BOSTON — The Baker administration plans to scrap a popular rebate program that paid consumers for buying low-emissions electric and fuel cell cars, citing a lack of funding.
The program, which has doled out nearly $30 million to environmentally conscious motorists since 2014, will stop accepting rebate applications on purchases made after Sept. 30, according to the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, which oversees the program.
Environmentalists are criticizing the decision, saying it will put the state further from its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say contribute to a warming planet.
"Ending this rebate while the program is gaining such momentum is a huge lost opportunity," said Amy Laura Cahn, director of the Conservation Law Foundation's Healthy Communities and Environmental Justice program. "Gas-burning cars accelerate our climate crisis and pollute our neighborhoods, and the rebate program helps families make the switch to clean electric vehicles."
"Eliminating the program without providing alternatives takes away needed resources and threatens to set us back in reaching our climate goals," she added.
The state is required to reduce its carbon footprint by 25 percent of 1990s levels by 2020, and 80 percent by 2050, to comply with the Global Warming Solutions Act, a federal law the state adopted years ago. A 2016 ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court mandated stepped-up efforts to hit those benchmarks.
About 45 percent of the state's carbon emissions come from transportation — trucks and personal vehicles, according to the Department of Transportation.
Since 2014, the Massachusetts Offers Rebates for Electric Vehicles program has doled out 14,473 rebates totaling nearly $30 million, according to the Department of Energy Resources.
The rebate originally was up to $2,500 on the purchase of new electric vehicles, but state officials reduced the cap to $1,500 beginning this year.
That prompted a surge in rebates in December, with more than 1,500 requests totaling more than $3.4 million. So far for 2019, the number of requests has fallen dramatically.
The vehicle brand for which owners have received the most tax rebates is Tesla, with 5,328 issued. It's followed by Chevy, Toyota and Nissan, according to the agency.
The state hopes to have 300,000 electric vehicles on the streets by 2025, but to date there are only about 18,000 registered, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday that he supports the electric vehicle rebates, but he declined to say if the program would be extended beyond September.
Energy and Environmental Affairs spokeswoman Katie Gronendyke said the Baker administration "will continue its work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move Massachusetts in the direction of a clean transportation future through the commonwealth’s other grant programs that incentivize the electrification of the transportation sector."
In 2016, Baker pumped $14 million into the program and has since approved legislation expanding the availability of charging stations for plug-in vehicles, among other initiatives. His administration asked for more funding in next fiscal year's budget to keep the program going, but the Legislature didn't approve it.
Extending the rebate
Lawmakers are considering several proposals to extend the rebate program — even make it permanent — which they say is crucial to the state's climate change policies.
"We've always been an environmental leader, and this program has been extremely successful, so it would be very disappointing to see it go away," said Rep. Brad Hill, R-Ipswich, who filed a bill to extend the tax rebate program. "We need to be reducing our emissions and should be doing everything we can to put more of these vehicles on the roadways."
One possible source of funding could be the effort by Massachusetts and eight other states to create a regional cap-and-invest system to reduce the impact of emissions from vehicles.
Environmental groups say money from a cap-and-trade program could be used to fund the state's electric vehicle program, among other emissions reduction efforts.
On a federal level, Republican President Donald Trump has proposed killing the $7,500 federal tax credit that electric vehicle purchasers can get, saying it would save taxpayers $2.5 billion over the next 10 years.
Environmentalists say the federal and state subsidies are crucial to meeting carbon reduction goals by putting more low-emission vehicles on the roads.
"We are in the midst of a climate crisis, and transportation is the biggest source of emissions both across the nation and right here in Massachusetts," said Gina-Coplon Newfield, director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Transportation for All campaign. "Supporting financial incentives for people to be able to go electric must be treated as a priority."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.