The Perils of Pauline Meets the Three Stooges

In June I compared the fate of the energy bill in Massachusetts to the Perils of Pauline. As in the movies, the legislative drama lasted ‘til the final frame—in this case the night of the last day of the session, and beyond (because the Governor still has to sign the bill, scheduled for August 8). The legislature was in recess during the Republican and Democratic national conventions, so their work in the last two weeks of July was crammed into three weekend days (July 23, and July 30 – 31). Despite supposedly tight deadlines, clocks at the State House on July 31 showed different times, and the House Minority Leader said, “It’s sort of like ‘The Three Stooges.’” Indeed! According to the Boston Globe, there were only a few minutes to read over lengthy conference committee reports reconciling House and Senate versions of bills before they were hurried to a final vote. Some important bills that were years in the making did not beat the clock (which kept ticking beyond the midnight deadline), and therefore were not acted upon.

State Senator Ben Downing, one of the legislature’s experts on energy and climate, who is now retiring, said of the House, “I think [their] operating procedure is: Do as little as possible and still be able to say you did stuff. I just think that’s where [House Speaker Robert DeLeo] is at.” He also said that this method of doing business “happens to line up with the priorities of the governor and some of the special interests, business groups in particular.” But hey! We know that low energy prices are more important than saving the planet, right?

Nonetheless, the energy bill that passed did include several significant items. Perhaps most important is that electricity providers are required to enter into long-term contracts for 1,600 MW of offshore wind (less than the Senate bill included), which for the first time in history makes it likely the United States will create a viable offshore wind industry. Once that energy is available (the turbines need to be built), this clean electricity will power more than a half-million homes. The bill also requires new long-term contracts for 1,200 MW of electricity generated from hydro-power, probably originating in Canada, where plenty of hydro-power is available.

Another important feature of the bill is that it requires natural gas companies to identify and repair “environmentally significant” gas leaks. This provision is notable because so much gas in the state is lost to leaks—but customers pay for it, and methane is a significant contributor to global warming.

However, the bill could have been far better. The Senate version included a provision to double the annual increment of the Renewable Portfolio Standard, from 1% annually to 2%, but that language was dropped from the final bill. The RPS mandates that a growing fraction of electricity be generated from renewable sources, primarily wind and solar. Without doubling the RPS, the state is unlikely to meet its goals for greenhouse gas emissions, established by the Global Warming Solutions Act (2008).

And then … ah, democracy! The state Senate voted 39-0 to prohibit electricity providers from charging customers in advance to build new natural gas pipelines—pipelines that several respected studies show are not needed. In the House, 97 of the 160 Representatives signed a letter to the Speaker objecting to a new pipeline “tax.” Yet despite overwhelming support in the legislature and among the public the Senate prohibition was not included in the final bill. There is some hope that the state’s Supreme Judicial Court will soon rule the “tax” to be illegal, but should that not happen electricity ratepayers may be on the hook for $3 billion, like it or not.

There were other positive parts of the Senate’s version of the bill that did not make it into the final version, and negative items that did make it in. (See this account.) But at least the offshore wind and hydro-power provisions will eventually provide a major increase in the amount of “green” electricity in Massachusetts. It is not enough renewable energy to claim Massachusetts is doing its fair share to combat climate change, but it is better than nothing.

Perhaps in the next session of the legislature more progress can be made to combat climate change. However, that is hardly a sure bet. In any case, the Massachusetts energy bill will do some good.

In a democracy, progress on major issues like civil rights or environmental protection requires political activism by citizens. But documented declines in civic and political participation over time will be the topic of my next blog post.

(Note: For those interested in reviewing this blog in its entirety, it is available as a single document in the “About” section of this blog.)

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