Senate to include some Baker ideas into climate bill

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (State House News Service) – A month after Gov. Charlie Baker returned a sweeping climate and emission reduction bill with recommended changes, the Senate plans to vote Thursday on an updated version that makes a bevy of revisions, but rejects the governor’s most noted attempts to relax an interim 2030 emission target and soften proposed new building codes.

Sen. Michael Barrett, a Lexington Democrat and one of the authors of the bill, said the plan is for the Senate to vote on the revised bill Thursday, and he believes the House could follow suit as soon as next Wednesday. “The bill has gone through a hazing over the past several months, but it’s emerging unbowed,” said Barrett, who co-chairs the Committee on Telecommunication, Utilities and Energy.

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The climate bill, which would commit Massachusetts to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, became an early session priority for legislative leaders after Baker vetoed similar, late-arriving legislation last session over concerns that it could stall housing production and add unnecessary expenses for residents. The Legislature passed an identical bill in January, and Baker last month returned it with amendments, which he was unable to do with the previous iteration because of the timing of its passage at the end of the last session.

The bill the Senate will vote on Thursday incorporates “all but a handful” of the governor’s roughly 50 amendments (S 13), Barrett said, including “language improvements and little tweaks that will make the bill better,” but he said, “None of the major ones are being accepted.”

Notably, Baker pushed back against the Legislature’s attempt to set an interim emission reduction target of 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, suggesting the state could still achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 with a 45 percent reduction goal and save $6 billion in the process. He asked for flexibility to set the 2030 level between 45 percent and 50 percent.

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Barrett said it’s increasingly likely that John Kerry, the new climate czar in the Biden administration, will announce a 50 percent emission reduction target by 2030 for the country next month as part of a climate summit planned around Earth Day, “If we went below 50 percent we risk not even holding up our end of a national commitment. That doesn’t seem like a wise things to do,” Barrett said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the bill (S 9) was still before the Senate Committee on Bills in Third Reading, and the precise details of the bill had not been seen by the administration or most legislators. Given that status, it was not immediately clear if House leadership had signed off on the changes or if Baker would sign this latest version. The original bill did pass with enough support in both branches to overcome an objection from the governor.

“The Baker-Polito Administration looks forward to reviewing any bill that reaches the governor’s desk, as the Administration continues its work to finalize its Clean Energy and Climate Plan for 2030 and implement cost-effective and equitable strategies to address the critical challenge of climate change,” said Katie Gronendyke, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

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While lawmakers opted against holding a public hearing on the bill in the new session, Barrett said the past month has been spent on a “fresh round” of meetings with environmental advocates and the business community to discuss the bill and the governor’s amendments. “Everybody got another chance to make a pitch and put there cases forward,” Barrett said.

Barrett said the new Senate bill also rejects Baker’s attempt to strip language from a proposed new municipal building code that promotes “net-zero” construction, but incorporated the governor’s recommendation that municipal building codes around the state be uniform by 2028.

The governor and the home construction industry had worried that the bill would make building new housing – a priority of the administration and the Legislature – cost prohibitive. Baker recommended letting the Department of Energy Resources develop a new stretch energy code that included a municipal option for “high-performing, energy-efficient new construction” that would support the state’s emission reduction efforts.

“The parties were close but it was very clear the governor did not want the term ‘net-zero’ to appear in statute. The term ‘net-zero’ will appear prominently in statute and I think the House and Senate have agreed to that,” Barrett said.

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Where the Legislature may be ready to compromise is on making sure that by 2028 the optional new stretch energy code becomes incorporated into the standard state building codes to ensure that the rules are consistent from city to city. Baker said that would help provide clarity to municipalities and the construction industry and “limit cost pressures” on new affordable housing.

Barrett said the “net-zero” components of the building code will not be “coercive” for cities and towns. “We don’t dragoon any communities into adopted this new stretch energy code. We let the vanguard communities move out front because they’re ready to,” Barrett said, adding, “There’s a lot of money to be made in designing net-zero homes.”

The new Senate version also keeps the Legislature’s restructuring of the Board of Building Regulation and Standards, and preserves the sector-specific sublimits the original bill proposed to put on emissions from electric power, transportation, commercial and industrial heating and cooling, residential heating and cooling, industrial processes, and natural gas distribution and service.

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While the Baker administration would be empowered in the bill to set the sublimits, the governor suggested that they be used as “planning tools” rather than legally binding emission targets. “We give them legal standing,” Barrett said.

The chairman, however, said the new version does clarify that if the overall statewide emission benchmarks are met, there are no penalties if one sector overperforms and another underperforms. “The sublimits are means to an end, and if you hit the 2025 limit overall and you overperformed in one sector and underperformed in another that’s fine. The point is we want plans,” Barrett said.

The bill would also impose energy efficiency requirements on new appliances and require the purchase of an additional 2,400 megawatts of offshore wind. Baker initially worried that a new offshore wind power purchase would interfere with multi-state talks over a regional clean energy procurement strategy, but did not recommend halting the offshore wind expansion.

Last session, Barrett negotiated the bill for the Senate with Rep. Thomas Golden, of Lowell, who has been promoted in the new session to division leader. Rep. Jeffrey Roy, the new House chair of the Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon, but last week House Speaker Ron Mariano predicted that the major elements of the bill approved by the Legislature in January would remain in tact. “Nothing substantive will change in this bill,” Mariano said.

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