Massachusetts towns seek permission to lead on emission cuts

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Officials in a handful of Massachusetts communities think they’ve cooked up a worthwhile strategy for cutting greenhouse gas emissions and want the state’s permission to try it out.

“Let us be your test kitchen,” Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine told lawmakers Tuesday. “Let Arlington, let Lexington, Brookline and Acton, others that are pursuing this — let us put this effort forward. The people of Arlington want it to go forward.”

Three bills before the Municipalities and Regional Government Committee, considered during a Zoom hearing, would prohibit fossil-fuel infrastructure in new buildings or those undergoing major renovations in Brookline, Lexington and Arlington. Rep. Tami Gouveia and Sen. Jamie Eldridge have also filed bills that would allow municipalities interested in pursuing such policies to do so without first receiving legislative approval.

Local officials from the three towns described the bans as a way to help phase out use of fossil fuels to combat climate change and move the state and municipalities closer to their emissions-reduction goals.

A sweeping climate policy law signed in March commits Massachusetts to reducing and offsetting its greenhouse gas emissions to a net-zero level by 2050, a timeline that has officials and advocates looking for ways to boost energy efficiency and adoption of renewable power.

In Lexington, 66 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, Select Board member Mark Sandeen said. He said Lexington Town Meeting voted 175-7 to request authority from the Legislature to restrict fossil fuels via a home-rule petition (H 3893).

Chapdelaine said that allowing the towns to proceed now with measures that have been overwhelmingly approved by their residents will allow the local officials to come back to the Legislature with evidence in support of a broader policy. The Town Meeting vote for Arlington’s petition (H 3750) was 225-18, Rep. Sean Garballey said.

Brookline Town Administrator Mel Kleckner said his community has a history of piloting policies that would go on to gain traction across the state, including bans on single-use plastic bags and flavored cigarettes.

“We believe the success of these initiatives and the demonstrated ability of the town of Brookline to manage regulations related to these compel the Legislature to support Brookline and other municipalities who wish to advance the ball on climate action,” he said. “By doing so, the commonwealth will be able to assess the cost and other impacts of this policy as it considers statewide action to meet our shared goals on greenhouse gas emissions.”

Brookline’s home rule petition (S 2473) is not the town’s first attempt at moving away from fossil fuels in buildings. A 2019 Town Meeting vote approved a ban on the installation of gas and oil infrastructure in new construction. Attorney General Maura Healey last summer knocked down the resulting bylaw, finding that it conflicted with state laws and regulations but writingthat she agreed with its policy goals.

Eldridge said the bill he and Gouveia filed is a response to Healey’s ruling that municipalities did not have the authority to restrict fossil-fuel infrastructure.

Their bill (H 2167, S 1333) would give cities and towns the option of requiring all-electric buildings if they choose to do so, without first petitioning the Legislature.

“People are already impacted by climate change,” Gouveia said, referencing the air quality effects felt in Massachusetts from a smoke plume related to wildfires in the western part of the country and Canada. “And it’s only going to get worse if we don’t accelerate our move toward doing all that we can, using all of the tools at our disposal to be able to address that.”

Rep. Lori Ehrlich, the committee’s House chair, thanked Gouveia for “coming forward with this great idea” and also noted the smoke, saying, “The weight of the issue, we’re all seeing it with our eyes today and yesterday.”

Addressing a panel from Lexington, Ehrlich described the topic they raised as “music to my ears.”

“We have to take a look at the policy and figure out if it makes sense to do this town-by-town or statewide,” she said. “Those are the issues that we’ll be grappling with, but I applaud your initiative and that you want to push the limits, push further than what’s required of us.”

Her co-chair, Sen. John Cronin, asked the same group of speakers why the committee should advance town petitions “in a patchwork” instead of waiting for the Department of Energy Resources to put forward a new municipal opt-in stretch energy code, as it is required to do under the climate law.

Lexington Rep. Michelle Ciccolo said her town’s climate plan has an earlier net-zero emissions deadline than the state’s, and “we simply cannot meet our own local plan if we don’t have this home rule.” She also cited a “tremendous pace” of construction in the community.

“We are going to have to put significant incentives in place at the state level, lots of tax credits and grant programs and incentives, to retrofit the building sector, which is 35 to 40 percent of our entire emissions statewide,” she said. “It makes absolutely no sense for us to be using taxpayer money to retrofit buildings that we could have built correctly today, and given the pace of construction in Lexington, I think it would be very short-sighted for those communities that are ready to go, not to let us get out ahead and really get this done.”

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