Massachusetts Senator-elect Scott Brown has taken largely a back-seat role in his state's energy and climate debates but supported key environmental initiatives when voting in the Legislature, according to state officials, environmental advocates and state records.
The Republican state senator who won a special election Tuesday was not heavily involved in Massachusetts issues related to renewable power, energy efficiency, greenhouse gases or other high-profile energy topics as part of a state Legislature that passed a major global warming bill in 2008, several sources said.
Brown's victory for the U.S. Senate seat left empty by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy means Democrats no longer hold a fillibuster-proof majority. It also has opened fresh questions about the future of climate legislation. But analysts say Brown is something of a mystery on climate matters, and those looking for insight based on his Massachusetts past may find mixed assessments.
"He doesn't care about environmental issues. He doesn't work on them," charged Megan Amundson, the political director for the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters. "We actually work pretty closely with a number of Republican legislators in this state, and Scott Brown is not one of them."
"His voting record in Massachusetts shows him to be strong on the environment," countered Jennifer Ryan, legislative director of the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
Brown supported the Green Communities Act in 2008, a sprawling bill that enhanced the state's renewable portfolio standard and encouraged long-term contracts for clean energy providers, a key to helping projects attract investors.
He also didn't speak out against the Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires emitters across the state to reduce carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050. That came as Massachusetts set about expanding its wind and solar power and administering one of the toughest energy efficiency programs in the country.
"I think Senator Brown has supported all that, and the results have been remarkable in terms of job creation," said Ian Bowles, the state's secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. He noted, though, that Brown is a "relatively blank slate" on climate when it comes to anything more than voting on a bill that's placed before him.
"He was not particularly active on these issues in the state Senate," Bowles said.
From nowhere to the 'most powerful man'
The 50-year-old state senator plunged into federal politics Tuesday by beating Democrat Martha Coakley for the U.S. Senate seat held consecutively by first John F. Kennedy and then Edward Kennedy since 1953.
Massachusetts, beset by a declining population and a flailing manufacturing sector, has turned to energy-related policies as one way to strengthen its job force and address climate change.
Those efforts occurred in a Democratic vacuum. The state Senate has 40 members, four of whom will be Republican after Brown leaves. Moreover, Brown, a lawyer elected to the state Senate in 2004, was serving on committees that kept him away from the popular fray of energy and climate legislation. He sat on panels overseeing education, election laws, public safety and veterans' affairs.
"He's not been a significant player in state matters here, until the last few weeks -- very few weeks," said a senior state official, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity. "He's not been in a position of, sort of, influence. But he is now. I think he's probably the most powerful man in the [U.S.] Senate right now, at least for the moment."
That might be true. Brown referred to himself in the campaign as the 41st senator, referring to the number of Republicans needed to block Democratic initiatives. It could derail Democratic health care legislation in the near term and influence future action on climate bills.
But apart from campaign statements questioning the integrity of climate scientists and the public reversals related to his vote supporting Massachusetts' role in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a 10-state cap-and-trade program for utility emissions, Brown's positions on climate change are largely unknown.
Voted better on climate than many Democrats
The Massachusetts state Senate routinely passes major pieces of legislation, like its global warming bill, without recording individual votes. That has left environmentalists to largely rely on what they haven't heard from Brown to draw conclusions about his climate stance.
"We haven't seen climate and clean energy leadership from Scott Brown, which is something that we've come to expect from public officials in Massachusetts," said Susan Reid, a senior attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation.
Brown doesn't mention climate change on his campaign Web site, but promotes renewable sources of energy like solar and wind. Campaign staff could not be reached to comment for this story.
Despite his inaction, Brown scored better than all of his Republican colleagues in the state Senate in an assessment by the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters. The group's 2008 scorecard says Brown supported 82 percent of the legislation that the group considered important that year. That matches or exceeds the scores of 19 other senators, or about half of the chamber.
He supported an ocean management plan that the state is using to identify areas fit for offshore wind and tidal energy projects. Brown also voted for a green jobs bill that funnels $13 million a year for five years to provide employee training in the renewable energy sector.
But Brown also supported a measure to end utility-supplied funding for energy efficiency programs, drawing the ire of environmental groups. The amendment would have canceled public benefit funds that go toward things like rebates for efficient lighting. Utilities generally pass the additional cost along to customers.