Energy Bills Address Transition Away From Fossil Fuels

Opponents of the changes use generalizations and scare tactics to discredit the bills

Text and videos by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The legislative effort to stop the fossil-fuel power plant proposed for Burrillvile and reverse Rhode Island’s dependence on imported fossil fuels met resistance and downright contempt during a May 17 Statehouse hearing.

In many ways, the House Finance Committee hearing revealed the chasm between those favoring the energy status quo and those calling for a swift and radical departure from oil and gas infrastructure to combat climate change.

Paul MacDonald, a lobbyist from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 99, described the package of power plant-siting bills as legislation favoring "the green-collar elitists.” MacDonald portrayed a class divide between wealthy, bleeding-heart liberals and middle-class families. These elite are orchestrating an underhanded conspiracy to deny construction jobs, he said.

“There is nothing here for family-supporting blue-collar jobs,” MacDonald said. “This is just one more indication of the utter disdain and disregard for salt-of-the-earth, middle-class jobs. Playing with the lives and livelihood of hardworking men and women of the building and construction trades is far dirtier than any gas that will carried by any pipeline or power plant.”

The three bills alter the state Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB) by making it more accountable to local and environmental matters. The EFSB is deliberating the fate of the proposed Clear River Energy Center. If built, it would be the largest fossil-fuel plant in Rhode Island.

Opponents of the changes used generalizations and fear to discredit the bills. Elizabeth Suaver of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce said the legislation harms Rhode Island’s business climate.

“To change the rules midstream does send a bad signal that we are going to make things difficult for people to do any kind of major infrastructure projects," she said.

Steven Dodge of the American Petroleum Institute said, “Modern life as we know it would be impossible without the fuels and the products derived from natural gas."

Supporters of changes to the EFSB, as well as a bill (H5369) to enact a statewide carbon tax-and-dividend plan, relied on science and studies in their arguements. Several noted accelerating sea-level rise, hotter weather, an increase in illnesses and other climate-related problems that will cost Rhode Island and the region billions of dollars.

Halting the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure and energy is projected to enhance Rhode Island's economy by retaining the $3 billion spent on gasoline, oil and natural gas brought here from other states and countries.

Douglas Jobling, a small-business consultant, explained that a carbon-fuel tax would help pay the external health and environmental costs that a power plant creates but doesn't fund. He challenged the assertion by Dodge that the a regional carbon tax couldn't meaningfully reduce climate emissions.

“I believe that modern life will no longer be possible as we know it unless we make some changes in the way we do things,” Jobling said.

Kevin O’Neill, an engineer, said the carbon tax-and-dividend plan would deliver a net return of $2,000 to his Cumberland company.

“If you are looking to attract more software companies to the state, this is a good bill,” O’Neill said.

Yet, some members of the House Finance Committee questioned the wisdom of radical change in how the state uses and generates energy.

Rep. Kenneth Marshall, D-Bristol, argued that a carbon fee would deter business growth in Rhode Island by making businesses fearful of paying higher energy costs.

Cale Keable, D-Burrillville, sponsor of two of the bills, noted the flaws of having a three-member EFSB. Connecticut and Massachusetts have nine members on their energy siting boards, including municipal representatives. Keable’s bill adds two members to the state siting board.

“Our voice has been taken away,” he said of the 1986 law that shifted the power plant-approval process from cities and towns to the state.

Chris Boyle, an attorney for Chicago-based Invenergy Thermal Development LLC, argued that the EFSB bills don't apply to the ongoing application for the Clear River Energy Center.

“If you pass this act,” Boyle said, “you would probably chase all developers from future energy projects in the state. It’s that much of a disincentive.”

The bills were held for further study. Companion bills relating to the EFSB have yet to be heard in the Senate. The Senate version of the carbon tax-dividend legislation was heard March 1. The bill was transferred to the Senate Finance Committee and awaits a hearing.