The bill, not the whole bill, but not a bad bill

This is a half-a-loaf story, admittedly. But it is a story that shows how the Sierra Club is working to promote environmental and climate justice in a very practical way.

H. 2612: half a loaf

In 2010 I drafted a bill with two major goals: to end the use of coal in our commonwealth and to help the communities and workers affected by any coal-plant closures. The bill’s name is the Act to Phase Out Coal Burning in Massachusetts and its number is H. 2612. As well as enjoying the active support of the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, it won the endorsement of the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s state convention (thanks to PDA), and of two Green party chapters. Earlier this month, after making a significant amendment, the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy (TUE) voted 15:1 in favor of the bill, which means it now goes to the House Committee on Ways and Means.

Let me explain the significance of the amendment. Originally, H. 2612 gave utilities a simple choice: By 2020 they must either repower their coal-fired power stations to cleaner energy or retire them. In other words, convert or close down. To alleviate any negative effects, such as job layoffs, the Sierra Club proposed a Community Repowering Fund to pay for retraining and other forms of practical support. But only half the bill emerged from TUE. Which part fell to the cutting-room floor? The coal phase-out part.

Losing half the bill is disappointing, so I am hardly doing cartwheels and scattering rose petals. But legislating an end to coal-burning in Massachusetts is now almost unnecessary. Economics is already taking care of it. Most of the electricity we use in this commonwealth comes from natural gas. Although it is a fossil fuel, natural gas is arguably somewhat less harmful than coal in terms of CO2 emissions (methane isanother story) and because fracking technology makes natural gas so much cheaper, coal’s days are numbered. As a result, our state now hosts only three coal-fired power stations, namely Brayton Point in Somerset, Salem Harbor, and Mount Tom in Holyoke. Salem Harbor is scheduled to close in 2014, and Mount Tom also seems to be winding down. Holyoke’s mayor, AlexMorse, has appointed a committee to look into alternative uses for the Mount Tom site.

Even though coal-burning is on the way out, it would have been much better to have a timetable with a date certain in the form of the 2020 phase-out deadline. Nevertheless, the survival of the Community Repowering Fund provision makes the bill — even minus the phase-out provision — worthy of support.

Underlying the idea of the fund is a simple principle, one that appears in the preamble to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: “The body politic… is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good.” Rather than letting employees bear the whole cost of coal’s decline, the Sierra Club bill would spread the cost through society as a whole in a practical application of this constitutional principle of governing for the common good. Pushing the whole cost of closure onto the communities that have already borne a disproportionate burden by hosting coal-fired power stations would not be fair. All of us reaped the benefits of cheap coal-powered electricity and we should all pay — through taxes — our fair share when coal plants close.

Coal-company propagandists like to draw false battle lines, pitching workers against environmentalists. This bill demonstrates their mendacity. By advocating for the Community Repowering Fund, the nation’s leading environmental organization offers clear proof that it is looking out for workers’ interests. If H. 2612 wins the approval of House Ways and Means it stands a very good chance of becoming law and, if it does, former coal-plant employees and their families, friends, and neighbors in Salem and Holyoke should remember that the organization that led the fight was the Sierra Club of Massachusetts.

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