Theoharides signals admin support for revised climate bill

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration are happy with the changes the Legislature made to the climate policy bill that’s been the subject of negotiations and debate — both public and private — for months, but his top environmental official stopped short of saying Baker will sign the bill into law.

“The governor is very pleased the Legislature adopted a significant majority of the proposed amendments. Of approximately 47 amendments proposed, 42 were adopted by Legislature either as written or with some minor modifications,” Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides told the News Service. “And I know while some in the Legislature have dismissed our amendments that have been adopted by the Legislature as technical in nature or as minor details, as I’ve said before, the details on a bill of this scale that is going to impact every resident of the commonwealth, the details really matter and these amendments are critical to ensuring that this bill works.”

Baker and the Legislature share a goal of achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but enshrining into law that shared priority and the details about how to get there has proved to be more complicated. The climate policy bill has been ping-ponging between the Legislature and governor’s office for more than two months.

The Senate voted 39-1 on Monday to pass a new version of the bill that incorporated most of the amendments that Baker suggested when he returned the bill unsigned at the beginning of February. The House followed suit Thursday afternoon with a 146-13 vote.

Though Theoharides said the administration is “really pleased” with the full set of changes and that the governor was “thrilled” that lawmakers adopted some of his suggestions related to environmental justice communities, the secretary did not say that Baker plans to sign the bill.

“We want to wait until we see it on his desk in its final, final form,” she said when asked if the changes the Legislature made got the bill to a point that Baker will sign it.

The two-term governor has not said whether he will seek a third term, and the political ramifications that would be triggered by vetoing a popular climate bill could factor into his calculus as he eyes the future.

When he filed his amendments, Baker hinted at his desire to sign the bill, writing that when combined with planning his administration had done, the bill “will set the Commonwealth on a plan for net zero emissions in 2050 through aggressive, equitable and science-based climate action that protects the state’s economy and most vulnerable residents.”

Lawmakers this week rejected Baker’s proposal to change the legislation’s requirement that emissions in 2030 be at least 50 percent lower than 1990 levels to a target in the 45 percent to 50 percent range, but Theoharides said other changes that the Legislature did adopt make that 50 percent target more palatable by giving the state “the best tools available to reduce emissions, meet the goals established by the legislation and keep costs affordable for residents across the state.”

The adoption of an amendment to clarify that the climate bill’s sector-specific emissions sublimits will not be punitive as long as the state achieves its overall statewide emissions reduction target was also key, she said.

So does that mean Baker and his administration are on board with the higher emission reduction target for 2030 that has loomed as one of the more visible points of disagreement during the climate debate?

“Yes,” the secretary said. “It’s certainly an ambitious goal but this change in the subsector limits and in other technical details of the bill, as well as early signs from the federal administration, give us confidence we can keep costs down while pursuing this very ambitious goal.”

Previously, Theoharides and Baker had said that the difference between their preferred 2030 target of a 45 percent reduction and the Legislature’s 50 percent target could mean as much as $6 billion in additional costs to the state and its residents.

The House and Senate also rebuffed Baker’s amendment to strip some language from a proposed new municipal building code that promotes net-zero construction, though lawmakers agreed to some tweaks to that provision.

Baker and the home construction industry had worried the climate bill would make building new housing — a priority of the Baker administration — cost-prohibitive. The governor proposed 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.

Though the Legislature did not go along with all of his amendments around the building code, the latest version of the bill adopted six of Baker’s suggested changes including one that effectively downplays the term “net-zero” in the code, enough to convince the administration that provision is now workable.

“While the term has been retained by the legislation, it is retained as a performance standard for definition purposes and it is no longer a core component of the code as originally envisioned by the Legislature,” Theoharides said. “That is a significant change and one that we think makes the high-performance stretch energy code something that the Department of Energy Resources can develop with the support of the industry and other stakeholders and really roll out in a cost-effective and energy-reducing manner.”

The secretary said Baker was “thrilled” that the Legislature adopted all six of his proposed amendments related to environmental justice communities, neighborhoods that are mostly made up of people with lower incomes and people of color that are at risk of being negatively and disproportionately impacted by environmental policies.

“The Legislature accepted a change from the governor that will require the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct cumulative impact analysis as a condition of permitting certain projects to ensure that environmental justice communities no longer bear an undue burden of air pollution,” she said. “I would argue that this significant addition that was missed by the Legislature has the most potential to permanently reduce environmental impacts and public health risks in environmental justice communities.”

Though the administration and Legislature have butted heads over many of the details of the climate bill, both sides displayed a willingness to negotiate throughout the process and those talks appear to have gotten the bill to a point where both sides could claim some victories.

Last session, before the Legislature put the initial version of the climate bill on Baker’s desk, chief Senate sponsor Sen. Michael Barrett and Theoharides publicly disagreed over the 2030 emissions reduction target during a committee hearing and Barrett foreshadowed the path the bill would take over the next two-plus months.

“In any event though, we have 2021 and if there’s a little disagreement on where we should get to by 2030 in anything that should come out of the Legislature, it is up for further discussion in 2021 and subject to compromise if that’s where we need to go,” Barrett said on Dec. 31.

Once the bill is back on Baker’s desk, he will have 10 days to review it before either signing or vetoing the legislation. If he opts for a veto, the Legislature is expected to have the votes to override his action.

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