Environmental advocates gathered in Watertown to celebrate the filing of a new bill in the Massachusetts State House that would make the companies that produced the oil that created greenhouse gases pay for the impact on the climate.
The event took place at the Commander’s Mansion, which is located in a former Federal Superfund Site — the U.S. Army’s Watertown Arsenal — because co-sponsors liken the legislation to a Climate Change Superfund. The bill is known as the Polluters Pay Bill, said Watertown State Rep. Steve Owens, who is a co-sponsor along with State Sen. Jamie Eldridge.
“The principle of the Polluters Pay Bill is very simple: those who made the mess should be the ones to clean it up,” Owens said. “The bill we propose is simple, too. It would impose a fee on the largest emitters of greenhouse gas in Massachusetts that would go to a climate resiliency Superfund.”
Watertown has seen the success of Superfunds in the recent past, said former Town Councilor and environmental activist Susan Falkoff. The former Army facility that included what is now both the Arsenal on the Charles and Arsenal Yards properties, was polluted and had a nuclear reactor on the site.
In 1989 the Conservation Law Foundation filed a friendly lawsuit against the federal Environmental Protection Agency to start action that would lead to the Arsenal becoming a Superfund site. The group that Falkoff was part of, the Watertown Citizens for Environmental Safety, joined the suit and got a seat at the table during negotiations with the U.S. Army about how the cleanup would take place. That was key to the success, she said.
“The how and when and how much a cleanup will be is not ordained. It is negotiated,” Falkoff said. “I am especially proud that we fought for, and won, the right to see documents in draft form before they were too final for us to have meaningful input. The Army came to trust that if we were given a seat at the table that we would act responsibly.”
If passed, the law would be enforced by MassDEP and managed by them as well, Owens said.
“The bill has levels of cut offs in terms of the numbers of tons of CO2 and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and the proportion of those emissions is turned into a dollar amount based on that formula,” Owens said.
The bill aims at the largest producers, such as Shell Oil, which Owens said doubled profits in 2022 to $42 billion, and Exxon/Mobile, which he said had a record $56 billion in profits last year. Owens noted that as far back as the 1970s these companies’ research predicted that burning fossil fuels would lead to rising temperatures.
The bill seeks to prevent the companies from passing the cost on to consumers by not requiring smaller producers to pay the fees.
“The idea there is to encourage those top polluters to pollute less going forward, but also so that in the market place there are some larger polluters that are affected by this and some smaller ones that are not,” Owens said. “That means that those costs can’t be passed on to the consumer, because there are always people competing with those larger polluters that aren’t impacted by the fee.”
The money that would come from the bill would help communities prepare for the impact of more severe weather, Owens said. They could help fund some of the action items in Watertown’s Climate & Energy Plan.
“We’ve got a whole new Sustainability Plan (in Watertown) pick any of the actions on there, from stormwater runoff issues that we have here in Watertown, protect the Charles River, which is really important, even resilience issues, with not the Watertown Dam but the dam down by the science museum (in Boston),” he said. “If that breaches, this turns into tidal flats all over again. that would be a huge disaster.”
Among those at the event were young climate activists from the Mass. Youth Climate Coalition, including Watertown’s Lana Taffel, who graduated from Watertown High School in 2021 and now attends Brandeis University.
“Often people associate climate organizing with advocating for individual change, which while this is an important part of norm shifts around sustainability, it is not our biggest concern in terms of climate change,” Taffel said. “I can change my diet and my lifestyle, but no change I will make will ever come close to the changes that private corporations could make to slow climate disaster. This bill takes a big step toward holding corporations accountable for climate change by generating $75 billion over 25 years from the profits of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters.”
Forty percent of the fund collected would directly benefit environmental justice communities. Tina Nguyen, an O’Bryant High School student from Dorchester, said her community is one that feels the impact of climate change “first and worst.”
“I’m not blind to the world around me because I and so many others in my generation have grown up in the era when there’s article after article and Tweet after Tweet and disaster after disaster, showing how our planet is falling apart, and it’s falling apart because of us,” Nguyen said. “I say ‘us,’ but I think it’s about time to point the fingers to who is really steering the wheel. Fossil fuel companies I’m looking at you.”
Along with the elected officials from the State Legislature, representatives of Sen. Ed Markey, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Congresswoman Katherine Clark also took part in the ceremony. Owens said this is key because the effort takes more than one state. He added that other states including New York, Oregon and Washington are considering similar bills.
“We had the federal delegation here because there is another bill at the federal level that would do the same thing,” Owens said. “Really it’s all hands on deck. The solution to climate change is going to require all of us, so we are working at the state level, at the federal level and multiple states across the country to try to push this idea that the companies that put greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, causing climate change are the ones that should be responsible for helping us clean up and deal with the problem they caused.”