“It’s just shocking to me for Massachusetts, the state that puts itself forward as this paragon of democracy. Those are just fundamental building blocks of a democratic society.”
“Who’s Delaying Climate Action in Massachusetts?,” a first-of-its-kind report from Brown University’s Climate and Development Lab, details how powerful industry coalitions have been able to effectively fight climate legislation in the Commonwealth despite broad popular support.
Summarizing findings from their analysis of over a thousand public testimony entries from 2013 to 2018 and more than 4,000 lobbying visits from 2005 to 2018, the study found that four coalitions—utilities, fossil and chemical companies, real estate companies, and fossil fuel power generation—consistently fought against climate bills in the state. Of all the groups they studied, they found utilities (dominated by National Grid and Eversource) to be the most successful at lobbying for or against bills. The researchers also noted that about 90% of public testimony was in support of climate legislation, and that clean energy lobbying was outspent 3.5 to one by their opposition.
I spoke with the study’s three authors, Galen Hall, Trevor Culhane, and J. Timmons Roberts. Hall and Culhane are recent Brown graduates and researchers at the Climate and Development Lab. Roberts is Ittleson Professor of Environmental Studies and Sociology in the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Executive Director of the Climate Social Science Network, and one of the founders of the Climate and Development Lab.
The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Can you explain your main takeaways from this study?
JTR: To me, the biggest finding is that utilities have their way. Utilities are extremely successful both on offense and defense. They are not opposed to everything—actually they’re supportive of large-scale wind, offshore wind especially, and they’re fine with hydro—but they’re anti solar, especially rooftop, small-scale distributed solar, because that means electricity that they can’t sell. They can buy wind power from some big wind turbines and sell it to individuals and companies, but solar is cutting into their business.
Over the six years [the study looked at], there were around 60 bills that they lobbied against that died in committee, and the few bills that did end up passing were the ones that the utilities really had a big hand in rewriting.
GH: Only one bill that utilities opposed passed, out of hundreds that were introduced and out of seven in our set that passed. It’s just a sense, statistically, that there’s a strong correlation between what they want and what happens, let’s put it that way.
JTR: They spend a lot on lobbying. They’re among the top lobbyists year after year, and they hire the most powerful lobbying firms that have very close relationships with current and former politicians—called ML Strategies.
Is all of this lobbying money coming from ratepayers?
JTR: Yeah, they have a monopoly job to sell electricity, natural gas to everybody in their service area. So the people who live in those areas are basically forced to pay them every month, and then they’re allowed to go and lobby for what they want, both to the legislature and also to the administrative agencies and to the Public Utility Commission and so on. They’re very influential, and they of course have the best lawyers, engineers, and technicians, people who can refute almost any argument that anybody makes. It’s a very unbalanced situation.
Is this what makes them so powerful, even compared to the fossil fuel companies and the other coalitions that frequently oppose environmental priorities?
TC: Yeah, so there’s the resources—the grid for them is high stakes, so they’re going to invest a lot in lobbying on it. I think the other big thing that we heard is that the utilities just have the expertise that no one else has. So when they come into the legislature and say, ‘Rooftop solar is not gonna work,’ or, ‘Moving to this much renewables is a bad idea for the grid,’ they have the most expertise, and a legislator often doesn’t have the time or the staff to look into every issue. They are the trusted resource and they have a lot of sway in that way.
I also want to talk about the clean-energy lobby. At one point, the study mentions that “the most recent lobbying disclosures reveal that some of the highest lobbying contracts in the state come from the offshore wind industry.” However, it also notes that clean energy industry groups often aren’t focusing on broad climate legislation, and that the environmental groups pushing for broad climate legislation have smaller lobbying operations. Will this dynamic effect the makeup of which types of renewable energy that win out in Massachusetts?
GH: That’s a really good question, there’s two parts to this. One is the question of why renewable energy companies aren’t lobbying on these big, structural climate policies like carbon taxes, and the other is how it will affect the makeup of renewable capacity in Massachusetts.
On the first one, I think some renewable generation companies are just afraid of the utilities, especially because they feel like if they really piss off the major utilities, then they just won’t get connected or their projects will be delayed or die, because they literally won’t get connected to the grid. And then you combine that with the fact that the renewable energy industry in Massachusetts is made up of a lot of smaller scale producers, besides the new, foreign wind companies, which means that it’s sort of a collective action problem.
On the question of the distribution of different kinds of renewables, it’s more of a hunch we got, it’s not really substantiated, but offshore and utility-scale wind companies are just larger than a lot of distributed solar companies. And when you have a large company, you often have more money to spend on lobbying and the political process in general, so in that sense the wind industry has a bit of an advantage. Actually up and down the east coast you can see that Ørsted Wind has partnerships with local state utilities, where they’re bringing in large utility-scale wind farms. Speaking entirely personally, not for us, I would say that wind will be making a play to dominate solar on the east coast, for that reason.
JTR: Yeah, I mean they’re very different industries—solar is just so much more distributed and decentralized. There’s going to be an interesting union angle on this too, because a lot of solar installers are private contractors who don’t have union workers and don’t pay union rates. But a lot of these big wind projects are gonna be union projects that pay union wages, and I think that helps the wind companies too, because then they go to the legislature with an extra set of lobbyists.
