Freshman Rep. Introduces Carbon Tax for R.I.

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — It may not be politically doable this year, but an effort to add a fee on all fossil fuels entering the state is getting attention.

For the second consecutive year, carbon-tax legislation was introduced in the General Assembly. This time, freshman Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, took the lead as the bill’s sponsor.

Flanked by five fellow state representatives, two business owners and an economist at a recent Statehouse press event, Regunberg said climate change is happening and costing the state money. Last year was the hottest on record for the planet and unseasonable weather, such as the 68-degree temperature on Christmas Day, is becoming more common.

“Here in the Ocean State, where so many of our people and businesses are located along the shore, we stand to lose a great deal from increased sea-level rise, more severe flooding and extreme weather evens,” Regunberg said.

A carbon tax is an ambitious approach to cutting greenhouse-gas emissions and boosting the state’s renewable-energy sector. But it is one that is generally opposed by business groups, which consider the idea of adding fees on all fossil fuels an unreasonable cost of doing business.

The bill, like other carbon-fee proposals, uses the tax to fund renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects. A portion of the fee is also paid out as a dividend to residents and businesses.

A Clean Energy and Jobs Fund would be funded through a $15 fee on each ton of greenhouse gas emitted by fossil fuels sold in the state. A coalition of environmental groups, businesses and religious institutions, called Energize Rhode Island, is leading the campaign.

“We call for a bold response to set the state on the right path to meet aggressive emission-reduction targets that were set forth in the Resilient Rhode Island Act,” said Brigid Ryan, the coalition’s chair.

Such a sweeping cost aimed at one of the biggest and most influential industries in the country is perhaps why few regions have established a carbon tax. British Columbia has the most well known. Ireland and Finland also have tax-carbon programs. According to at least one study, the British Columbia program, which started in 2008, appears to have positive results, creating jobs and lowering greenhouse-gas emissions.

Energize Rhode Island estimated that a carbon tax in Rhode Island would create up to 2,000 new jobs during the first two years.

One of the principal arguments for a carbon tax is that it keeps money in Rhode Island that otherwise is spent on imported fuels. According to the Office of Energy Resources, the state spends $3.1 billion on out-of-state fossil fuels.

Last year, Rep. Daniel McKiernan, D-Providence, pulled his sponsorship from the legislation, after he concluded that a carbon tax would harm the economy. The 2015 legislation was proposed by Brown University student Solomon Goldstein-Rose, with support of other students and faculty.

This year, a broader coalition of business leaders and lawmakers are endorsing the idea. The sponsors of the legislation, as well as House leadership, say a carbon tax may not get approved in 2016, but it could be gaining acceptance and pass in the future.

“It’s a new idea. So new ideas usually take a little time and people to get accustomed to it,” House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello told ecoRI News. “And (we will) let it go through committee and we’ll get input and we’ll let the process go its normal course.”

A hearing for the bill is expected in late March or early April.

In other General Assembly news, solar loans, raw milk, a Tiverton casino and genetically modified foods were among the environmental/public health bills introduced during the week of Jan. 18:

Solar lending
The Rhode Island Commerce Corporation seeks to offer lending for solar farms and to small businesses that install solar arrays. The bill also proposes a 10 percent tax credit for businesses in the solar-energy sector. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Joseph McNamara, D-Warwick, and was referred to the House Finance Committee. A hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Raw milk
The Raw Milk Act would set standards and procedures for the sale of raw milk. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Kettle, R-Coventry. No hearing has been scheduled.

Casino
House and Senate bills call for a statewide vote, as well as a vote in Tiverton, for relocating the Newport Grand Casino to open space in Tiverton. The new facility would be a state-operated casino with full gambling operations. The Senate bill is sponsored by Rep. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence. The House bill is sponsored by Rep. John DeSimone, D-Providence. A hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Low-income ratepayers
The Senate bill would allow energy-assistance funds for low-income ratepayers to be awarded all year. The state Public Utilities Commission would also review all programs affecting low-income utility bill customers. Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, sponsored the legislation. A hearing date has not been announced.

GMOs
This bill would require the labeling of genetically modified foods. Rep. Dennis Canario, D-Portsmouth, is the sponsor. Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Blake Filippi, I-Block Island, would require all businesses with food sales of more than $500,000 a year, except restaurants, to post signs that their products contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Another bill would require GMO labeling for milk and milk products. No hearing dates have been scheduled.

Sharps disposal
Syringes and other medical sharps would be disposed of in public receptacles in hospitals and pharmacies in a bill sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese, D-North Providence. The bill was referred to the House Corporation Committee. A hearing has not been scheduled.

Light bulbs
This bill would establish a collection and recycling program for light bulbs that contain mercury. The bill is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Dominck Ruggerio, D-North Providence. No hearing has been scheduled.

Wastewater treatment
This bill would require a public hearing for proposed wastewater treatment facilities. The bill is sponsored by Sen. William Walaska, D-Warwick. No hearing date has been scheduled.

Pedestrian buffer
A bill introduced by Rep. Brian Newberry, R-North Smithfield, requires a 3-foot buffer between vehicles and pedestrians. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. No hearing has been scheduled.

Dogs
This bill would allow dogs in designated outdoor areas at restaurants. Rep. Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, is the sponsor. No hearing date has been scheduled.