Citing progress, Massachusetts carbon pricing bill sponsor looks to 2017-18 session

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BOSTON >> Environmentalists pushing for an energy policy that would impose a price on carbon emissions stormed the Statehouse on Wednesday in hopes of shoring up support in the Senate and making headway in the House.

About 40 people under the flag of the Massachusetts Campaign for a Clean Energy Future planned to visit the offices of about two dozen senators Wednesday to gin up support for carbon pricing, including a Sen. Michael Barrett bill (S 1747).

The legislation would "charge fossil fuel importers a fee based on the carbon content of the fuels" which would then "go into a special fund for rebates and be passed on directly to households and employers in order to minimize any increased costs in living and doing business," according to the campaign.

Rebates from the fund would be distributed equitably to all residents, which supporters say would give everyone an incentive to reduce their use of fossil fuel in order to keep more of their rebate.

"We believe that fossil fuels, the primary drivers of climate change, should be priced to reflect the health and environmental problems they cause. Putting a fee on CO2 is the single most effective step a government can take to fight global warming," Barrett and 47 other lawmakers wrote in a March letter to the Energy Committee co-chairs.

The lawmakers emphasized that the bill "is careful to impose a fee, not a tax" and therefore would not constitute a "money bill," which could become a target for an array of tax policy amendments.

Adopting carbon pricing, Barrett and the others wrote, would "significantly boost" the odds of the state achieving the goals of its Global Warming Solutions Act, namely a 25 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

The bill, along with a similar proposal (S 1786) put forth by Sen. Marc Pacheco, is before the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy. The committee has until July 1 to make its report on the bill, and supporters have been lobbying the committee to send both bills to the Senate before then.

Formal legislative sessions end July 31, creating a hard deadline for sponsors of controversial bills to move them through the branches.

"We've been focused on the 17 members of that committee and we think we have a slight majority in that committee, but we're not quite sure what will happen there," said Marc Breslow, a former executive director and co-founder of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network who worked with the Department of Energy Resources to analyze carbon pricing proposals. "What we want is for the bill to be reported out to the Senate because we think we can win in the Senate. We don't want it to go to the House because we know that as of now we're pretty sure we couldn't win in the House."

So, assuming the bill will emerge from the Energy Committee by the July 1 deadline, Breslow said the coalition's primary goal between now and the end of the legislative session will be to solidify majority support in the Senate.

"We think we're in pretty good shape on that. We have, as best as we can tell, 14 senators who we know are sure 'yes' votes and then about eight who are likely or possible and another eight or 10 who just don't know or who are undecided," he said. "Our primary goal today and in all our communications is to be winning over those people in the middle."

Barrett said the Senate likely does not have the votes necessary to pass the bill this session, but the issue has gained a lot of support since he introduced it as something of a novel idea 18 months ago.

"No, I don't think we have it today but I think we're getting close," Barrett said. "I've been very heartened by the stepped-up interest over the last 60 days or so."

Even if the bill were to pass the Senate this session, supporters acknowledged that the House is unlikely to even consider the issue. But a bill that's already cleared one chamber has a better chance of becoming law in the next legislative session, the campaign said.

"Our goal is to secure majority support in the Senate and then build on that," Cynthia Luppi, New England director for Clean Water Action, told the News Service. "We're looking at this as an educational year. We really want to make sure people are familiar with the concept, how well it has worked in other countries and how we could tailor it to the Massachusetts economy and energy use."

Barrett echoed that sentiment, saying that he plans to champion the cause again next session.

"This is a top priority for the 2017-18 legislative session," Barrett said. "I'm not promising it will get through the Senate as a preview in 2016, but I can tell you that a large number of senators who didn't feel they knew much about this are now talking positively about it."


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