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States to move on cutting emissions – Reluctant Mass. may be left behind  

Seven Northeast states decided yesterday to move forward without Massachusetts on a landmark agreement to limit power plant emissions, because of the Romney administration's reluctance to act on the pact, according to two government officials involved in the negotiations.

However, officials for the seven states told Massachusetts officials in a conference call yesterday that they hoped the Bay State would still sign on before the pact is formally announced by Dec. 15, according to the two officials, who were on the call and declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the negotiations. They said that after the other states made their intentions clear, the Massachusetts officials left the phone call.

Governor Mitt Romney has raised concerns in recent weeks over the cost of the greenhouse gas reduction program for businesses, among other issues. Romney has proposed that the agreement cap the price that power plants would pay to emit pollution. Other states and environmentalists have strongly opposed a cap.

After the call yesterday, Romney’s environmental chief said the state was still working hard to negotiate a compromise acceptable to Massachusetts for the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. But he gave no timetable.

”We are fully interested in working on these issues with our counterparts in the other states," said Stephen R. Pritchard, secretary of environmental affairs. ”We don’t have a resolution or deadline. . . . We continue to work hard on it and resolve some of the issues."

Greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are released from power plants and automobiles, trapping heat in the atmosphere. Many scientists say the earth is heating up more rapidly because of release of the bases caused by human activity. While a group of industrialized countries has signed on to a global pact to reduce emissions, called the Kyoto Protocol, US officials have refused to do so, saying they want developing countries to also be part of the agreement.

It is still unclear if Rhode Island, which has also wavered in recent weeks on joining the pact, will follow the lead of Massachusetts, according to the two government officials on the call who spoke to the Globe. They said the Rhode Island officials indicated during the call that they were not in favor of Romney’s price cap, although they had other concerns. Rhode Island officials could not be reached for comment last night.

The development is the latest in the 2 1/2 years of negotiations over the pact, which would freeze power plant carbon dioxide emissions at their current levels and then reduce them 10 percent by 2020. In addition to the other New England states, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware would be part of the agreement.

The initiative is the first major effort to bypass President Bush’s refusal to enact strict limits on greenhouse gases. Massachusetts is considered a pivotal player in the pact and has helped lead negotiations. Participants had hoped to announce the agreement yesterday to coincide with a key climate-change meeting going on through next week in Montreal.

Romney spoke enthusiastically about the proposal early last month, calling it ”good business" and a way to encourage an investment in clean technology, although he raised some concerns at the time. Then two weeks ago, Massachusetts officials asked the other states to delay yesterday’s planned announcement until Dec. 15 to sort out disagreements.

But since then, the two government officials said, Romney has not put anything in writing for the other states to work with to move the pact forward. While the call was cordial, the two officials said other states said they had no choice but to move forward.

One of the officials who spoke to the Globe said that while Romney originally raised one issue, the administration kept bringing up new issues. ”They were given two extra weeks," the official said. ”We agreed to delay it two weeks, but they did not put a proposal on the table."

The nine-state plan pivots on a program called cap and trade, similar to the successful national acid rain program that has greatly reduced pollution. Under a cap and trade program, an overall limit of emissions is set. Companies would get some right to pollute, but they would have to buy or trade credits for every ton of carbon dioxide they emit over that limit. Companies that pollute more could buy credits from companies that emit less. No price would be set for those credits in order to encourage the market to determine a cost for each one. If the price to pollute gets high enough, power companies would be encouraged to invest in and develop low-pollution technology.

Romney wants a price cap on how much power plants would pay for each ton of carbon dioxide they emit over the allowed amount. Many businesses like the idea because it would provide certainty of how much they would pay to do business. In recent weeks, businesses have lobbied hard for Romney to reject the pact, with Robert Ruddock, general counsel for Associated Industries of Massachusetts, saying it would have ”in our view significant price impacts."

Environmentalists, some businesses, and the negotiating states, however, have rejected the idea of a price cap, saying it merely places a tax on power plants and allows them to buy the right to pollute beyond the emission limit. Environmental groups have been lobbying equally hard for Massachusetts to join the pact and to reject the insistence on a price cap, saying it would discourage companies from investing in pollution-control equipment.

In recent weeks, three analyses conducted for the participating states have indicated that the annual electric bills for households would rise between $3.01 and $33.23 for the next 15 years without a price cap because companies would pass along the cost of the program. If money collected for pollution credits was used to offset that cost, consumers could see household bills fall by more than $100 annually.

Environmentalists said yesterday they held hope that Massachusetts would join the pact, but that a system with price caps would undermine its integrity.

”It would be better to have a real market system to encourage investment into clean technology with fewer states than to have the whole program converted into a carbon tax," said Environmental Defense president Fred Krupp.

Beth Daley can be reached at bdaley@globe.com.


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