Massachusetts attorneys from the Conservation Law Foundation are arguing that the state has fallen behind because regulators have failed to mandate annual limits on specific emissions, which they say the law required to be set in 2012. They also blame the Baker and Patrick administrations for focusing more on extending natural gas pipelines than on promoting offshore wind and solar energy, increasing energy efficiency in buildings, and a range of other policies that don’t require legislation, including pressuring utilities to seal methane leaks more quickly, adding incentives for electric vehicles, and planting more trees.
“Massachusetts passed a landmark law that made us a leader in addressing greenhouse gases, but if we allow significant portions of the law to go unmet, it’s simply an empty gesture,” said Jennifer Rushlow, who will be arguing the foundation’s case. “This is a law that does have teeth, but we’re not using them.”
In its response to the lawsuit, which was dismissed by a Superior Court judge last March but taken up by the SJC on appeal, state officials argue that the Global Warming Solutions Act requires the agency to set targets — not caps — on emissions. They also say that the law gives the agency broad discretion on how to cut emissions.
They also note that the agency has enacted specific policies to reduce greenhouse gases, such as limiting leaks of sulfur hexafluoride, a potent greenhouse gas used in electricity distribution switches, a cap and trade program between states designed to cut emissions, and the adoption of a California program that curbs emissions for certain types of vehicles.
Ken Kimmell, who served as the department’s commissioner during the Patrick administration, said the law may have set unrealistic requirements. He also blamed the potential shortfall on unexpected developments, such as the failure of Cape Wind to build turbines on Nantucket Sound and the closure of Pilgrim. He urged the Baker administration and lawmakers to invest more in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and new ways to heat buildings that go beyond switching from oil to gas.
“That needs to happen now, because the infrastructure needs to get built to meet the deadline,” he said. “It’s up to all of us to figure out a solution. People would be right to be disappointed if we don’t meet this goal.”
Supporters of the lawsuit said they hope the court prods the state to act soon, noting that 2020 is just four years away.
A dozen environmental groups, in a brief to the court, compared the state’s efforts to climbing a mountain at night “without the benefits of trails or guideposts.”
“With no mandated emissions limits to light the way, the commonwealth is adopting and rejecting energy policies and projects blindly,” they wrote. “The only way that such an approach could result in the commonwealth meeting the 2020 mandate is by pure chance.”
After hearing Beaton testify in November, Senator Marc Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat who chairs the Global Warming and Climate Change Committee, said he was “extremely concerned” that the state wouldn’t meet the requirements.
He blamed both administrations for not doing more, noting the legislation also calls for cutting the state’s emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. He plans to push a bill in the coming months that would require specific emissions cuts for 2030 and 2040.
“We can do this,” he said. “But right now I just don’t see the urgency of getting it done. We need some political will to move us forward.”