Carbon Tax, Power Plant Bills on Docket This Week

Video and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The General Assembly is scheduled to hold votes and hearings on a bunch of important environmental bills this week. Here’s a rundown:

The so-called carbon tax gets its first House committee hearing on May 17. The bill (H5369) imposes a fee on electricity and all petroleum products at the point of sale or distribution in Rhode Island.

“We need to put a price on carbon to balance out the subsidy fossil fuel gets,” said Brown University Professor J. Timmons Roberts, a leader of the Energize Rhode Island Coalition.

The fee adds about 13 cents to the price of a gallon of gasoline.

The Energize Rhode Island Act is before the General Assembly for the third straight year. The legislation has its broadest support yet, including backing from Gov. Gina Raimondo and the Office of Energy Resources. It’s opposed by major business groups such as the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce that consider a carbon tax a drag on business revenue. The Rhode Island Ratepayers Advisory Board opposes the carbon tax because it is considered an upfront expense for low-income utility customers.

The carbon tax is crafted to deliver a net monetary gain to most mid- and low-income groups, by returning 40 percent of the revenue raised to residents through a dividend check. That average checks would annually deliver about $50 per person and $180 for a family of four.

A fee on carbon fuels would create a financial incentive for the public to cut energy use and thereby reduce the tax paid. It subsequently boosts demand for energy-efficiency programs and local renewable-energy projects.

“The idea is that if you cut (energy) waste in your home, you get to keep more of that money,” Roberts said.

Thirty percent of the revenue would be returned to businesses, and 25 percent would support energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects. In all, the tax would raise about $140 million annually.

One of the primary goals of the carbon tax is to divert a portion of the $4 billion the state spends on imported fuel annually back into local renewable-energy projects. The fee on carbon is expected to create jobs by subsidizing the local green economy sector.

"It helps our economy. It helps create jobs. It will drive down our emissions,” Roberts said.

British Columbia was the first region to enact a carbon tax, in 2008. The rest of Canada will adopt a carbon-pricing program next year.

The Rhode Island carbon tax bill was heard in the Senate on March 1. The legislation is now before the Senate Finance Committee.

Several bills before the House Finance Committee on May 17 focus on impeding the fossil-fuel power plant proposed for Burrillville.

H5197 requires the state Energy Efficiency Siting Board (EFSB) to reject a power-plant application that adversely impacts state climate emission-reduction targets.

H5897 prevents the EFSB from issuing an approval of a power plant if the applicant fails to provide information to an entity writing an advisory opinion for the project.

H6051 increases the size of the EFSB from three to five members.

Solar energy. The House Finance Committee also votes on H5123, a bill that offers a 10 percent tax credit to solar manufacturing companies whose employees work a minimum of 30 hours a week.

The House votes on a statewide solar-energy permit (H5575) that combines a building and electrical permit in a single application used by cities and towns. The Senate passed its own bill on May 3.

Net metering. On May 16, the House Committee on Corporation votes on a bill that would expand state net-metering eligibility to include educational institutions and nonprofits. It also removes the 30-megawatt cap.

On May 18, the Senate Commerce Committee hears a bill that would expand an on-going study of net metering by the state Public Utilities Commission.

Climate change. On May 16, the full House votes on a bill requiring local planning boards and commissions to take training and education classes on sea-level rise and the impacts of building in a floodplain.

Beach fees. On May 16, the House Committee on Finance hears a bill that would eliminate parking fees and all other charges at state beaches.

Food safety. The House votes May 16 on a bill that prohibits school districts from the sale and advertising of unhealthy food and beverages.

Budgets. The Department of Environmental Management and Coastal Resources Management Council have 2018 budget reviews before the Senate Finance Committee on March 16.