Opposition Accuses Biomass Developer of Pay to Play

 Opponents of a bill that supports the development of an incinerator in Johnston, R.I., recently rallied outside the Statehouse. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Opponents of a bill that supports the development of an incinerator in Johnston, R.I., recently rallied outside the Statehouse. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Environment leaders are uniting against a potential wood-burning power plant as accusations of political pay to play intensify.

John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, was the only non-environmental speaker at a May 22 rally outside the Statehouse.

“You may be wondering why I am here today,” Marion said. “This is more than just an environmental issue; it’s also about how public policy is being made in the state of Rhode Island.”

Marion and others accused employees and founder of North Kingstown-based Green Development LLC of making campaign donations in return for favorable legislation, an act Marion described as “rent seeking.”

Marion referenced public documents (Excel document) showing Green Development’s founder, Mark DePasquale, and employees made $70,000 in donations to members of the General Assembly, Gov. Gina Raimondo and their committees since 2013. Those contributions include $6,900 to Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and $9,000 to House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.

“Our Legislature is being asked to weigh the public interests against the economic interests of a single developer,” Marion said.

Ruggerio made a rare appearance at a Senate Committee on the Environment & Agriculture meeting to vote the biomass bill to the Senate floor, where it passed, 30-3, on May 2.

“The skids for this change are being greased with political donations to the most powerful,” Marion said.

Marion referenced a similar effort by DePasquale in 2016, when an amendment was added to the budget at the 11th hour that would shift the interconnection costs for renewable-energy projects from the developer to the utility company, National Grid. Some House members took exception and argued that those costs would be shifted to ratepayers.

“This time the rent seeking is not happening under the cover of darkness, but nonetheless it puts into stark relief the nexus of money and politics in our state,” Marion said.

After ignoring a request for comment from ecoRI News, Raimondo responded to the controversy in a prepared statement after the recent rally.

“There is significant concern among the environmental community about biomass and Governor Raimondo hears those concerns. She needs to learn more about the details of this bill but believes it’s clear at the outset there are questions that need to be addressed,” according to the statement.

Environmental groups have fought wood-burning biomass projects for years. They fear that a smaller project would open the way for electricity-producing trash incinerators, and their toxic emissions.

Woody biomass energy facilities have problems of their own. Groups such as the Environment Council of Rhode Island and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island noted the lack of research showing that wood-fueled biomass power plants are carbon neutral, despite receiving such a designation from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Biomass power plants are gaining global popularity as replacement for coal-fired energy facilities, despite a growing amount of research showing that they release more carbon dioxide and other pollutants than coal and natural-gas facilities.

DePasquale told ecoRI News he planned to build a 9-megawatt wood-burning facility near the Central Landfill in Johnston. A spokesman for Green Development later explained that Johnston is one of several sites being considered for the energy facility.

DePasquale also told ecoRI News that the project would extend the life of the state's primary landfill by diverting 200,000 tons of wood scrap annually from Rhode Island's waste stream.

Ruggerio told ecoRI News that the project is a necessary "clean-energy" source that will save the state money by keeping the landfill open longer.

The Conservation Law Foundation, however, noted that the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation takes in about 6,000 tons of wood waste annually and 200,000 tons of construction and demolition debris each year.

“They claim that they will only use clean wood, but construction debris is not clean,” said Meg Kerr of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.

James McCaffrey of the Partnership For Policy Integrity (PFPI), a research and advocacy group based in Massachusetts, noted that Rhode Island already buys electricity from wood-burning power plants for its Renewable Energy Standard program. That program mandates that a portion of all electricity delivered to ratepayers comes from renewable energy.

Massachusetts and Connecticut have put limits on woody biomass in their renewable portfolios, while Rhode Island made “a big mistake” by allowing wood power in its RES program, McCaffrey said.

“Clean energy, in any form, does not come out of a smokestack,” he said.

PFPI research and other studies show that even the cleanest of woody biomass facilities emit more nitrogen oxides, organic compounds, particulate matter, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide than coal or natural-gas power plants.

Biomass industry groups and Green Development didn't respond to ecoRI News requests for research supporting their “clean-energy” claims.

“We feel that the Rhode Island Legislature is being somewhat duped here by false science and a developer who has specific interest in building a facility here that will make Rhode Island residents sick,” McCaffrey said. “We have some very fake science and some very real money influencing the process here.”

The Senate bill was referred to the House Corporations Committee. A hearing date hasn't been announced. The House bill advanced out of committee on May 15. Opponents of the bill hope to prevent a vote by the full House.