In 2021 and 2022, the Legislature enacted two major laws to deal with global warming. A policy structure is in place. But a challenge as big as the climate is like a humongous home remodeling project -- once you get into it, you see new things that need doing. To get them done, my staff and I have drawn up several bills for this session. For instance:
1) An Act to set equal contracting conditions for electricity customers on Basic Service
“Basic Service.” The very words advertise a conservative choice. Boring, maybe -- garden-variety vanilla, not Chunky Monkey -- but safe. If you’re too busy to think about your electric bill, you go for this. Because, you know, it’s basic.
Yet here’s the rub: When it comes to getting your electricity, Basic Service rates paid by customers of Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil are much higher than the rates paid by the folks served by “municipal aggregation” plans.
How can this be? The experts point to a single provision of state law. Cities and towns that do municipal aggregation are free to negotiate fixed rates with power generating companies for any period up to three years, which means they can go long or short, depending on market conditions. If they happened to negotiate multi-year arrangements a year or two ago, as many did, today their customers are riding out inflation at relatively comfortable rates.
In contrast, the law in question limits the utilities to offering uniform rates for periods of no longer than six months. Just recently, the utilities had to go out for bids and set new rates in the middle of inflationary bombogenesis. Their customers got whacked.
Lifting the six-month limit and creating more even-handed procurement terms will not hurt municipal aggregation programs, which we strongly support. They will operate as they have in the past. What the bill will do is improve a situation marred at the moment by the presence of different rules for different players.
2) An Act amending the statutory responsibilities of the Department of Public Utilities and establishing a commission on transportation safety oversight and regulation
A mass transit system that isn’t safe fails the most fundamental compact it has with its public. Here in Greater Boston, riders feel they use the T at their peril. For this, the Federal Transit Administration indicts the DPU, the state body presently responsible for overseeing safety on the system. The DPU, the feds write, “has not used its authority to ensure the identification and resolution of safety issues at the MBTA.”
Something has to change. The bill I’ve filed removes the DPU in favor of a new, independent body -- the Commission on Transportation Oversight and Regulation. No longer will transit be an add-on to an office preoccupied mainly by other things. Separating the DPU from transportation brings with it a crucial added benefit: The agency is freed up to concentrate on its major responsibility, climate change and energy policy.
3) An Act to establish a clean heating initiative in the commonwealth and reorganize the energy efficiency programs known as Mass Save
With respect to Mass Save, our most important program for reducing emissions from buildings, current law provides for no visible leadership -- no board of directors, no chief executive officer or general manager, no one accountable to the Legislature or the public. What current law does do is put the state’s natural gas companies in charge of helping households and businesses move away from ... natural gas. This is a conflict of interest that has to end.
The legislation I propose would give Mass Save a new name, the Commonwealth Clean Heating Initiative, and a new governance structure, headed by a Board of Directors and a CEO. The transition away from natural gas would be in appropriate hands. The utilities would still have a seat at the table, but not at the head of the table.
4) An Act to establish home energy efficiency ratings
People who make energy efficiency investments in their homes and businesses increase the worth of the property for future owners but have no good way to make the increase in value obvious. This bill rewards these people for doing the right thing, by making it more likely that they can recoup some of the investment when they go to sell.
The legislation directs the state department of Energy Resources to develop and implement a “municipal opt-in energy performance rating program” built on four pillars:
- giving each city or town the power to opt -- or not opt -- into the program;
- requiring an energy assessment when a property in a participating community is put up for sale;
- using the energy assessment to calculate an “energy performance rating” for the property; and
- requiring disclosure of the assessment and rating with prospective buyers and prospective tenants.
5) An Act to expand carbon pricing in the commonwealth
The idea behind carbon pricing is that the prices of oil, natural gas, and other fossil fuels should reflect their costs, including the costs they impose “downstream” on human health and atmospheric warming. Today, when we buy gas to heat the house or gasoline to power the car, the health and climate effects -- air pollution, respiratory illness, drought, flood, unbearable heat -- are delayed, so it’s hard for people to make the connection.
This legislation proposes to reflect the health and climate impacts upfront, in the prices we pay, so that we consumers can weigh them before buying. People are economic animals; when we face forking over more money for something, we seek out alternatives. Carbon prices connect cause and consequence.
To protect people from inflation, the bill phases in over time. It directs the EEA Secretary to put a price on fuels that produce emissions from industrial and commercial heating by 2026; from industrial processes by 2027; from transportation by 2028; and from residential buildings by 2029.
My approach allows for flexibility. It establishes minimums but doesn’t specify the exact amount of the charge. Nor does it determine whether the mechanism is “revenue positive” or “revenue neutral.” It also centers equity. A revenue-neutral carbon fee (the approach I favor) would deliver more in rebates to low-income people than they pay in upfront charges. Prosperous people would get less back than they pay; they consume disproportionate amounts of fuel, so they would pay more in fees, too.
6) An Act relative to a Massachusetts fund for vulnerable countries most affected by climate change
This first-in-the-nation legislation would give Massachusetts residents the option, when filing our state income taxes, to contribute to a special United Nations fund set up some years ago to help developing countries deal with global warming. The MA income tax form already features six “tax check-off” options, all for good causes in Massachusetts. This bill adds a climate-conscious option, the first, and an option that reaches beyond the state, also a first.
Vulnerable countries designated by the UN for assistance from the fund include Haiti, Nepal, Cambodia, and Afghanistan. Today, resources come from developed countries and philanthropic sources. Total funding falls considerably short of the need. If we pass this bill, we will set a precedent other state governments can follow.
Legislating gets complicated, fast, but I like the work. It's certainly worthwhile. Thank you for giving me the chance to do it. I look forward to working with everyone in 2023.