BOSTON – Lawyers for a group of environmental organizations and high school student activists tried to convince a Suffolk Superior Court judge on Monday to force the state to create new regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Conservation Law Foundation, Mass Energy Consumers Alliance and four Massachusetts high school students sued the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection in Suffolk County Superior Court, arguing that the department failed to comply with the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act.
Lawyers for the environmental activists said they are deeply concerned about the impact of climate change on Massachusetts. “Massachusetts communities, particularly Massachusetts youth, will inherit the burden from (the Department of Environmental Protection’s) failure to act and comply with the mandate,” said Jennifer Rushlow, an attorney representing the Conservation Law Foundation and the Mass Energy Consumers Alliance.
Lawyers for the state responded that they have already done everything they were required to do.
“The commonwealth is an acknowledged, national leader on climate change and takes very seriously its responsibilities under this law,” said Assistant Attorney General Jo Ann Shotwell Kaplan. She said the environmental groups’ argument is based on “a groundless interpretation” of the law.
Judge Robert Gordon did not issue a ruling from the bench after Monday’s hearing.
At the center of the lawsuit is the interpretation of the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act, a state law passed in 2008 that requires Massachusetts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions across a variety of sectors, with a timeline for reducing emissions by specific amounts beginning in 2020 and going through 2050.
For 2020, the state is required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 to 25 percent below 1990 levels. By 2011, the state was required to establish regulations that would allow it to meet this goal.
In 2010, Massachusetts released a 136-page plan on how to reduce emissions by 2020, with policies touching on transportation, buildings, electricity supply and more. The plan includes a variety of policies: establishing fuel efficiency standards for vehicles; promoting more efficient use of electricity, natural gas and heating oil; updating building codes; testing an auto insurance policy where premiums depend on miles driven; adopting emissions standards for refrigeration and other equipment; and providing incentives for the use of renewable energy like wind, solar and biofuels.
However, the environmental activists argued in their lawsuit that the law requires the state to write regulations that include declining, annual, aggregate limits on emissions. Essentially, they want a hard cap each year that limits the amount of emissions produced by specific sources, such as cars. They argue that a plan based largely on incentives and voluntary actions does not amount to new regulations, so the state has not fulfilled its legal obligation.
State officials representing the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection say the law requires only that the state promulgate regulations establishing “a desired level” of emissions. In other words, the state must only set an unenforceable, aspirational target for annual emissions levels rather than an absolute limit in the years leading up to 2020. “It’s a tracking device,” said Shotwell Kaplan.
The department says it has written regulations in areas including vehicle emissions, emissions from a type of gas used to insulate electrical power equipment and amendments made to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a regional, market-based system that puts a price on greenhouse gas emissions.
The environmental groups say that for technical reasons, those regulations do not meet the law’s requirements.
“It’s not that these regulations don’t hold value in the reduction of greenhouse gases. It’s that they don’t fulfill the mandates,” Rushlow said.
Dylan Sanders, an attorney representing the high school students, who are from Boston and Wellesley, said the plaintiffs worry that if there are no hard limits set each year, the state is at risk of not meeting its goals for reducing emissions by 2020. “Once you didn’t meet it, it’s too late,” Sanders said.
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