Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island might embark on another first-in-the-nation project and that scares opponents of a controversial carbon-tax bill.
During a marathon March 10 House hearing, business groups such as the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council (RIPEC) and the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce condemned the Carbon Pricing Act of 2016, a plan that places a fee on all fossil fuels entering Rhode Island.
“It’s a substantial tax increase to the entire state,” said John Simmons, RIPEC’s executive director.
According to the proposal, the fee adds about 15 cents to a gallon of gasoline and home heating oil. The revenue from the tax would support statewide renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects. A portion would also be returned as a dividend to residents and businesses. Economist Marc Breslow, a climate planner for former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, suggested that the fee would cost about $200 annually per Rhode Island family, while the dividend would return about $300 a year. The rebate would be awarded to businesses based on the numbers of jobs they provide.
The proposed tax is meant to convince consumers to burn less gasoline and oil and, therefore, reduce carbon emissions, while creating jobs in the renewable-energy sector.
Other economists spoke in favor of the plan, saying Rhode Island, like other states in the Northeast, is well suited for a carbon tax because all of its fossil fuels are imported. The tax would burden out-of-state businesses, while the collected revenue would serve the local economy.
“Think about it,” said Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, the sponsor of the House bill, “right now Rhode Island imports well over $3 billion dollars (for energy) every year from out of state. That means we are sending over $3 billion dollars every year off to Texas or Pennsylvania or Saudi Arabia that could be invested in our local economy.”
A carbon tax has broad support from environmentalists and pro-environment politicians such as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., who consider it the best broad approach for cutting greenhouse gases and encouraging consumers to reduce their fossil-fuel use.
So far, the Canadian province of British Columbia is the only region with a full-fledged carbon tax, and at least one study has shown it has cut emissions by as much as 15 percent since 2008, while providing a slight economic gain. Carbon tax legislation is being considered in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York, Oregon and as a ballot referendum in Washington State.
The Rhode Island bill is expected to reduce the state’s carbon emission by 30 percent within 25 years.
Doug Hall of the Providence-based Economic Progress Institute testified in support of the carbon tax because it would deliver a financial boost to low-income families.
William Hathaway, a funeral home owner from Portsmouth, said the carbon tax is another cost for low-wage earners. “People just rolling out of bed, trying to make it happen, will never receive the resources to make it work out," he said.
Rep. Thomas Polangio, D-Providence, said Rhode Island should be the first state to enact a carbon fee. “We should take a lot of first steps, and this is a great one, I think,” he said.
The Oil Heat Institute and the state Office of Energy Resources oppose the bill. “Rhode Island’s economy is way too fragile,” said Roberta Fagan, executive director of the Oil Heat Institute.
Activist Beth Milham of Newport said local action is necessary because of the gridlock in Congress. “Somebody has to get it started, why not us?”
Recent Rhode Island transplant Tim DeChristopher, an activist celebrated by environmentalists for his peaceful protest against oil and gas drillers, said time has pretty much run out to curtail the impacts of climate change. Politicians, he said, are way behind on taking action.
“Some of the critics tonight have pointed out that no other state has done this. But having plenty of company on the wrong side of history does not excuse you from still being on the wrong side of history,” DeChristopher said.