Are lobbyists’ positions on bills self reported?
GH: Yes they are. There is a big problem in our study with unreported preferences. Lobbyists might record their position as neutral, when in fact they oppose the bill, or something like that. We acknowledge that in the study and there’s just no way to infer any more information than what you’re given.
How is it possible to neutrally lobby a bill?
JTR: That’s what I keep saying again and again. Neutral lobbying by a utility on a climate change bill—I don’t think so. I think that’s bullshit. You’re not gonna bother lobbying if you’re really neutral. I think what they’re often doing is saying, This bill has positive and negative points but it would have to be adjusted on A, B, C, D, E, and F, so we’re gonna say we’re lobbying neutral.
TC: The vast majority of testimony took a position, because they’re taking the time to try to influence a bill. For lobbying, I think it was like half was neutral?
GC: Like 40% of the lobbying on these bills was recorded as neutral, and we just don’t use those records for our analysis. The missing data problem in the lobbying probably just means that we have a more cautious estimate of how often some of these groups are opposing the environmentalist position. Our hunch is that a lot of neutral lobbying is in fact oppositional, or at least asking for major changes to bills.
JTR: And that relates to the bigger observation that a lot of the opponents of climate action don’t even bother to show up in the committee hearings. They don’t testify, sometimes they’ll submit written testimony, but a lot of times not even that. And yet they’re managing to kill bills in committee through lobbying. They just don’t bother because I think there’s a reputational risk.
What do you think this says about the state of lobbying in Massachusetts—how does this distort the democratic will of the people?
GH: It really just goes to corroborate the problems that other groups have already pointed out. Some of these are problems specifically about lobbying, where there’s just a massive imbalance of how much one side can pay for lobbying versus the other on an issue. But then there are other structural problems with transparency in the statehouse itself, kind of apart from the lobbying issue, where we just don’t know not only what negotiations happened in committees around these bills, but in many cases, how committee members voted. And then even when bills get to the floor, when there are voice votes; a voice vote on an amendment is not even a real vote half the time, it’s often just the speaker who decides what the vote was.
TC: I think the transparency issues help obscure how much it’s dominated by leadership, that through almost every step in the process what the leadership wants or doesn’t want tends to be what happens.
How does leadership and committees shape and narrow down the climate legislation that ends up coming to a general vote?
GH: From my perspective looking at the lobbying data, committees are sort of like black boxes. We know how people lobby on the bills that go into them, and we know how people lobby on the bills that come out of them, and we know that there are systematic changes in between, where the bills that come out tend to favor certain interests more than the bills that go in. But we can’t tell from that data why that happens or what’s going on in the committee.
TC: We heard in general that lobbyists focus on leadership and maybe don’t even bother with rank-and-file members. They are paid to get results and they know where they come from.
Did anything about this study surprise you?
GH: One thing that kind of popped out in the lobbying data was the presence of the real estate industry.
JTR: Right, there’s nothing in the literature about them, really, so that’s exciting and new.
TC: I think for me personally, I knew about the transparency issues in the state, but the level to which leadership really dominates decision making, directly connected to what the outcomes were, I think that’s surprising. I think the other thing was just that there’s a lot of different avenues where industry spends a lot of money to astroturf, to show that there is some “grassroots” opposition to a policy. But for testimony we really didn’t see any of that. Other than a set of wind-siting bills, there were just four people who testified on their own behalf against climate policy over six years, which is not an organized effort. I could probably organize more than four people. So it’s really surprising that the opposition is really through lobbying and they’re not even bothering to seem to show that they have grassroots opposition to climate action.
JTR: It was also kind of a shock that we had to go begging to these committees for something that was public testimony. They didn’t have to give it to us, there’s no archiving of it, there’s no transcripts, and then there’s this business of the votes not being recorded or even being taken, person by person.
It’s just shocking to me for Massachusetts, the state that puts itself forward as this paragon of democracy. Those are just fundamental building blocks of a demmocratic society. I wish that I was more shocked about the speaker having so much power, but having seen the exact same thing in Rhode Island, I think it’s disgusting.
Have you noticed any changes since the beginning of your study period? The ‘Next Generation Roadmap’ climate bill seems to be some real movement through the legislature.
TC: I think it’s really exciting. I think the question our report helps answer is why it took so long, and who has been pushing back. We saw in the Governor’s letter when he vetoed the bill, he cited some of the groups that we cite in our report as reasons why he vetoed it. So I think our report helps to illustrate the opposition and what they’re doing, but I don’t think we have such a pessimistic view that nothing can happen. I think we’re hopeful that a lot can happen, because there’s been a lot of support for a long time.
JTR: I agree with all that. I would just say we’re in a very similar situation in Rhode island right now, where the Speaker of the House has actually lost his general election in his district, so we have a new speaker. And I think that first year when you have a new speaker is often a window of opportunity where they’re feeling a little weak and they need to shore up their support.
But Massachusetts should be a best-case scenario. This is where there’s no big fossil-fuel industry, no extraction, there’s no heavy energy-using manufacturing companies. It’s basically a service economy that doesn’t extract any oil or gas or coal, so this should be where those kinds of interests are the weakest. It’s very interesting and important to understand that there are effective lobbying groups, even in the best case states.