October 7, 2023 • In the News

Infographic about Climate Change and topics that relate to it. Topics include: energy efficiency, global warming, carbon dioxide, fossil fuels, among others.

SOMETHING IS MISSING from our roadmap to net-zero emissions: the input of the people living in communities that will be most impacted by our future energy decisions.

Why are their voices going unheard? It’s not for a lack of trying. Rather, it is a result of the opaque, highly technical, and largely inaccessible decision-making structures of two state agencies that have an outsized role in shaping the pace and structure of our clean energy future.

For decades, engaging with the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities (DPU), which regulates the state’s water, gas, and electric utilities and oversees the safety of transportation and gas pipelines, and the Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB), which is charged with siting energy infrastructure and facilities, has been a challenging endeavor. Hard-to-attend public hearings with limited notice and opportunities for public input, jargon-filled and technical materials on proposed plans, and a lack of community representation have led to a largely inaccessible and unjust decision-making process.

And while you may have never heard of the DPU and the EFSB, environmental justice populations throughout the Commonwealth have been living with the consequences of their choices — from dangerous air pollution, to toxic infrastructure — without a seat at the table for years.

As the state prepares for the massive clean energy transition needed to reduce carbon emissions and create more sustainable communities, those shouldering the burden of our energy decisions must have a more significant say in how we shape our future.

The next several years offer an important opportunity for the DPU and EFSB to reject business as usual and drive a truly inclusive and community-centered decision-making process that ensures we don’t repeat mistakes of the past. And thankfully, we have a blueprint to accomplish these much-needed reforms.

report released this spring authored by a working group of organizations whose focus includes clean energy, environmental justice, consumer protection, and support for low-income residents, convened by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office in 2021, lays out a pathway for the DPU and EFSB to better-incorporate and solicit public feedback, particularly from environmental justice populations, into its decision-making.

Many of the recommendations address the practical challenges that so many members of the public have faced in trying to engage in the regulatory processes that have a direct impact on their lives. Taking a cue from the embrace of digital communication and engagement tools popularized by the COVID-19 pandemic, the report highlights ways to leverage these technologies for improved access through interpretation for non-English speakers, the provision of additional informational and educational materials on agency websites, and remote on-line access to hearings. Similar to virtual hearing options offered by the state Legislature, those who are unable to attend proceedings in-person should be given the opportunity to tune into live meetings, review old hearings, and testify via the web.

In that spirit of meaningful engagement, the report also calls for proceedings to be held at times, including evenings and weekends, that maximize attendance — not in the middle of a work day when most DPU public hearings take place — and for them to be advertised well in advance. It also recommends that the DPU and EFSB provide a variety of types of resources that explain, in terms understandable to a non-expert, their orders and procedures so that those who wish to testify or intervene have access to the information needed to effectively engage in proceedings. The report also recommends that the agencies provide plain language summaries, educational videos, templates, and samples of motion to intervene and briefs, as well as opportunities for information-sharing, dialogue, and the exchange of ideas.

Other critical recommendations include aligning the regulatory framework of the DPU and EFSB with our landmark climate laws to ensure we’re maximizing our efforts to reach a zero-carbon future, establishing a role for an environmental justice public advocate to provide support in proceedings, and prioritizing the development of translated materials to expand accessibility for those who don’t speak English as a first language.

By all accounts, we are at a critical juncture in our fight against climate change. Vast segments of Massachusetts infrastructure and energy sectors will need to shift rapidly, and how we approach decarbonization will directly impact the health, safety, and economic well-being of every community across the Commonwealth. Much like the revolution in communications brought about by the internet, new technologies in the energy sector provide not only increased sustainability but, depending on how we write the rules of the road, the opportunity to create a more transparent, democratic, and equitable energy infrastructure. By expanding access, transparency, and accountability to that effort, we can meet the urgency of the climate crisis while also ensuring equity and justice are at the forefront.

We are already moving in the right direction. We have a new administration that has elevated climate change not just as a top policy priority but through appointees in the cabinet itself, the nomination of new climate-focused voices to the DPU, and an attorney general who has put energy efficiency and clean energy access for consumers front and center and bad actors in the market on notice.

We must seize this moment to begin a new style of partnership with the governing bodies that serve our cities and towns and democratize the processes that will lead to cleaner, safer, and more resilient communities for all.

Sofia Owen is the senior attorney at Alternatives for Community & Environment and John Walkey is the director of climate justice and waterfront initiatives at GreenRoots in Chelsea.