R.I.’s Environmental Big Three United Against Power Plant

By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Video by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Since the Clear River Energy Center was proposed two years ago, the state’s environmental Big Three have been criticized by some power-plant opponents for not being more aggressive in their denunciation of the controversial fossil-fuel project.

The Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and Save The Bay could be accused of entering the fray a little late, some would argue by about six months, but all three organizations, along with the Conservation Law Foundation, have been vocal opponents of the natural-gas/diesel facility.

“There are arguments that could stop it,” said Larry Taft, executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “But jumping up and down and getting mad won’t make a difference. We’ve been remarkably consistent in our opposition, but perhaps more restrained than some might like.”

Taft recently spoke with ecoRI News about the perception that his organization and other Rhode Island conservation agencies haven’t done enough to derail the project. He politely said that isn’t the case, and handed ecoRI News a letter his organization issued in July 2016 in opposition to the proposed power plant. Plans for the proposed Clear River Energy Center were announced in early August 2015.

The 2016 letter, titled “The Audubon Society of Rhode Island Opposes Invenergy’s Proposed Clear River Energy Power Plant,” reads, in part:

“Audubon opposes the proposed 900MW power plant in Burrillville, Rhode Island because it will disturb the integrity of western Rhode Island’s forested habitats and wildlife corridors and because the plant undermines Rhode Island’s ability to achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals set in the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act.

“The proposed Invenergy power plant would undermine the integrity of one of the most intact, forested areas in not only in Rhode Island, but also in Southern New England. Large tracts of forest are critical to the region’s biodiversity as well as our ability to adapt to and mitigate against the threats of climate change.”

Taft noted that the organization’s stance remains the same.

“Audubon is opposed to a new power plant anywhere in Rhode Island,” he said. “We don’t even want one in Connecticut. That continues to be our singular message.”

Taft said the chosen location for the Clear River Energy Center — the forest of northwest Rhode Island — and the proposed construction of a fossil-fuel power plant provide a double whammy: “a really nice spot in the middle of a natural wildlife corridor” that “is counter to state policy.”

It’s the latter point that the Audubon Society is most concerned about. The organization, like other environmental agencies, believes adding a fossil-fuel facility would weaken Rhode Island’s ability to lower its greenhouse-gas emissions and would exacerbate climate-change impacts. That’s the legal argument Taft said that could derail the project.

The Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 calls for the reduction of climate-change emissions by 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2025, 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2035, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

“Climate change is a reality,” Taft said. “Why are we building another fossil-fuel power plant? We should be focused on using solar and wind to generate electricity, not converting natural gas to make electricity.”

He said the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) “is making a great case that the power plant isn’t necessary.” Taft said that issue and where the Chicago-based developer will get water, primary and backup sources, to cool the facility are the key arguments against the project. He noted that the Biological Inventory Report “isn’t a game changer.”

“There’s nothing in that report that would bring a power company to their knees,” Taft said. “The siting of these type of facilities allows for the taking of some wildlife habitat. Climate change and sea-level rise, though, are having a huge impact.”

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has done an excellent job showing how the proposed power plant would undermine the integrity of one of the most intact forested areas in southern New England, according to Taft.

In its July 21, 2016 letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo, TNC said building a power plant in the proposed location would threaten the ecosystem and biodiversity.

“The Invenergy power plant would threaten the integrity of a 12,000-acre forest area, one of the largest intact natural areas in Rhode Island,” according to TNC’s July letter. “Moreover, the power plant’s proposed location is within a critical corridor for wildlife movement to other healthy forest areas from the Quabbin Reservoir to the north and to the southern coast of Rhode Island.”

The Nature Conservancy didn't respond to an ecoRI News request to speak with someone from the organization for this story.

Save The Bay recently urged the rejection of the Clear River Energy Center, saying that it would cause unacceptable harm to the environment. The Providence-based organization cited a recent Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management advisory opinion that raised concerns about the amount of forestland that would need to be clear-cut to make room for the proposed facility.

“Can’t Rhode Island meet its energy needs without taking out one of its most valuable ecological areas?” Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s director of advocacy and policy, asked the state Energy Facility Siting Board at an Oct. 10 public hearing at Burrillville High School.

There are at least 75 organizations, municipalities and lawmakers that have publicly come out in opposition to the Clear River Energy Center, according to Keep Rhode Island Beautiful.

The proposed site for fossil-fuel power plant is owned by an out-of-state energy conglomerate.