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For the fourth year in a row, Democratic lawmakers and their allies in New Hampshire will push for the state to join the rest of New England in codifying state-level greenhouse gas reduction goals.
A bill back before the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee would make it the public policy of the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20% below 1990 levels by 2025, 50% by 2035, and to net zero by 2050.
It would require all state agencies to incorporate emission reduction goals into their planning and rule-making. And the Department of Environmental Services would be charged with adopting a climate plan for achieving the limits.
“This bill recognizes that the state is falling down on its ability to define a trajectory on emissions,” said Rep. Kat McGhee, D-Hillsborough, who sits on the energy committee and has long supported a shift away from fossil fuels.
The emissions reduction goals echo recommendations made 14 years ago in a climate action plan put together by a broad and bipartisan statewide task force under former Gov. John Lynch. Since then, every other New England state has passed legally binding legislation setting emissions targets.
But even as the Democrats are trying to get New Hampshire to move in the same direction, the Republican majority is headed the other way. Some of their proposals this session include phasing out the state’s electric renewable portfolio standard, and doing away with the board that promotes and coordinates energy efficiency programs in the state.
At the same time, a highly unusual report released earlier this month by the state Public Utilities Commission takes aim at the state’s energy efficiency programs, offered by the utilities through NHSaves. Part of a much-criticized investigation opened by the commission, the report prompted a sharp rebuke from the state consumer advocate, who slammed the “full frontal assault” on the programs as inappropriate for an adjudicatory body.
When it comes to state energy policy, “right now, we are backpedaling on everything,” McGhee said. “Everybody thinks [Republican Gov. Chris] Sununu is middle of the road. He is not. We are at a real disadvantage with this administration.”
Lack of commitment
Earlier this month, during his fourth-term inaugural address, Sununu said his administration will explore “longer-term” energy options such as offshore wind and hydropower from Canada as a way to lower costs for consumers. The region’s current heavy reliance on natural gas for electricity is driving up prices this winter.
But his official energy strategy prioritizes free-market selection of energy sources above all and rejects renewable mandates.
The governor “likes to tout” fossil fuels and really “hasn’t committed” to clean energy goals, said Cameron Wake, a research professor at the University of New Hampshire’s Earth Systems Research Center.
Wake was part of the task force that put together the 2009 climate plan. At the time, New Hampshire was among the first states to not only examine how it could reduce emissions, but also look closely at what impacts climate change would have and how the state could adapt, Wake said.
Then-governor Lynch did not commit any resources to following up on the plan’s many recommendations, he said. And while some task force members tried to move it forward, without resources, the effort eventually petered out.
Nevertheless, Wake noted, New Hampshire’s greenhouse gas emissions have declined considerably since then, mostly because of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 12-state collaborative effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the region’s power plants. That effort to clean up the grid has largely squeezed coal out of the generation market, which has improved New Hampshire’s emissions profile.
But moving forward, Wake said, the state’s emissions are projected to remain flat without significant reduction strategies.
A New Hampshire climatology report released last year by Wake and his fellow researchers warned that the state has already become warmer and wetter due to climate change. As conditions stand now, residents can expect to experience 50 to 60 days a year above 90 degrees and winter temperatures an additional 10 degrees higher by the end of the century. The latter trend, researchers noted, poses a real threat to the state’s multimillion-dollar winter recreation industry.
Wake said he finds it “incredibly frustrating” that while the state’s flagship university has been able to reduce its emissions by 60% below 2001 levels — while at the same time increasing its student population and cutting costs through greater efficiency — “New Hampshire is just ignoring the challenge of climate change broadly.”
Another effort to get the ball rolling on emissions reductions took place in 2020 during the pandemic. An “Ad Hoc Emissions Commission” comprised of lawmakers, business groups, health organizations and environmental advocates — and led by former Sen. Tom Sherman, Sununu’s challenger last year — met repeatedly via Zoom to discuss emissions goals and the public health impacts of not achieving those goals.
The commission’s report stopped short of concrete recommendations, but did call for passage of a law establishing a legislative commission to also study the issues. That too failed to gain traction.
“It’s a hard time to be working on this stuff,” said McGhee, who sat on the ad hoc commission. “There are legislative arsonists on the Science, Technology and Energy committee whose job it is to poke holes in longstanding, steady energy policy. And they don’t have to provide any evidence.”
The utilities commission report that goes after the NHSaves programs is critical of the cost-benefit formula used to evaluate the programs’ cost-effectiveness. That formula was approved by a different makeup of the commission in 2019, and is now required by statute.
In a column blasting the report, Donald Kreis, the state consumer advocate, noted that the utilities commission contracted with a consulting firm run by Sununu’s former budget director, Mac Zellem, to help write it.
Sam Evans-Brown, the executive director of Clean Energy NH, an advocacy group, said the report is “full of methodological errors.” The timing of its release right before the legislative session gives the appearance that the commission “is trying to arm political allies with talking points, which is a pretty inappropriate thing for a PUC.”
Given the overall political climate right now, Evans-Brown isn’t optimistic that this will be the year that New Hampshire codifies greenhouse gas reduction goals. But he thinks it’s still important to submit bills that “remind everybody where we need to go,” including the governor.
“It is unlikely that he is going to sign such a bill, but I wish that he would,” Evans-Brown said. “When you look around the country, there is an enormous amount of investment going to states that are leaders in this area and New Hampshire is going to miss out.”