Text and video by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Like a midterm pep rally, the Lobby Day event organized by the Environmental Council of Rhode Island (ECRI) gathered support for a proposed carbon tax and other priority bills before the General Assembly during its final months of the 2017 legislative session.
Gov. Gina Raimondo, who spoke at the April 25 Statehouse event, supports a carbon tax and other environmental bills, but said she hadn't read a bill designed to stop the proposed Burrillville fossil-fuel power plant. The bill (H5897) halts the application process if the developer, Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, fails to provide information necessary for environmental reviews of the project.
“It would prevent stonewalling by companies like Invenergy,” ECRI president Jerry Elmer said.
The bill was news to Raimondo. “I don’t even know what it is,” she said shortly after the event. “I just heard about it today for the first time.”
After the event, Elmer said, “We’d be delighted to have her support for the bill. Her support would have a material difference on whether that bill passes.”
The bill, introduced March 9, has yet to receive a hearing. It was assigned to the House Corporations Committee, then moved to the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources. It’s now before to the House Finance Committee.
The state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) decides the fate of the proposed power project. The three-member board is awaiting several revised advisory opinions from state agencies on the controversial $1 billion project. A final decision isn't likely until this fall at the earliest.
Raimondo enthusiastically endorsed the 1,000-megawatt natural-gas facility when it was announced in 2014. Since then, her public support is less effusive. She said she will accept the EFSB’s decision, and expressed a deference to environmental impacts.
When asked about her stance and her reaction to power-plant opponents holding signs during the Lobby Day event, Raimondo said, “They should continue to do what they have been doing and, as I’ve said, I have faith in the process. And if there are health and safety concerns, water concerns, environmental concerns that can’t be mitigated then it shouldn’t go forward and it can’t go forward.”
Former Gov. Lincoln Chafee recently announced his opposition to the project, because of concerns about climate emissions, safety and harm to Burrillville’s rural character.
“That’s his position,” Raimondo said. “My position is we should let the process play out.”
In other remarks, Raimondo said the anti-environment climate in Washington, D.C., means more vigilant action in Rhode Island. She praised the state's 40 percent one-year increase to 14,000 renewable-energy jobs. She hailed the passage of the $35 million Green Economy referendum in November. She applauded funds for bike paths and $5 million for new construction on contaminated industrial sites known as brownfields.
Elmer praised Raimondo for her plan to boost the state’s renewable-energy output to 1,000 megawatts by 2020.
“Keep going, hit that gigawatt goal and create thousands of jobs in the process,” Raimondo said.
Elmer singled out Mack McCLeary, Raimondo’s recent appointee to run the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, for adopting positions on issues favorable to renewable energy and modernizing the electric grid.
Here is the status of ECRI’s priority legislation:
Carbon tax. House bill H5369 and Senate bill S365 were celebrated at Statehouse press events when they were introduced. The Senate bill held a hearing March 1 and, after a hearing April 26, the legislation switched to the Senate Finance Committee.
“I believe this is a good step as it moves along and is considered,” said Sen. Jeanine Calkin, D-Wariwck, the sponsor of the bill.
The House bill was postponed from a hearing on April 27 to accommodate a guest speaker.
The fee on fossil fuel is intended to cut carbon emissions, create jobs and hasten the state's transition to renewable energy. Five New England states have introduced carbon-tax legislation. The Rhode Island and Connecticut bills would only take effect if Massachusetts also passes a carbon tax.
Raimondo supports a carbon tax, as do the heads of the Department of Environmental Management and the Office of Energy Resources.
A recent report issued by the Carbon Tax Center ranks Connecticut and Massachusetts as “promising” for approving a carbon tax. It ranks Rhode Island a notch below, at having “some potential” for the tax. The principal reason Rhode Island’s lower ranking is the difficulty required to advance a ballot referendum for a statewide carbon tax. Referendums in Rhode Island require approval by the General Assembly. Referendums in Massachusetts only require a petition. The report gave Connecticut a high mark for having a liberal Legislature that is inclined to pass a carbon tax. Rhode Island's General Assembly is considered less progressive by the group.
Green buildings. Bill H5427 adds public projects to the latest version of national LEED green building standards. A hearing hasn't been scheduled.
Renewable energy. Bills H5274 and S112 seek to expand the Renewable Energy Growth incentive for another 10 years. The program provides fixed pricing for wind- and solar-energy systems. A hearing for the Senate bill is scheduled for May 3.