By Doug Struck
Globe Correspondent
Run environmental issues up a flagpole. If you have five competing politicians clamoring to salute, this must be Massachusetts.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates were largely a “me-too” chorus at Friday’s Faneuil Hall question-and-answer forum on environment and energy. All agreed climate change is a dire threat, all pledged to boost state spending on it, name more officials in charge of combating it, and make it a priority of their hoped-for administrations.

About the only disagreement came over the question of support for a carbon tax, which would impose a cost on the use of fossil fuel energy that contributes to global warming. Candidates Joseph Avellone and Donald Berwick were unhesitantly in favor of such a tax.

“I am going to push hard on a carbon tax, a revenue-neutral carbon tax. In doing so that’s going to change a lot of behavior. That’s the kind of massive behavior change that we are going to need,” said Avellone, a doctor and pharmaceutical executive.
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“We could be the first carbon-neutral state in the nation,” said Donald Berwick, a pediatrician and former Medicare and Medicaid chief. A carbon tax “adds to the gross state product. It adds 10,000 jobs. We have the data before us. Why wouldn’t we go there now?”

But Martha Coakley, the state attorney general and presumed leader in the Democratic field, said, “I don’t think we are ready for it yet.” And Steven Grossman, the state treasurer agreed: “We want to make sure we don’t inadvertently undermine our competitiveness.”

Juliette Kayyem, a former Department of Homeland Security official, straddled: “I’ll start at ‘yes’ and add a lot of caveats… It’s something that is do-able with all the necessary caveats.”

The panel was sponsored jointly by 30 groups, including the Environmental League of Massachusetts and Clean Water Action. An audience of approximately 500 turned out on Friday afternoon.

The hosts extracted pledges from each of the candidates to restore funding for state environmental agencies to at least 1 percent of the state budget, the high water mark in 2001. Such funding is now about .6 percent of the budget.

The candidates also agreed to pursue the goals of Gov. Deval Patrick to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2080. To do so will require aggressive promotion of renewable energy sources, the candidates said. Several expressed wariness about an overenthusiastic embrace of natural gas to replace coal as the fuel source for power plants and furnaces.

“We need to get really, really serious about getting off carbon. End of story,” said Berwick.

There were no questions on nuclear power, which generates about 20 percent of the state’s electricity, and only Grossman brought it up. The nuclear plants at Seabrook N.H and Plymouth, Ma., are “obsolete and unsafe,” and it is “absolutely critical” to end our dependence on them, he said.

The candidates said more must be done to improve the state’s transportation systems, and all said they support a gasoline tax to help do that. Drivers “are willing to get out of their cars if we help them,” said Kayyem.

All of them supported a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas and oil, opposed the Keystone pipeline, and expressed support for Boston’s law requiring that large commercial and residential buildings begin to disclose their energy use. And the candidates joined to complain about the impact federal fishing quotas have on Massachusetts fishermen.

One candidate won the crowd in response to an audience question inquiring what the candidates have done personally to reduce greenhouse gases. Avellone and Coakley said they recycle; Kayyem said she walks and bikes with her children, and Grossman said the energy use of his Grossman Marketing company is met completely by renewable wind energy.

But the other candidates tipped their hat to Berwick, who has built a zero-net energy house, so air-tight it does not need a furnace. “We had a zero bill this month,” Berwick noted.

The candidates are competing to gain more than 15 percent of delegate votes at the Democrat’s state convention in June. Those who pass that threshold will stand in the Democratic primary in September. The winner will face Republican Charlie Baker, who was selected as the nominee by his party’s convention Saturday. Patrick’s eight years in office end Jan. 3, 2015, and he is not running again.

(Image from Ken Pruitt, Environmental League of Massachusetts)


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Doug Struck has been a journalist for 35 years. He was a national roving reporter, foreign bureau chief, war correspondent and an environmental reporter for The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun. He has reported from six continents and 50 states. He is now senior journalist in residence at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches and continues to report on environmental issues.

He earned a master's degree in Environmental Sustainability in 2015 from Harvard Extension School.

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