R.I. Environmentalists Seek Action, Want Accountability on Cutting Carbon Emissions

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Rhode Island is behind neighboring states when it comes to setting and enforcing goals for cutting greenhouse gases.

More than a decade ago both Connecticut and Massachusetts passed binding goals for reducing carbon-based emissions. It wasn’t until 2014, six years later, that Rhode Island adopted its own goals, with the signing of the Resilient Rhode Island Act. Emission cuts, however, have never been mandatory.

Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, has tried to make those targets binding through bills he has sponsored for more than a decade. But that legislation, the Global Warming Solutions Act, typically dies in committee.

This year, Rep. Christopher R. Blazejewski, D-Providence, the deputy majority whip, signed on as lead sponsor. The latest bill (H5444) is still opposed by business groups such as the Construction Industries of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Builders Association, the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Business Coalition, the Northern Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce, and the Rhode Island Mortgage Bankers Association. National Grid typically opposes the legislation but, so far, hasn’t objected.

At a Feb. 28 Statehouse hearing, Jon Shaer, executive director of the New England Convenience Store Energy Marketers Association, said he was concerned that making the targets enforceable could lead to excessive litigation and a carbon tax imposed by a state agency.

“We believe that should have its own legislative process,” Shaer said of the carbon tax.

According the latest version of Handy’s bill, compliance with greenhouse gas-reduction goals can be contested by an individual or an environmental group by filing a lawsuit in Rhode Island Superior Court. The legal action would require state agencies to reduce emissions. In 2016, the Conservation Law Foundation, five environmental groups, and four individuals won such a lawsuit in Massachusetts, forcing the state Department of Environmental Protection to write new regulations for reducing carbon emissions.

State officials say Rhode Island is on track to meet the first benchmark of cutting emissions: 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. But studies show that state is falling short of the 45 percent reduction by 2035 and the 80 percent reduction by 2050.

“We’re really not on target to meet those goals,” said Meg Kerr of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “This bill would make those goals mandatory and enforceable. And we really need to hold the government accountable for those important measures.”

Sheila Dormody of The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island said making the goals enforceable would force the state to slash emissions from the transportation sector, the largest source of greenhouse gases in the state. She said accountability ensures that vulnerable citizens and climate-justice issues are addressed.

Environmentalist Greg Gerritt stated what is likely obvious to anyone who follows the science on climate change: Rhode Island’s reduction targets are inadequate.

“Those goals are already five years behind,” he said. “Every report says that it’s worse than this. That [the planet is warming] faster.”

Alex Kithes of Climate Action RI noted that the recent United Nations report calls for drastic reductions in global carbon emissions by 2030.

“We don’t have a livable future anymore as a result of climate change,” Kithes said.

The legislation is backed by Clean Water Action, Save The Bay, the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and Sunrise Rhode Island.

Other changes in the legislation include having the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) oversee compliance with the Global Warming Solutions Act. A new Global Warming Solutions Implementation Office within DEM would serve as the administrative entity. The state Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council and its Science and Technical Advisory Board would track emissions and agency compliance. No new funds or employees are being sought.

Prior to the Feb. 28 hearing by the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources, environmental groups held a rally on the Statehouse steps.

“We must demand that our politicians pass the Global Warming Solutions Act in order to reduce toxic greenhouse-gas emissions and protect the people and places we love that make this state so special,” said Lauren Maunus, a Brown University student and organizer with Sunrise Rhode Island.

The bill was held for further study, as most bills are at the first hearing. A Senate version of the bill is expected to be issued soon.