Rhode Island Can't Afford to Study Carbon Pricing

State looking for potential funders to cover study's cost as House commission prepares to examine impact of offshore wind turbines

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — One item not in the fiscal 2019 budget is money for studying a statewide fee on carbon emissions. A fee on fossil fuels, a carbon tax, has support from environmentalists and even moderate Republicans in Washington, D.C., who see the concept as a market-based approach to curbing carbon emissions.

In 2008 British Columbia launched the first working carbon pricing program in North America. It includes rebate funds and income tax cuts to corporations and individuals. Since it was introduced, the program has reduced fossil-fuel consumption 16 percent in the province; the rest of Canada increased consumption by 1 percent during that time. Other provinces have since followed, and the entire country is poised to establish a nationwide tax this year.

In the United States, a carbon tax has struggled to gain traction. In 2016, voters in Washington state rejected a referendum for a carbon tax. Ten states, including Rhode Island and Massachusetts, have carbon fee proposals in their state legislatures, but their fate is uncertain.

Massachusetts is one of the closest to passing carbon-tax legislation, after the Senate passed a “revenue-neutral” carbon-fee program on June 13. The bill is vague on specifics but focuses on creating separate carbon-pricing systems for the transportation sector, businesses and residential buildings. The bill moves to the House for debate.

Last year, the General Assembly passed, and Gov. Gina Raimondo signed, a bill (S108) authorizing a study to examine a statewide carbon-pricing program. The study was supposed to be led by the state Office of Energy Resources (OER), but there was no funding and the committee never formed. The report's deadline has since past.

“But we are working actively on it and are very hopeful that we’ll be able to get funding to move that forward soon,” said Carol Grant, OER commissioner. 

The cost of the study is between $150,000 and $250,000, and Grant said OER will speak with any potential funders. Meanwhile, the House of Representative is set to authorize a study to examine offshore wind turbines.

Energize Rhode Island, the coalition of supporters for carbon pricing, has grown impatient with Raimondo for not funding the relatively low-cost study, especially as state revenues are exceeding projections.

The cost “is minuscule compared to the billions of dollars this legislation could save the state in energy waste each year and in devastating impacts from rising seas, floods and heat waves,” said Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies at Brown University and an Energize Rhode Island member. “Our efforts to find a private foundation to fund the study have not been successful. It's time for the state to step up and pay for the research it says is necessary to move forward on this commonsense public policy."

Opposition to the carbon tax is significant. The Chamber of Commerce, Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, the Rhode Island Business Coalition, and the building trades, home heating oil and gas station lobbyists oppose carbon pricing.

They argue that a state or even a regional carbon tax would hurt the Rhode Island economy, because consumers would have higher expenses and companies would be less inclined to pay more to do business in the state.

“The carbon-pricing program can be interpreted as penalizing energy consumers,” said Robert Fagan of the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island.

The carbon-tax concept has taken on several variations. A regional model similar to the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is gaining attention through the 11-state Transportation & Climate Initiative. And since 2012 California has had a cap-and-trade program on carbon emissions from industrial businesses that is drawing imitators.

Jonathan Buonocore, research associate at the Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE) at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said for carbon pricing or other emission programs to prevail the public and politicians need to feel the impact of climate change and the pollution from fossil fuels.

Greater awareness and research on the health impacts from local carbon emissions and emissions from fracking and the transmission of fossil fuels is needed, he said.

“It’s always seen as something that is going to happen in the future, far away and not hurt me personally,” Buonocore said.