Protecting the Earth from Supervillains, Locally

A Congress that is set on gutting environmental protections. An administration filled with climate change denialists and close friends of the fossil fuel industry. It looks like the environment will have a tough time over the next few years if we don’t step up big league at the local level to protect it.

The man who recently became the head of the Environmental Protection Administration, Scott Pruitt, apparently really doesn't like protecting the environment, because he unsuccessfully challenged EPA policies in court a whopping 14 times while attorney general of Oklahoma. One time, when the EPA had the temerity to set a rule limiting methane emissions from natural gas, he complained about it in an official letter that turned out to be written by lobbyists for, you guessed it, an oil-and-gas company. Attempts to investigate his ties to oil companies before he was confirmed as EPA chief have been stymied by his office's refusal to release emails that were requested two years ago by freedom of information act requests (it's almost like he was trying to hide something). Now that the emails have finally been released, they clearly show him to be the good little lapdog of the fossil fuel industry.

Zinke, nominated to head the Department of the Interior, wants to allow more oil drilling and coal mining in national parks. The former CEO of Exxon Rex Tillerson (a.k.a. Rexon) is now Secretary of State. The nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, as well as Tillerson, Pruitt, Zinke, Trump, Perry, and others in the administration are all climate skeptics.

Just in the past few weeks, Trump and Congress have taken aggressive steps to undermine the power of federal agencies to set and enforce environmental protection policies. The House resurrected the Holman rule, which lets Congress target individual federal employees for salary cuts (down to $1) and target individual programs for removal. We would dearly miss many of the programs likely to be in their crosshairs. Thanks to an executive order, if federal agencies want to set a new regulation, they will now be forced to repeal two other regulations.

In December, the REINS act was passed by the House. If passed by the Senate, it would require all major regulations set by federal agencies, on topics ranging from environmental protection to food and chemical safety standards, to be approved by Congress, and any that are not approved within 70 days would not take effect. It’s a very effective tactic to kill regulations that industry doesn’t like.  

The Trump administration and the Republican Party want to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the crisis, so for those of us who have seen the signs--the dropping ocean oxygen levels, the death of coral reefs, the yearly decline in sea ice, the signs of imminent collapse of polar ice shelves, and ever higher temperature records--it is imperative that we act now. Every delay makes it more likely that the situation will spiral out of control, and four years of a Trump presidency is a long delay.

With the agencies that are supposed to protect the environment being led by people who don’t care about it, and with the agencies’ powers being systematically stripped away, not much action on climate change should be expected at the federal level. It will be up to the states to get anything done. Fortunately, there are several bills up for consideration in the Massachusetts legislature that take bold steps to address climate change.

Sd.2049, An act creating 21st century Massachusetts clean energy jobs, will help Massachusetts prevent and prepare for climate change in a number of ways.

A program will be set up to plan for and deal with the effects of climate change. In addition, the state will develop a plan every two years to balance energy needs with environmental concerns, in particular reducing carbon emissions.

Homeowners will be required to release the results of an energy efficiency audit before selling their home. This will let prospective buyers get a sense of what they will pay for utilities, so this can be taken into consideration when choosing a house. Homeowners may be encouraged to improve energy efficiency to attract buyers. Note, they are not forced to make any changes. That is entirely their choice. Furthermore, by requiring an audit before the sale, all new homeowners will know before they even move in what improvements they can make to their home to save money.  No other state requires home energy audits before sales, so Massachusetts has the chance to break a path for the rest of the country to follow.

Nuclear power plants will be required to fully decommission within 5 years of shutting down or face a fine of $25 million per year. The Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant is the only commercial nuclear power plant open in Massachusetts. It has had a series of safety issues over the past few years, and the operator plans to shut it down by 2019. This bill will ensure that the owners safely and completely decommission it, rather than leaving taxpayers on the hook to clean it up.

