December 17, 2020
Vitolo said that he plans to file a WA21-like bill in the state legislature’s new session in January, working with State Representative Kay Khan and Senator Harriet Chandler.
“The bill is not finalized yet,” Vitolo said. “But the expectation is that the bill will, number one, require state agencies to create a clean heating code, a single set of rules for what we mean when we say clean heating. Number two, require government construction projects, whether federal, state, county or municipal, to abide by that standard. Number three, allow cities and towns to opt into that standard for all construction in their city or town.”
Under this bill, opting into the clean heating standard would be equivalent to passing WA21-like legislation at the municipal level.
For the many students like Liebman that were involved in the WA21 movement last year, the hard work begins at the State House. Liebman said that a lot goes into advocating for bills like Vitolo’s and approval for home rule petitions like Brookline’s.
“It’s going to be an uphill fight in state government, because state government is a lot harder to navigate than Brookline government,” Liebman said. “It takes years to get something passed and there are lots of committees that don’t get anywhere. It’ll be really difficult to actually get these things approved by the state government for them to go into effect. So that’s where, in terms of these warrant articles, we’ll have to put most of our energy.”
However, according to Liebman, the Sunrise Movement’s hubs across the state are preparing to organize collaboratively around WA21-like legislation.
“The Brookline hub is more Brookline focused, but Boston, because it’s so large, has done a ton statewide too. So we’ve been coordinating a bunch with Sunrise Boston,” Liebman said. “Once this makes it out of Brookline and makes it into the State House and becomes something that we’re going to fight for statewide, there’s going to be a lot more coordination about this amongst the different Massachusetts hubs and other organizations.”
According to Wright, this organization is precisely what is needed to prompt real action in the State House.
“It starts from the grassroots up. There has to be big grassroots pressure,” Wright said. “Our state legislature, certainly the feds, the Department of Public Utilities and the utilities themselves will not move until people demand it and do it ourselves.”
Utilities, particularly the natural gas industry, have come out in opposition to the proposed fossil fuel prohibitions. In an email statement, Tom Kiley, the president and CEO of the Northeast Gas Association (based in Needham), said that natural gas has long been a necessary and reliable source of heat and energy in the state, and that flatly prohibiting it would miss the nuance of the issue.
“A ban on fossil fuels and/or natural gas in new construction, such as was proposed in Brookline, while well-intentioned by proponents to address climate change, would remove energy choice from residents and businesses, and would impact energy affordability for all customers,” Kiley wrote. “The natural gas industry in the Commonwealth is working to help support community efforts to more greatly decarbonize the state’s economy, while at the same time working to provide reliable, affordable and lower carbon energy to meet the energy needs of residents and businesses. We think a balanced review of the topic will indicate that natural gas can and should remain a sustaining part of the Commonwealth’s energy future.”
Vitolo said that listening to all those opposed, from big companies to individual residents, is a step that cannot be ignored. But he also noted that according to climate scientists, our back is more or less against the wall.
“To get to net zero by 2050, we need to drive our electric power sector emissions down to zero or very near zero, and we need to drive our transportation emissions down to zero or very near zero,” Vitolo said. “If the power sector is emissions-free and our transportation is all-electric, that gets us maybe 75 percent of what we need, which is not enough. It doesn’t even get us to 80 percent by 2050, which was the standard we were talking about in 2008, when we passed the Global Warming Solutions Act. We have to do buildings.”
Though they know it may be an uphill battle, many climate activists see this legislation as the low hanging fruit. Technology already exists for electric heating, and the shrinking cost differential doesn’t impact energy affordability. According to Cunningham, not only is it easy and cost-effective (even cost-saving, as some studies suggest) to enact this kind of fossil fuel ban, there is no way around doing it soon if we want a carbon-free future.
“Brookline is supposed to be net zero by 2050. So is the state,” Cunningham said. “And we have no other way to reach those goals. Absolutely not, our hands are tied. And this is true in every town and city throughout the state.”