to make progress across the range of emissions reductions we need, and redouble your efforts to join us,” the Lexington Democrat said.

In laying the bill on the table late Thursday afternoon, Fattman said he is concerned “about a whole host of issues that have been brought forward to me by other subject matter experts, whether it be skilled workers who are professional practitioners in the gas industry or developers looking to improve the lives of Massachusetts residents both economically and residentially.”

He said those groups have not had enough time to present their concerns because the bill did not have a public hearing of its own and was just released Monday.

“The process for which this has played out hasn’t permitted a tremendous amount of time for people to opine. But particularly for me, the elimination of the retail electric suppliers, the Gas System Enhancement Program placing restrictions on natural gas and making it a last option for development, and the message and the impact that that sends to our economy at a time now when we are in need of economic development, housing projects for a diminishing populated state is incredibly concerning,” the Sutton Republican said. “I think limiting or diminishing choice or affordability at this time is so greatly concerning that, pursuant to Rule 24, I’d like to make a motion to lay the bill on the table.”

Role of natural gas

Some opposition cropped up this week to a provision of the bill that directs the Department of Public Utilities to consider greenhouse gas emissions and the state’s climate targets when considering expanding access to new gas consumers or gas service territories.

The trade and business groups that together form the Mass. Coalition for Sustainable Energy say the Senate language would “effectively end natural gas service to existing consumers and businesses that rely on it to heat, cool and power their facilities and prepare their meals in restaurants and home kitchens alike.”

The coalition — which includes Associated Industries of Mass., seven regional chambers of commerce, the local chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, Retailers Association of Mass., and organized labor groups — said it is “deeply concerned” that DPU exercising that power would lead to extremely high costs while also leaving residents and businesses to rely on high-emitting fuels like diesel to generate power until enough renewable sources come online.

“This change in law could result in Massachusetts’ consumers having no choice but to pay what are already the nation’s highest electric bills during heat waves and cold snaps. For these reasons, the coalition strongly urges the Senate not to advance these sections,” the group said in a letter to senators this week.

The letter added, “As customers begin to electrify their households and businesses, transitioning to electric heat pumps, electric costs become a major impediment to a successful transition. This rate shock is having a detrimental impact on customers’ willingness to fully abandon their fossil fuel system. And higher costs are likely to continue due to new investments needed in transmission and distribution infrastructure and contracts for clean energy procurement that are expected to be much higher than previous contracts. An uncoordinated, rapid transition to electric-only heating has the potential to backfire and drive customers towards higher emitting fuels as a bridge to a cost-effective electrified energy future.”

“It’s worth stressing that the gas system provisions of the Senate climate bill will help keep energy costs down for Massachusetts residents,” Majority Leader Cynthia Creem said Thursday before the Senate embarked on its debate. “Massachusetts residents shouldn’t be paying millions of dollars for fossil fuel infrastructure that will soon serve no purpose. The Senate bill ensures that they won’t.”

And advocates who support the transition away from natural gas touted a new poll Thursday that they said shows 60% of Massachusetts Democrats support prohibiting construction of new gas pipelines and 65% of Mass. Democrats support retiring leaky gas pipes in favor of cost-effective clean energy alternatives such as heat pumps.

But when looking at the results of the MassINC Polling Group survey conducted for Rewiring America in totality, the poll showed that 49% of 1,003 Bay Staters surveyed this month support (29%) or strongly support (20%) “prohibiting the construction of new gas pipelines, to prevent additional pipeline costs and give way to cost-effective clean energy alternatives.” Seventeen percent opposed or strongly opposed the idea, and 26% said they neither support nor oppose it. Support for requiring utilities to retire heavily-damaged parts of the gas system and switch those customers to electric heat pumps registered at 55% (35% support, 20% strongly support).

Session’s end colors reactions

The New England Power Generators Association, which represents more than 90% of the electric generating capacity in New England including both conventional and renewable energy technologies, said that it is very supportive of the effort to reform siting and permitting processes, but has serious issues with a section that represents “a troubling change” to electricity procurement policy.

NEPGA said section 21 of the Senate bill “would give extraordinary authority to this Administration (and all future ones) to centrally procure almost any type of energy or related attributes.” President Dan Dolan said it would be “a stark change from today, where the vast majority of consumers’ energy demand is purchased via wholesale electricity markets — markets in which a variety of sources (including gigawatts of low- or zero-carbon resources) compete against each another to provide reliable electricity at the lowest cost.”

“Rushing to pass a late-in-the-session, brand-new policy providing a blank contracting check creates potentially dramatic impacts on electricity markets and consumers. Instead, NEPGA suggests policymakers develop a more deliberative path forward,” Dolan said this week. “Just as the Administration established the Commission on Energy Infrastructure Siting and Permitting, which worked for months on thorny issues, a major policy change as outlined in Section 21 requires an inclusive and thorough process in which a variety of interests, risks, and benefits are debated and balanced.”

In addition to opposition from influential outside groups, the Senate bill could face an uphill climb to Gov. Maura Healey’s desk because House Speaker Ronald Mariano has already indicated his preference to focus mostly on the siting and permitting reform language that was written by the Healey administration with input from key lawmakers. The speaker said last week not to expect a sweeping climate bill from the House and no concrete proposal has yet emerged.

“We have done some of the major tactical things that put us in a good footing for the industry, especially offshore wind. Now we have some siting issues we have to take care of. So we are working on those now and that’s the primary focus right now,” Mariano said last week.

He added, “So this being categorized as a big, sweeping energy bill may not be accurate.”