The bill also sets specific goals for emissions cuts by 2030 and 2040, to keep the state on track to reach the targets set by the Global Warming Solutions Act (which requires a reduction of 80% from 1990 levels by 2050). The bill also pushes for more offshore wind and a higher renewable energy portfolio standard. In May, the Massachusetts court ruled that the state government had not met its obligations to limit greenhouse gas emissions, in compliance with the GWSA. Meanwhile an environmental group’s report claims that Massachusetts will not meet its 2020 emission reduction goals without policy changes. 2020 is only 3 years away. If we are to meet the required reduction target of 25% of 1990 levels, we have to act now. Many of the solutions will take time to implement. In the longer term, we still have a long way to go to reach an 80% reduction by 2050--that’s a reduction of about 20% each decade. It won’t happen unless we keep pushing.

Sd.1021, An act combatting climate change, establishes revenue-neutral carbon pricing. The price starts at $10 per ton of CO2 emitted, and rises by $5 per year until it reaches $40 per ton. This will raise the cost of some things, for instance fuel prices, so to cancel this out the revenue raised will be rebated back to consumers and employers. State residents living in rural areas (who on average have to drive more) will get a slightly larger rebate. Electricity generators are exempt--large electricity providers are already subject to a regional cap and trade system. The logic behind a greenhouse gas “tax” (although it isn’t really a tax because the money is returned) is that we have not been paying the true cost for burning fossil fuels. The market prices we pay for the fuels don’t include the cost we will pay down the line to deal with the effects of climate change caused by burning these fuels. Adding this cost now will incentivize people and businesses to conserve--to drive less, to buy energy efficient appliances, to lower thermostats--and, critically, conserve in time to limit global warming. Or we can ignore the danger and pay the price later, after the damage is done. It will also make renewable energy sources more competitive, pricewise, helping them expand.

In the five years after British Columbia enacted a carbon tax, its fuel consumption decreased by 16% (compared to a 3% increase elsewhere in Canada). Meanwhile the GDP grew a little more than the rest of the country. With carbon taxes already enacted in dozens of other countries and states, Massachusetts would not be the first to try this, and there is already evidence that it works, without damaging the economy.

S.1846, An Act relative to solar power and the green economy, adds to the push to increase the usage of renewables, by setting a goal of 17% solar energy usage in the commonwealth by 2025 and 25% by 2030. The bill also ups the growth of solar usage from 1% per year to 2% per year next year and 3% each year after that.

S.1847, An Act clarifying authority and responsibilities of the department of public utilities-the name is a pretty accurate description of what the bill does, so I’ll just give some highlights. But first, some context: a few pipelines across New England have been in the works in recent years. One project is Access Northeast, which aims to upgrade and expand the existing pipeline and to add storage capacity, to increase the supply of gas during winter. Some Canadian companies wish to use this pipeline extension to pipe American liquefied natural gas (including gas fracked from the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania) into Canada to sell abroad.

Under this bill, the power of the Department of Public Utilities to approve contracts is expanded from only covering the purchase of gas and electricity to including the purchase of gas infrastructure. The department must consider whether construction of gas infrastructure is in the public interest before approving any contracts. The “public interest” is defined in this case to mean that it’s cost-effective for ratepayers, that the company must build new infrastructure in order to meet demand for gas, and that it’s a good option compared to other ones, in terms of its effects on people and the environment. Additional gas infrastructure may not be built on protected land.

Electricity companies may not contract for gas (and vice versa). This enshrines in law a recent decision of the MA Supreme Court. The Department of Public Utilities released an order in October 2015 stating that it had the authority to approve long-term contracts by electric companies to purchase gas capacity. This was seen as good news for advocates of building more pipelines. However, in August 2016 the MA Supreme Court slapped this down, ruling that the DPU did not have this authority. They argued that the cost for constructing additional gas infrastructure could not legally be passed on to ratepayers. Without being able to sign long term contracts with electric companies, it will be harder for gas companies to build new pipelines because they will bear the full cost, rather than being able to pass it along to consumers. It is important to note, the bill does not by itself stop the building of pipelines. It simply prohibits public funding of any such projects. They are still free to build them with private money.

This set of bills is exactly how we can fight to protect our environment, even while the Republicans are doing their very best supervillain impressions.




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commented 2017-03-03 09:01:47 -0500 · Flag
Fantastic job researching this complicated topic! Thanks, Heather!
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