Scientists Identify Anti-Environment Lobbying Groups in MA State Legislature

Will W.

“Public opinion is not the barrier to climate policies in Massachusetts.” So concludes Who’s Delaying Climate Action in Massachusetts? Twelve Findings, a policy briefing on the challenges facing climate action in the MA state legislature. Written by Brown University climate scientists J. Timmons Roberts, Galen Hall, and Trevor Culhane, the report analyzes 1,187 pieces of public testimony and 4,072 State House lobbying visits, using these to describe the history of the legislative progress of pro- and anti-climate bills. They find that it is “leadership’s tight control over the House, the process of handling bills, the openness to lobbying in which corporations far outspend environmental and social advocates, and the lack of transparency” which has made progress on ambitious climate legislation difficult to implement

Of those opposed to climate legislation, the report identifies four distinct industry lobbying coalitions: utilities, fossil fuel and chemical companies, real estate, and fossil fuel power generators. The largest coalition in terms of spending is private utilities – corporations such as Eversource Energy and National Grid, which spent millions of dollars resisting climate bills between 2005 and 2018. Utility opposition to climate legislation comes mainly in the form of fighting decentralized solar as it competes with centralized power generation systems. Such sources of energy exist “behind the meter,” meaning they present both technical challenges when connecting to the broader electrical distribution system and billing challenges when distributing electricity generation credits. Along with allied capital unions such as the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), the utilities sector wields enormous influence over the legislative process. According to the report, “bills that utilities opposed were far less likely to move forward, and utilities’ preferences had a far higher correlation with outcomes than did any other coalitions’.” The remaining three coalitions, while less influential, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbying against Massachusetts state pension fund divestment from fossil fuels, renewable sources of power generation, and home energy efficiency standards.

Groups lobbying on behalf of climate legislation included environmentalist groups as well as green energy industry companies. Environmentalist groups, while the strongest advocates for climate legislation of all lobbying coalitions, were structurally ineffectual in seeing their agenda passed. As they are “among the lowest-spending lobbying groups in Massachusetts,” environmentalist groups must rely on “in-house lobbyists who rarely cultivate long-term relationships with legislative leadership and their staff.” Their limited capacity, as well as their reliance on corporate political parties and private interest groups for funding and influence, should condition how socialist climate activists relate to them. This is not to say socialists cannot or should not collaborate with non-profits – only that, when doing so, ecosocialists like those in the TakeBacktheGrid campaign must maintain an independence disciplined by our goal of public power, a mission rooted in a material analysis of the ravages of racial capitalism on our environment and fellow workers across the globe.

Green energy industry lobbyists also effected little progress for the environment. Though they had much larger budgets and capabilities beyond those of environmental NGOs, energy industry groups were hesitant to lobby on behalf of climate legislation beyond narrow corporate industry interests. When bills including carbon taxes and tightened greenhouse gas reduction targets were introduced into the legislature between 2013 and 2018, for instance, “Only two solar companies, and no hydro or wind companies, recorded any lobbying on these bills.” The reasoning comes as no surprise to socialist climate activists: while broader action on climate change is in the long-term interest of the green energy industry, it offers inadequate immediate incentive for their bottom line.

Despite the relative power of anti-climate lobbying coalition influence, the public stands resolutely in favor of taking action to fight climate change. The study reports that 90% of all public testimony given to Massachusetts legislative committees, written or oral, supported climate legislation. This was true especially of testimony offered by private citizens, as well as environmental organizations, progressive organizations, and labor groups.  

How, then, does corporate and anti-environmental lobbying prevent legislative action that reflects our public demands for climate mobilization?

Formally, lobbying groups intervene at the committee level, where lawmakers review legislation before it is brought to a floor vote. The process for how committees advance legislation is opaque and oftentimes undemocratic. As the study’s authors wrote, “Nearly every committee that determined those outcomes voted in secret, leaving little opportunity for the public to hold legislators accountable for voting against climate action.” Additionally, party leadership determines committee membership in the state legislature – the same leadership that controls campaign fundraising and the budgeting process – thus creating an entrenched, corporate-bought hierarchy for which it is difficult for climate advocates to overcome.

To disrupt these mechanisms, study authors recommend that committee votes be made public and reports on lobbying activities more readily available. Unfortunately, recent efforts to make House committee votes transparent have failed. However, we plan to demand the Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy (TUE) Committee to publicly declare their positions on the COVID-borne spike in utility debt. Our DSA comrade and State Representative Erika Uyterhoeven has introduced legislation to address just that. Democratic accountability will go a long way to forcing broader action on climate change currently resisted by corporate lobbyists and Massachusetts legislative leadership. There are other strategies to expand accountability for state climate action as well. By reconfiguring our profit-driven investor-owned utilities into publicly-owned and democratically-operated organizations, we can simultaneously cull their influence and ensure the development of climate-friendly and socially-minded infrastructure. Through demonstrating the power of the people, we can make our climate demands reality.

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