With multiple ongoing environmental fights in the state, our next governor will have major power to protect residents’ health and prosperity
Amid ongoing fights over the proposed East Boston substation, a proposed Peabody gas power plant, and the Weymouth compressor station, the race to succeed Charlie Baker as governor has major implications on environmental issues throughout the state.
Globally, the fight against the climate crisis is going poorly. With carbon emissions at their highest level in human history and rising, recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outline human systems pushed to their limits and call for immediate reductions in fossil fuel use. But as gas prices soar, the Biden administration is now pushing for increased oil drilling. Meanwhile, the administration’s climate goals remain dead in the water as coal baron US Sen. Joe Manchin continues to stand in the way of any climate legislation that takes on the fossil fuel industry.
At the state level, while Gov. Baker pays lip service to climate action, his record tells a different story. The Baker administration continues to allow threats to environmental justice populations to proceed in Peabody and East Boston, and the Republican leader pushed for weaker emissions reduction targets in the state’s climate “roadmap” last year.
Facing a primary against a Trump-endorsed opponent, Baker announced in December that he would not seek a third term. Still, Baker’s Department of Energy Resources declined to allow towns to ban fossil fuels in new buildings under the new energy stretch code created by the law, while the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is letting the gas industry write their own decarbonization regulations. The state is also far behind on its goals on electric heating, and continues to subsidize oil and gas heating systems.
The most ambitious climate policy plan released in the governor’s race so far belongs to Sonia Chang-Diaz, a Democratic state senator for the 2nd Suffolk District. She has outlined a Green New Deal for Massachusetts, which calls for completely carbon-free electricity by 2030, expanded and fare-free public transit, no new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state, an emissions reduction standard for large buildings, and a reform of the DPU to focus on the transition to a clean energy economy.
“Passing a Green New Deal for our state is not just about averting the crises of climate change and extreme weather events, although those certainly are important enough factors to drive us to action,” Chang-Diaz told me in a recent conversation. “But there’s also enormous economic opportunity for Massachusetts … we have the potential to create literally tens of thousands of new good paying family sustaining jobs.”
The senator also highlighted the state’s massive potential for offshore wind as a key asset in reaching carbon-free electricity by 2030.
“We are not limited by technology, or public opinion,” Chang-Diaz said in an interview. “Our biggest obstacle is a lack of urgency and political will to do things that are uncomfortable sometimes. And that includes bucking the interests of the fossil fuel industry in order to forge a new future for our state.”
Since the majority of funding for the MBTA comes from the state, having a political ally as governor would be a major boost for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s goal of fare-free public transportation.
“I pledge that in my very first budget proposal as governor, we will include funding to go fare-free on all MBTA buses and Regional Transit Authority buses,” Chang-Diaz said. “And then I will work to identify the revenue streams to be able to go fare-free on the remainder of our mass-transit system during my governorship.”
While the Chang-Diaz campaign is angling to harness the same political energy that helped Ed Markey overcome a double-digit polling deficit against the Kennedy political juggernaut in 2020, some of the major climate organizations that endorsed Markey—including Sunrise Movement and 350 Mass Action—have not yet endorsed a candidate in the race. However, several broader, left-leaning organizations that supported Markey, including Progressive Massachusetts and Our Revolution, have come out in favor of Chang-Diaz.
The Democratic favorite is Attorney General Maura Healey. She has easily outraised all other candidates, with about $4.7 million cash-on-hand. The Chang-Diaz campaign has only a fraction of this war chest, with less than $400,000 at their disposal.
Healey has yet to release any climate policy proposals and declined to answer questions for this article, so it’s currently unclear where she stands on many of the key environmental issues in the race. Her team sent a statement stressing the importance of climate action: “As Governor, I’ll be committed to making Massachusetts a national leader in the transition to a clean energy economy. We’ll do so in a way that creates good paying jobs, and we’ll make sure that labor has a seat at the table. We need to direct major investments into climate resiliency projects, electrify and expand transportation, and convert millions of homes and businesses to clean electricity.”
In a statement to StreetsblogMASS, Healey was non-committal on the proposal of fare-free transit. “We’re going to be taking a look at all of the ideas on the table, including fare-free transit, with community leaders and experts,” she said.
As Attorney General, Healey has an ongoing suit against Exxon Mobil for deceiving customers on the climate risks of fossil fuels. However, she has also sided with the utilities and developers against climate advocates by twice denying Brookline’s attempts to ban fossil fuels in new buildings, saying that the bans conflicted with state law.
Chang-Diaz and Healey will face off in a forum on energy and the environment on April 27, hosted by WBUR and the Environmental League of Massachusetts.
On the Republican side, former state lawmaker Geoff Diehl seems well positioned to win the nomination. Endorsed by environmental boogieman Donald Trump himself, Diehl was an honorary co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign in Massachusetts, and hired disgraced Trump advisor Corey Lewandowski to help his campaign. He will face off against Wrentham businessman Chris Daughty, who has almost entirely self-financed his campaign with $500,000 of his own cash.
I spoke with Diehl about his positions on energy and environmental issues, and he assured me that he believes in climate change. However, he staunchly opposes the rapid transition away from fossil fuels that is called for by IPCC scientists.
“Of course humans affect the climate,” Diehl said. “What we can do to help reduce our footprint would be great, but at the same time, you can’t flip the switch and go fully renewable when the renewables can’t fill the gap.”
Like Trump, Diehl styles himself as a proponent of an all-of-the-above energy policy.
“I think it’d be great to find that happy medium of all energy sources and make sure that we have the healthiest environment around,” Diehl said. “But to try to wave a magic wand and say that it’s going to happen in an unrealistic timeline is kind of making promises that you can’t necessarily keep.”
On whether the state should eventually abandon fossil fuels, Diehl added, “I’m not necessarily sure that the technology is gonna allow us to get to that point. … I don’t necessarily know if it’s even feasible to completely take fossil fuels out of the mix.”
Diehl has called for a temporary suspension of the state’s gas and motor vehicle excise taxes. A similar proposal was recently killed in the House. On public transportation, he opposes waiving fares. “I’m a believer in public transportation, but I’m also a believer in users having skin in the game,” Diehl said.
He also repeatedly criticized Chang-Diaz’s platform for supposedly calling for the elimination of fossil fuels by 2030. Her platform actually proposes entirely renewable electricity by 2030, which would not include emissions sectors such as transportation, heating, and industry.
Democratic and Republican state conventions are set for early June and late May, respectively, with Sept. 6 primaries and a Nov. 8 general election. As major environmental groups stay on the sidelines, it remains to be seen if climate and the environment will serve as wedge issues in the Democratic primary—though they are certainly poised to play a big role in the general election.
With ongoing environmental fights in the state over biomass subsidies, heat pumps, the future of gas, the Weymouth compressor station, the Peabody gas plant, and the East Boston electrical substation, the Bay State’s next Governor will have major power to protect residents’ health and prosperity from pollution and climate effects. Who voters send to the State House—and the social movements that put them there—will determine what comes of this power.
Jon is a freelance journalist and a senior at Colorado College. He oversees the school's student publications and covers environmental issues for the Catalyst newspaper. Sign up for his newsletter at newenglandclimate.substack.com.