Chafee's Environmental Legacy a Mixed Bag

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Shortly after Lincoln Chafee’s inauguration in 2011, a senior advisor declared, “There’s no better environmentalist than Linc.” Compared to his recent predecessors, that statement may have been true. But, four years later, Gov. Chafee never made the environment a priority, and he spent little state money on new programs and protections. He, however, did set in motion several initiatives that, although modest, may yield significant benefits in the years ahead.

Rhode Island was the last state in New England to set climate-change goals. Critics have said Rhode Island's benchmarks for carbon dioxide reductions are too modest, and that state funding for any initiative is a big uncertainty. But since Chafee established the group last February, the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) has moved aggressively — largely because of Department of Environmental Management (DEM) director Janet Coit — to address climate mitigation and adaptation planning.

Renewable energy
Chafee rarely mentioned wind and solar energy in his major policy plans, but during his four years in office the state slowly, yet deliberately, advanced incentives for small and large renewable-energy development. It wasn’t until 2014 that new, local companies began to appear and out-of-state companies saw the benefit of doing business in Rhode Island. The distributed generation (DG) program recently quadrupled its electricity allotment, which will result in more large-scale solar projects and boost the sputtering onshore wind industry. The Renewable Energy Fund has strengthened business for installers of solar arrays. Both programs are likely to endure as they operate without tax dollars and instead rely on utility ratepayers for funding.

Marion Gold, Chafee’s appointment to head the Office of Energy Resources, is credited for coordinating these and other new energy policies and projects. More incentives are expected in the future.

On the downside, Chafee didn’t stand up to the pushback against wind energy and regretted opposing a wind farm on town-owned land in Tiverton.

DEM director
Gov. Gina Raimondo’s decision to keep Coit as DEM director of DEM speaks to Coit’s success of advancing many initiatives in the face of constant budget pressure and staff shortages. Chafee appointed Coit, who also manages the EC4 and helped develop new programs to promote aquaculture and farming. Coit reduced bureaucracy at DEM and implemented Chafee’s bill to improve customer service and speed up permitting at the agency. Whether that will help or harm environmental protections is unclear.

One blight during Chafee’s tenure is the mystery of why DEM allowed metals recyclers to open shop along the city's waterfront and didn't stop them from polluting Narragansett Bay.

Open space
Chafee aggressively supported two bond referendums for open-space protection and green infrastructure. However, there was little risk in backing ballot questions that have a history of strong voter support. The most notable land acquisition during his term in office was 83 acres of the former Rocky Point Park in Warwick.

Chafee gave what he called a "leg up" to developers in 2013 when he signed the controversial "slopes bill" into law. The law helps developers by allowing them to include unbuildable land into lot sizes. Chafee also didn’t oppose a plan that prevents cities and towns from enacting stricter setback distances from wetlands and water supplies.

“Although it’s mixed, considering what he inherited, Chafee’s record on transportation is more positive than negative,” said longtime Ocean State transit advocate Barry Schiller.

On the plus side: no bus-fare increases or service cuts to public transportation. Thanks to leadership changes, morale improved at the Rhode Island Public Transportation Authority (RIPTA). MBTA commuter rail service expanded to North Kingstown. New multi-model transit hubs were added.

Chafee also helped pass a 1-cent increase in the gas tax, with 5 percent going to RIPTA. He also shifted the Department of Transportation to a “pay-as-you-go” pay model from one that accrued interest and fees.

On the downside: free parking lots were expanded at the Statehouse and the University of Rhode Island. There are no transit incentives for commuting to URI.

Chafee didn't implement a 2008 law that requires state employees to cut their commuter miles. Funds are still needed to pay for the transit hubs and the I-195 redevelopment projects.

Environmentalists have been pleading for a new funding formula to pay for public transportation, but that never materialized under Chafee. Several significant upgrades were made to the state’s eight bike paths, and the new Washington Bridge Bikeway & Linear Park looks promising. But Chafee, an avowed bicycling enthusiast, never addressed the need to make biking more viable and safer on public roads.

Green economy
The halls and boardrooms of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation are adorned with photos of yacht racing on and around Narragansett Bay. As chairman of Commerce RI, Chafee lobbied, unsuccessfully, for bringing the America’s Cup back to Newport, and he supported funding for improving Fort Adams State Park in Newport, a potential host site for large sailing events. He supported efforts to market Rhode Island’s fishing industry. But he and Commerce RI didn't promote the state’s freshwater assets and land-based outdoors activities. Commerce RI’s board doesn't have a true farmer on it, nor does it have members from the renewable-energy, energy-efficiency or green-tech sectors.

Many environmentalists are happy that Chafee’s wish to bring hydroelectricity from Canada never materialized. The concept of large-scale hydropower is fraught with environmental risks, including extensive power-line development. Hydropower will be promoted in a regional energy plan that Chafee sponsored and the General Assembly passed in 2014. Hydropower could return to some of the state’s existing smaller dams in the near future.

Late in his term, Chafee backed legislation for statewide composting. The rules don’t take effect until 2016, but the concept is one with broad public support and significant potential to influence waste management in the state.

Natural gas
Political leaders across New England are already building support for bringing more natural gas to the region, mainly through new and existing pipelines, including an upgrade to a massive compressor station in Burrillville. Opposition also is growing. Chafee offered Rhode Island’s support for the projects by having his bill passed that forms a regional energy coalition. Massachusetts didn’t pass the measure last year, but that will likely change under new Gov. Charlie Baker.

Environmental advocate Greg Gerritt believes this concept is shortsighted. “It’s a plan for environmental suicide that locks in 50 years of fossil-fuel use from fracking," he said. "When will Chafee and other leaders see this short-term fix as going backwards? It’s another example of overlooking full-cost accounting."

Fundamental change
Chafee did little to address Rhode Island’s long-term sustainability, threats to dwindling natural resources and economic viability. He did support the RhodeMap RI planning initiative, which offers standards to manage population density, open space and economic equality.

During his four years in office, the notion of business-first politics — deregulation, top-down economic development and cutting taxes and spending — only strengthened, undermining attempts for wholesale change throughout government and the state, according to Gerritt.

“There was nothing forward looking and more of the fixation on economic growth without an understanding that ecological healing and justice are the long-term way forward economically," he said.

Gerritt discussed a holistic outlook with Chafee twice before the governor took office. But Chafee never considered the long-term ecological impacts in his actions or legacy, Gerritt said.

“Perhaps in the realm of current American politics, he went far, but in all cases, his administration was too infected by out-of-date mainstream thinking," Gerritt said. "The obsession with the business climate is one example. Of course, Chafee is just following the herd, despite a lack of efficacy or predictive ability that a business-first approach is helping communities achieve prosperity.”