Bill Gives Rhode Island Teeth to Cut Carbon Emissions

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — For 10 years Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, has sponsored a bill that establishes carbon-emission-reduction goals and, most importantly, imposes penalties for failing to achieve them.

The state's current targets for cutting greenhouse gases, laid out by the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014, lack any enforcement tools — a flaw that environmentalists fear will prevent the Ocean State from meeting its targets, such as an 80 percent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.

Tracking state carbon goals is currently the work of the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), but the committee of state agency officials has no obligation to meet those targets and, so far, has offered few plans for achieving them.

The latest version of the Rhode Island Global Warming Solutions Act, however, makes those emissions cuts mandatory, offering where and how to curb carbon emissions.

“It puts meat on the bones in a way that goes toward getting our carbon footprint under control,” Handy said during a March 15 House hearing for his bill.

In 2008, Handy based his first bill on the Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act, which passed that year. The Massachusetts law assesses fines for failing to meet reduction targets. Connecticut passed its Global Warming Solutions Act in 2017 with stringent benchmarks. The Resilient Rhode Island Act only set aspirational goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Gov. Gina Raimondo’s recent promise to comply with the goals of the Paris climate accord also lacks enforcement.

“These are goals. These are aspirations. They’re not mandatory. They are not legally enforceable,” said Jerry Elmer, senior attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation.

Elmer noted that mandating goals in Massachusetts has dramatically expanded the local solar industry, making it second in the country for solar jobs. The Bay State law also established a declining limit on emissions from power plants.

Massachusetts continues to get serious about climate change. Its Legislature has committees that address the issue, such as the Senate Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change. Last month, the committee introduced a bill that sets a goal of making the state 100 percent reliant on renewable energy by 2050.

Elmer noted that Rhode Island’s current programs for curbing emissions focus on renewable energy and energy-efficiency incentives but don’t do much to curtail the state’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, the transportation sector.

The commercial and residential building sector is also a large emitter of climate emissions. Any plan therefore must focus on heating new and existing buildings with electric heat, Elmer said.

Handy's Rhode Island Global Warming Solutions Act concentrates on these high-emission sectors. According to the bill, each sector would be overseen by a state agency or department that must devise a plan to achieve greenhouse-gas reductions. The bill also includes penalties for failing to achieve them. The bill assigns the Office of Energy Resources (OER) to address the electricity sector. The Department of Transportation (DOT) would oversee the transportation and heating sectors, and the state building commissioner would oversee the construction sector. The director of the Department of Administration would ensure compliance by each department.

OER, DOT and the building commissioner would be required to consider a carbon tax as part of their carbon-reduction plan. A carbon tax puts a fee on all fossil fuels entering the state. A portion of the money raised would be returned to residents and businesses. The remainder would subsidize renewable-energy and energy-efficiency projects. Other market-based solutions are encouraged, such as partnering with the multi-state cap-and-trade program, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

The bill would require the building sector to stop heating new buildings with fossil fuels by 2035, and 25 percent of existing buildings would have to convert to electric heat by 2035.

The bill also includes a provision that allows Rhode Island to merge its reduction plan with neighboring states and Canadian provinces, as long as the reduction goals are equally stringent.

Each agency would be required to hold public hearings for its emission-reduction plans. The ultimate enforcement of the plans would be through legal action in Superior Court.

Opponents noted that achieving the goals would require heavy taxes on fossils fuels and taxes on vehicles that run on them.

“Our fear is that we continue to shift over and over to electric, it’s going to get more expensive to do business here,” said Lenette Forry of the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. “If that’s the case, this bill may achieve the goal of reducing greenhouse gas but that’s because it’s our fear that businesses won’t be here.”

Brown University professor and climate-policy expert J. Timmons Roberts said Massachusetts proves that a strong climate-reduction plan has the opposite effect.

“I think a lot of the economic arguments can be put to rest on the basis that we can see what’s going on with the Massachusetts economy. We would love to have that kind of economic growth in this state,” Roberts said. "And it’s created quite a lot of jobs as they have had to meet the targets in the their Global Warming Solution Act of 2008.”

He also noted that recent research shows that carbon emissions should be reduced sooner then suggested in the Resilient Rhode Island Act. Instead of an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050, all greenhouse-gas emissions should eliminated by 2035 or 2040, he said.

Nevertheless, Roberts said, the state's current targets should be kept so that the bill can advance and the General Assembly can adopt a plan with defined rules.

“I see this as an accountability bill,” Roberts said. “It allows the Legislature to say to the executive branch, ‘How are you gong to meet the targets that you have supported many times in many speeches and many executive orders? Are you really going meet those targets?’”

In addition to the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, the bill is opposed by the Alliance of Automobile Manufactures, the Rhode Island Builders Association and National Grid.

In addition to CLF, the Environmental Council of Rhode Island supports the bill.

The bill was held for further study.