BOSTON — The collapse of a regional pact to reduce tailpipe emissions sets back the state’s clean energy goals, according to environmentalists, who say Beacon Hill needs to find another way to cut the largest source of greenhouse gases.
Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker pulled the plug on the Transportation Climate Initiative — an ambitious plan to create a multi-state pact to reduce transportation pollution — after the agreement failed to gain traction among other states.
Baker had been one of the most vocal proponents of TCI, touting it as key to the state’s effort to reduce the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Baker spokesman Terry MacCormack said in statement that while TCI is “no longer the best solution” the administration is focused on $10 billion in federal funds headed to the state from the new federal jobs and infrastructure law.
The money will help “upgrade roads, bridges and public transportation systems, while also making investments to reduce transportation emissions, deliver equitable transportation solutions and benefits and meet the state’s ambitious climate goals,” MacCormack said.
Modeled on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which has reduced emissions from power plants, the transportation pact sought to create a cap-and-invest program to drive down emissions from cars and trucks.
It targeted gasoline and diesel fuel consumption, which account for more than 40% of regional carbon emissions that scientists say contribute to climate change.
Under the plan, suppliers who deliver fuel across state lines would have be taxed on emissions above limits that still must be set. Those costs were expected to be passed on to consumers.
The plan’s supporters say higher gas prices would encourage people to drive less often and turn to public transit, reducing emissions. The pact was expected to reduce regional emissions by as much as 26% in the next 11 years.
In Massachusetts, the sale of carbon allowances through the program could have generated up to $1.8 billion for green projects over the next decade, according to the Baker administration’s estimates. About 35% of the annual proceeds would have been invested in communities with disproportionate levels of pollution.
Lack of support
Baker committed the state two years ago to joining the program as part of an effort to reduce traffic congestion and tackle climate change.
A law signed by Baker earlier this year requires the state to slash carbon emissions under the Global Warming Solutions Act by at least 50% of 1990 levels by 2030 and 75% of 1990 levels by 2040. The state’s ultimate goal is to get emissions to 100% below the 1990 levels, or “net zero,” by 2050.
Baker’s decision to back away from the regional pact followed Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announcement that his state was pulling out of the agreement.
To be sure, the regional climate initiative was already running low on momentum before Baker pulled the plug. A majority of the 11 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states that were part of the original agreement hadn’t committed to it.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said two years ago that his state won’t join.
Many of the states cited the impact of raising prices at the gas pumps for the reluctance to participate in the plan.
Conservative groups that pushed to kill the regional pact say Beacon Hill needs to move on and find alternatives to reducing tailpipe emissions that don’t saddle consumers with higher costs.
“TCI is a regressive gas tax scheme that would have hurt the middle class and the working poor the most,” said Paul Craney, spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, one of the most vocal opponents of the regional pact.
To be sure, the Baker administration has taken other steps to reduce tailpipe pollution, including setting a goal of 100% zero-emission passenger vehicle sales by 2035, pushing for 30% electric vehicle sales for commercial trucks and buses by 2030 and 100% by 2050 and expanding electric vehicle charging stations.
But environmental groups say despite the collapse of the regional pact, reducing tailpipe emissions needs to remain a priority for state policymakers.
The advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts said Baker and legislative leaders need to “double down on transportation investments that are clean, equitable, healthy, and safe, and to take bold steps to move Massachusetts away from our congested, unhealthy and unreliable transportation status quo.”
Transportation Committee Co-chair Rep. William Straus, D-Mattapoisett, argues that TCI was a “distraction” from a broader discussion on improving roads and bridges.
“It’s been apparent for the last couple of years that a New England consensus on raising gas fees through this method was never going to happen,” he said in a statement.
He said he hopes the decision to withdraw from TCI will “refocus attention” toward broader transportation funding questions.
Environmental groups say there is an urgency in reducing greenhouse gas emissions to blunt the worst impacts of climate change, and argue that there is public support for aggressive policies to help reduce tailpipe pollution.
“The demand for climate action among the state’s voters is only going to increase,” said Elizabeth Turnbull Henry, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts. “We’ll see how that changes the politics.”
Staci Rubin, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation, argues that TCI “was never going to be enough” to address the impact of the region’s transportation systems and said other bolder solutions will be needed.
She said the focus needs to be on so-called “environmental justice communities” that have been disproportionately impacted by climate change.
“Transportation is the largest source of planet-warming emissions in New England, and our current systems have overburdened communities of color with air pollution for decades,” she said. “We must overhaul the way we move people and goods, and it must be done in a way that recognizes and addresses these historic inequities and brings everyone to the table in finding a solution.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com
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