On Wednesday, a panel discussion about Massachusetts energy and environmental policies took place at the main branch of the Brookline Public Library as part of Brookline Climate Week. Moderated by Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation, the panel participants were Craig Altemose, Executive Director of the Better Future Project (closely linked to 350.org MA) and Bobby Kates-Garnick, Undersecretary of Energy in the Patrick administration.
Altemose spoke first and did pat Governor Patrick on the back for strong climate initiatives such as the Green Communities Act, the Green Jobs Act, the Global Warming Solutions Act and for getting our state to the point where it can be hailed as #1 in energy efficiency. However, he was very concerned that at the current pace of greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction, the state will not make its 2020 or 2050 goals. His main point, echoed by many other climate activists, is that he believes we are past the point of discussion on the correct action to take. Only drastic cuts in GHG emissions are going to make a difference, they need to be done now and it will take a strong leader to institute and enforce such a policy. In other words, there should be no quibbling about whether or not Cape Wind should go forward or whether the old power plant in Salem should be converted to natural gas. However, fortunately or unfortunately, democracy is slow. While I agree the governor could speak out more on climate and try to drag the rest of the region with him in initiatives, Altemose wasn’t that specific on what he thought the governor could individually do. Executive orders maybe? In any case, his recommendations were “bar the worst, build only the best and price the rest.” By this he meant shut down the rest of the coal plants, ban fracking and tar sands-produced energy, set clean fuel standards, build infrastructure only for clean and efficient energy and introduce a carbon tax.
The undersecretary was careful to say she was not there representing the Patrick administration – though the rest of the panel and audience treated her as if she was. She did start with a disclaimer stating that policymakers have a responsibility to all stakeholders and the primary concerns among them under her purview are energy reliability and cost. She noted the successes of the Patrick administration including energy reduction, leadership in goal setting for GHG emission reductions, surpassing the solar installation goal and the Global Warming Solutions Act. The undersecretary pointed out that clean energy businesses have grown by 11% in Massachusetts and the $2.2 Billion in energy efficiency investments that the state is making will have a return of $9 Billion in benefits. She did, however, want to inform the audience about the challenges the administration faces in negotiating with stakeholders – be they utilities or Cape Cod residents – to come up with solutions and processes that are supported by all affected by new policies or policy changes. For example, she explained that decommissioning a coal-fired power plant is not that simple. There are no regulations to force it to be a “clean” shutdown and so local engagement is necessary to make sure there is no blight left in a community by an abandoned plant. Additionally, those left out of work by a shutdown have to be considered. Another issue she pointed out was our energy distribution system. There are well-documented gas leaks that need to be addressed and may require major upgrades to infrastructure that have to be paid for without totally passing on the cost to the consumer. While supportive of alternative energy, Kates-Garnick warned that you can’t just break apart an industry – the coal/oil/natural gas industry – it is the role of government to offer incentives and plans to make the change possible and attractive. She also emphasized that energy is a regional issue. Massachusetts can be a leader but cannot do it all on its own.
The Q&A session brought up audience questions about the possibility of a carbon tax, support for carbon extraction entrepreneurship and nuclear power. There was also some anger about the proposed natural gas plant in Salem and the governor’s apparent unwillingness to “show leadership” by squashing it. Everyone was encouraged to join the protest against the plan on Feb 8th.
The next day, I was a little irritated to get this email from the Better Future Project.
While Altemose was both polite and passionate at the panel discussion, I hope it was perhaps an immature staff member rather than he who composed this criticism of Undersecretary Kates-Garnick. It is going too far to come this close to equating her and the Patrick administration with anti-abolitionists. No one who was listening would have mistaken her as an apologist for the fossil fuel industry. At worst she spoke as a practical-minded rather than idealistic bureaucrat.