Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Support is increasing for a carbon tax, but several business groups remain opposed to the concept.
The fee on all Rhode Island gasoline, oil and natural gas promises to reduce carbon emissions, move the state from imported fossil fuel to locally produced renewable energy, and create jobs.
The program is one of the priority bills for the Rhode Island environmental community this year, and it has a well-organized campaign and marketing plan led by the Energize Rhode Island coalition.
A carbon-tax bill introduced last year died in committee, but this year the concept has the support of Gov. Gina Raimondo and the directors of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and the Office of Energy Resources (OER).
Raimondo told ecoRI News she backs a carbon-pricing plan as long as other states in the region follow suit. This year’s legislation includes a “trigger clause” that activates a carbon-pricing program in Rhode Island when neighboring states such as Massachusetts enact their own carbon tax. Massachusetts introduced carbon tax bills in the Senate and House in January. The bills await hearings.
Many of the same groups that opposed last year’s carbon tax bill came out against the legislation this year. Business organizations such as the Rhode Island Business Coalition and the Rhode Island Lumber and Building Materials Dealers Association said a fee on carbon imposes a financial burden on businesses that already pay some of the highest energy costs in the nation.
“Adopting a carbon tax would clearly impact our economic competitiveness by driving up the costs of living and doing business in the state,” the Rhode Island Business Coalition wrote in a letter to the Senate Committee on the Environment and Agricuture.
The Rhode Island Public Expenditures Council (RIPEC) also opposes a carbon tax. RIPEC executive director John Simmons stated in submitted testimony that the reduction in carbon emissions wouldn't be enough to curtail the impacts of climate change, “which is a global problem to which Rhode Island makes little contribution.”
Proponents say a carbon tax helps the state economy by returning 70 percent of the tax revenue to residents and businesses in the form of a dividend. Thirty percent of the tax revenue, or about $30 million, would go into a fund to support local renewable-energy projects and energy-efficiency programs. They say economic growth would be realized as some of the nearly $4 billion the state currently spends on imported fuels is invested in projects that produce energy in the region.
In addition to cutting carbon emissions and reducing airborne pollutants, the expansion of the renewable-energy sector and increased energy efficiency would reduce energy demand and save consumers money.
In theory, a carbon-tax dividend shifts wealth to lower income groups. According to Energize Rhode Island projections, some 80 percent of residents would receive more money in their dividend than they would pay each year through the tax.
Two Senate bills heard March 1 go about enacting the carbon tax in Rhode Island. Bill (S108), sponsored by Sen. William J. Conley Jr., D-East Providence, directs the state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) to conduct an analysis of a state and regional carbon fee. The bill also includes a request for an analysis of carbon pollution and children’s health.
Conley noted that national conservative leaders have joined progressives in endorsing a carbon tax plan. And one such plan was featured in a recent New York Times op-ed.
J. Timmons Roberts, a professor of environmental science at Brown University and a member of the EC4 science advisory committee, said carbon-cutting efforts must begin right away whether or not sea-level rise climbs 3 or 9 feet by 2100.
“Our state’s economy and our quality of life is really at stake,” he said.
Roberts noted that Rhode Island is sending money out of state annually to pay for fossil-fuel energy. “That money is just pouring through our fingers,” he said.
Sen. Josh Miller, D-Cranston, remarked that some local businesses have benefited from renewable-energy incentive programs, which in turn have cut their electricity costs. Overall, he said state incentives have yet to make a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions. Therefore, more substantive actions such as a carbon tax are necessary to address the massive problem.
“We’re not outliers on this issue and neither is this legislation,” Miller said.
Brown University professor of oceanography Timothy Herbert said the planet's carbon dioxide concentration is at its highest level in 800,000 years.
Herbert explained that he tells his students that carbon dioxide levels change more during their four years in college than during the 10,000 years before the Industrial Evolution.
“As a scientist, if you assess the impacts of climate change seriously, then we have a really urgent need to have a comprehensive solution to greenhouse gases across the board,” he said.
Providence residents Justin Boyan said he was compelled to speak out after seeing President Trump and his administration do the bidding of the fossil-fuel industry. He said he joined Resist Hate RI after Trump’s election.
“I don’t see why global warming should be a partisan issue," he said. "It’s fundamentally conservative to me to conserve the planet for our kids."
Boyan warned the politicians in the hearing room that there would be consequences for inaction. “If it (the bill) does die silently in committee, Resist Hate RI and a lot of other people are going to be paying attention and mad.”
Prior to the hearing, Carol Grant, OER director, Janet Coit, director of DEM, and Danny Musher, chief of program development at OER, delivered an update on the state’s long-term greenhouse gas-reduction efforts.
Coit reported that state infrastructure, fisheries and drinking-water supplies are already suffering from higher seas, warmer temperatures and an additional 10 inches of rain per year.
“Climate change is here, it’s now, it’s pervasive in all of the issues we have to address,” she said.
Musher said the state is on target to reach its 2020 greenhouse gas-reduction goals, but plans and programs must be adopted for drastic emission cuts in the state’s transportation and heating sectors — both of which must change in order to meet the 2030 and 2050 targets.
“We can’t meet any of our goals unless we work with out neighboring states,” he said.
“There is so much we can do at the state level, but it does require regional action, bold action,” Coit said.
“We have to face reality; we are not going to get help from Washington on this ... considering the present administration. That means action has to be taken at the state level,” said Dave Gerraughty of Energize Rhode Island.
Both bills have the support of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Association of Conservation Commissions, People’s Power & Light, R.I. Student Climate Coalition and more than 100 local businesses. The Senate bill were held for further study. A House bill sponsored by Rep. Aaron Regunberg is expected to have a hearing this month.