By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — A bill taking on the many impacts of climate change in Rhode Island is getting broad support. The Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 is backed by, or at least getting public support from, Gov. Lincoln Chafee, several state agencies, and institutions such as Brown University.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, has promoted climate change bills in various forms since 2008. That same year, Massachusetts introduced and passed a similar bill called the Global Warming Solutions Act.
At an April 3 hearing for Handy’s latest bill, he and several supporters noted the jobs and economic growth in Massachusetts since legislation passed to reduce climate change impacts and greenhouse gas emissions.
Charity Pennock, Rhode Island coordinator for the New England Clean Energy Council, said that legislation helped create 80,000 green jobs in Massachusetts. Rhode Island could enjoy similar growth, she said. “I think this (bill) provides an opportunity for Rhode Island to be a technology incubator for climate mitigation, adaptation, renewable energy, energy-efficiency technologies," Pennock said.
Pennock and several of the bill’s supporters noted that Rhode Island has the skilled workforce to create new technologies, but the jobs aren’t yet here.
Brown University senior Colin Schofield said he plans to dedicate his career to finding solutions to climate change. “I still have to find a job and I’m finding that most of the opportunities in this sector lie outside Rhode Island,” he said.
The bill is opposed by the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Association of Realtors. Monica Staaf, lobbyist for the fossil-fuel industry group, said the bill gives too much power to the state Department of Environmental Management (DEM). The agency, she said, can adopt energy-efficiency and carbon-reduction targets that might prevent people from using their heaters or air conditioners. “It’s very frightening to have that kind of blank slate,” Staaf said.
Handy said the legislation doesn't give DEM such unchecked authority. The bill designates the DEM as the “coordinating agency” for carbon-reduction efforts because of its role in overseeing air pollution in the state.
The DEM director is designated to establish and implement “goals, plans and strategies” for emission reductions. Yet, public participation and community involvement, Handy said, is expected to play a significant role in shaping climate change programs and policies.
The bill's minimum emission goals seek a 25 percent reduction below 1990 levels by 2025; 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2035; and 95 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The act also would extend the state renewable energy standard, or minimum amount of renewable energy in retail electric use, to 25 percent by 2025.
Methods for achieving the benchmarks include updating the electric grid, electricity rates and regulations; new financial incentives; increasing the state’s renewable energy goals; improving energy-efficiency standards; fixing natural gas leaks; promoting electric vehicles; public transportation efficiencies; and smart-growth development.
Under the act, the DEM would oversee a nine-member climate change science advisory council. The committee would review mitigation and adaptation programs to ensure they align with current scientific data. The bill also would designate the Division of Statewide Planning to coordinate adaptation efforts. It would oversee a 24-member committee, representing 13 state agencies, five municipalities, two schools and two environmental groups, among other representation.
The act would modify state building code requirements to reduce energy consumption by 60 percent by 2050. Climate change provisions would also added to existing regulations that protect the homeless, elderly and low-income households.
The bill was crafted by environmental consultants Ken Payne and Meg Kerr. Brown University students and faculty member J. Timmons Roberts collaborated with Payne and Kerr. Payne said the programs don't create new taxes or government bureaucracy and instead rely on existing capacity and structures.
“Other states are doing it and if Rhode Island doesn’t do it, it will frankly be a laggard. Connecticut and Massachusetts are moving out on these issues. Rhode Island needs to do it as well," he said.
The bill was held for further study. A Senate companion bill hasn't been introduced.