Charlie Baker: Technocrat or Plutocrat?

04/07/2016 06:52 pm ET Updated Apr 08, 2017

How he deals with Massachusetts pipeline expansions will decide.

During his gubernatorial campaign in the fall of 2014, Charlie Baker sold himself to the Massachusetts electorate as a technocrat--someone who would set aside ideological biases in favor of a hard-nosed, rational look at the facts of a given challenge, and deploy the best available solutions to address it. There is perhaps no greater test of his nature than in how Governor Baker responds to our state's energy and climate challenge.

While the overwhelming majority of scientists--backed by majorities of the public as a whole, along with majorities of both Democrats and Republicans--agree that climate change is happening and that people are responsible, most high-profile Republican elected officials either deny the existence of the problem or humanity's ability to address it, or just remain silent on it altogether.

In comparison to that lack of leadership, Governor Baker can come across as refreshing. Here is a Republican governor who not only acknowledges the reality of climate change, but whose administration has pledged on repeated occasions that it will meet the legal mandates of the state's Global Warming Solutions Act and continue the state's national leadership in clean energy and energy efficiency, securing the tens of thousands of jobs those emerging industries provide.

Yet if you scrape below the surface, there is cause for alarm. Governor Baker has made a number of questionable appointments on energy, including Angela O'Connor as the Chair of the Department of Public Utilities and Ron Gerwatowski as the Assistant Secretary of Energy. O'Connor's previous employment included leadership roles with the Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), the foremost industry lobby group in the state, and the New England Power Generators Association, which represents the region's coal and gas plants. Gerwatowski was previously Senior Vice President at National Grid, a utility company that is investing in new fracked gas pipeline projects while stalling the growth of solar in Massachusetts. These appointments are particularly concerning in light of some campaign contributions by top executives of fracked-gas pipeline company Kinder Morgan (whose fracked-gas pipeline both AIM and National Grid support). To add further insult, these donations all came in on election day--probably to minimize political fallout.

Enter our current challenge. At the moment there are no less than five separate proposals moving through various levels of permitting to dramatically expand Massachusetts fracked gas pipeline infrastructure. These projects are so high capacity there's little question they are designed for international export, which would increase the profits of pipeline companies and their investors while making natural gas more expensive for Bay Staters as we compete on the pricier international market. After careful study, the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey declared that "we do not need increased gas capacity to meet electric reliability needs, and that electric ratepayers shouldn't foot the bill for additional pipelines."
And yet, that is precisely what Baker appointee O'Connor appears to be doing, as her Department of Public Utilities paves the way for the creation of a fee on residents' utility bills (read: public-funded corporate subsidy) to provide major financing for new pipeline construction across the state.

Add in climate change, which requires us to quickly transition off fossil fuels entirely, and making the public subsidize the construction of these pipelines looks not just wasteful, but downright dangerous.

In the face of these realities, it would be bad enough for a self-professed technocrat to stand by silently as private companies use eminent domain to seize private land--and trample through public land--for pipelines that our people neither want nor need. But if the Baker administration continues with plans to force ratepayers to pay for the construction of these unnecessary, expensive, and dangerous pipelines, then we can consider the question of Baker's nature firmly settled. These are not the actions of a technocrat who just wants the best for his people. These are the actions of a plutocrat who has favored his wealthy friends and monied interests over the public good.

There's still time for Baker to step up and do the right thing--and many hold out hope for just that. But at the same time, grassroots climate and consumer advocacy groups must prepare for the likelihood that Governor Baker chooses to align with the Kinder-Morgans--and Spectras--of the world, and stand ready to oppose him left, right, and center, with a broad and growing chorus of voices calling for a just energy future.

What's it going to be, Governor? A technocrat of the people, or a plutocrat of the corporations?