By Shira Schoenberg
If he is elected to Congress, State Sen. William Brownsberger says his top priority will be addressing climate change and clean energy.
"I think we need to get off of fossil fuels for multiple reasons - climate change, pollution and, to a decreasing degree, dependence on foreign sources," Brownsberger told The Republican/MassLive.com.
Brownsberger, a state senator since 2012, has appealed to environmentalists in the the 5th District congressional race with his focus on implementing a carbon tax and addressing climate change. However, he has also broken with many environmentalists with his stance on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Brownsberger's preferred approach to addressing energy issues is to institute a carbon tax, which he calls "a great way to give us all incentives to reduce our fossil fuel use." Brownsberger said a carbon tax would encourage consumers to reduce energy use and shift toward renewable energy. He acknowledges that a carbon tax would drive up energy prices. But he says he would use the proceeds from the tax for subsidies to help low and moderate income people buy energy.
"A carbon tax allows us to give relief to low income and moderate income people, businesses, or regions particularly affected by the energy crisis," Brownsberger said.
The carbon tax is a policy that has been pushed by environmentalists. Phillip Sego, chairman of legislative action for the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said a carbon tax would push people away from coal, toward less polluting energy sources. "If the fee structure were such that had people pay for the amount of pollution they're putting in the air, then solar, wind, geothermal and other non-polluting sources would wind up costing people less or equal to the more polluting sources like coal and petroleum," Sego said.
Energy producers and manufacturers oppose a tax. A study released by the National Association of Manufacturers earlier this year found that a carbon tax would raise prices significantly on electricity, gasoline and natural gas. The study said a carbon tax would lower manufacturing production and could lead to lower wages for workers as companies faced higher costs.
Brownsberger wants the U.S. to adopt a goal of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 -- a goal the European Union is already pursuing. Until a carbon tax is in place, Brownsberger supports implementing federal standards for automobile efficiency and power plants. Democratic President Barack Obama's administration last year adopted new standards that will increase the fuel economy of cars to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Obama is working on a plan to limit carbon emissions from power plants through regulation.
Asked about federal subsidies to clean energy projects, in light of the failure of projects like the bankrupt solar energy company Solyndra, Browsnberger said he prefers a carbon tax because then government is not making decisions about subsidizing particular energy sources. "I'm most enthusiastic about subsides for conservation," Brownsberger said. "I think other subsidies are an area for compromise, an interim situation."
Brownsberger's concern about not burdening lower income people also plays out in his stance on the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial pipeline that would carry oil from the tar sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast. Environmentalists oppose the pipeline, arguing that it would create pollution, and there is no guarantee that oil transported through the pipe would remain in the United States. Republicans and many labor leaders support it, saying it will create jobs and give the U.S. a new energy source. The pipeline is awaiting approval from Obama, who has not made a final decision.
Brownsberger said in an interview that he will support Obama's position on the pipeline, whatever it is. He has said previously that he does not believe Congress should intervene to block the pipeline. "I feel that we should be focused on reducing consumption," Brownsberger said. "Targeting particular projects like Keystone won't get us there, and targeting those projects can be regionally divisive."
On his website, Brownsberger cites economic concerns in explaining his positions on the pipeline and on fracking, a controversial method of extracting natural gas. Brownsberger supports increased environmental regulation of fracking, but not a ban. He explains that opposing all North American fossil fuel development would raise energy prices, hurting poor people in the U.S. and internationally.
The stance has hurt Brownsberger with some environmentalists. Eli Gerzon is a volunteer organizer for 350 Massachusetts and an employee of a Better Future Project, grassroots organizations that work to prevent climate change. Gerzon said he had hoped to vote for Brownsberger because of his focus on environmental issues, but he is disappointed with his stances on the Keystone XL Pipeline and fracking. "I think he does not appreciate the significance of this fight," Gerzon said. "Leaving alone the pipeline we want to set a precedent that this is the first major infrastructure stopped because of climate change."
"He has vision," Gerzon said. "But he needs to align with the climate movement."
Browsnberger also stresses the importance of U.S. involvement with international institutions. On climate change, he said, "If China's growing dramatically and India's growing dramatically . We can't solve this problem by ourselves."
Other priorities for Brownsberger include bringing down the cost of higher education through technology, for example through online classes and through imposing accountability standards on colleges that get federal loans. He wants to "lighten the burden of the criminal justice system" on neighborhoods with high poverty rates by eliminating mandatory minimum drug sentences, legalizing marijuana and reviewing federal sentencing policies to lessen some penalties.
Brownsberger will face state Sen. Karen Spilka, state Sen. Katherine Clark, Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, State Rep. Carl Sciortino, Martin Long and Paul Maisano in the Oct. 15 Democratic primary.