Solar Siting, Bag Ban Top Bills for Environment Council

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A bill banning plastic retail bags across the state recently received another boost, this time from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.

At a recent Earth Day event at the Statehouse, the North Providence Democrat described the bill he sponsored “as a workable and effective solution to address plastic bag use and we’re looking forward to having the hearings on that particular issue.”

The legislation (H5671 and S410) has the backing of the Gov. Gina Raimondo, who created the Task Force to Tackle Plastics last summer. A statewide bag ban with a 5-cent fee on paper bags was one of the main recommendations from the 23-member commission.

Some opponents of previous bag ban bills, such as the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, served on the commission and support the bag ban.

So far, 10 communities in the state — Barrington, Bristol, Jamestown, Middletown, New Shoreham, Newport, North Kingstown, Portsmouth, South Kingstown, and Warren — have approved bans on retail plastic bags. None has a mandatory fee on alternative single-use bags such as paper bags.

The Environment Council of Rhode Island (ECRI), the sponsor of the April 11 Earth Day event, lists the bill as one of its five “priority bills” for the 2019 legislative session. But the coalition of environmental groups would like the legislation amended to allow municipalities to enact stricter bag regulations than the proposed statewide ban. ECRI also wants to close a loophole that allows retailers to offer thicker plastic bags in place of the traditional thin-film checkout bags. ERCI wants to exclude those plastic bags by only allowing bags with stitched handles.

The House bill had a hearing March 21. The Senate version had a hearing March 6. Both bills are expected to have additional hearings.

Ruggerio also endorsed the “Ask First” straw bill that requires restaurants to only offer plastic straws upon request.

The Senate straw bill (S202) was heard March 6. The House bill (H5314) had a hearing Feb. 28.

Solar siting
ECRI priority bills also include legislation to curb the destruction of forests and open space for the development of ground-mounted solar facilities. The bills offer incentives for solar development on brownfields, closed landfills, carports, and rooftops. It also requires cities and towns to adopt solar-siting rules, and for the state to create a comprehensive plan for solar-energy development.

The Senate bill (S661) had a hearing March 27. The House version (H5789) had a hearing March 14. Both bills restrict the size of solar arrays to 4 megawatts if they are within areas of environmental concern.

The Senate version contains a controversial provision that allows home developers density exemptions if solar arrays are built on land zoned residential.

Carbon fee
The Economic and Climate Resilience Act of 2019 assesses a fee on all petroleum products at the first point of sale in the state. A fee starting at $15 would be charged for each metric ton of carbon dioxide that would be released by burning the fossil fuel. The fee would increase annually until it reaches $50 per metric ton. The fee would also apply to the fossil fuel-generated power delivered from electric distribution companies such as National Grid.

Seventy percent of the fees collected would be paid as dividends to state residents and employers. The remainder would fund projects for climate resilience, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and climate adaptation. The legislation would only take effect if Massachusetts and another state in the region approve similar carbon-fee programs.

Raimnondo doesn’t support a state carbon fee.

The House bill (H5869) had a hearing March 21. The Senate version (S662) has yet to receive a hearing.

Binding emissions reductions
The Global Warming Solutions Act makes state carbon emission-reduction targets legally binding by allowing anyone to take legal action against the state in Providence County Superior Court.

Rhode Island is on track to reduce emissions by 10 percent of 1990 levels by 2020, but is falling short of a 45 percent reduction by 2035, and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. The latest bill requires an adjustment to reduction targets to reflect the latest research on climate change. The targets may also account for direct and indirect emissions, such as those from fuel leaks.

Currently, Connecticut and Massachusetts have enforceable emissions-reduction targets.

The House bill (H5444) had a hearing Feb. 28. A hearing hasn’t been scheduled for the Senate bill (S658).

Energy efficiency
Water and energy-efficiency standards would be updated for a number of products, such as air compressors, dishwashers, fryers, computer monitors, portable air conditioners, and urinals. 

H5667 had a hearing in the House on March 7. The Senate bill (S552) had a hearing April 10.

ECRI doesn’t support legislation that allows the remaking of single-use plastics to create fuels for power generation, a process known as gasification. ECRI opposes the bill because the process justifies the creation of plastic products and packaging while generating harmful emissions.

The House bill (H5448) had a hearing Feb. 28. The Senate (S408) version had a hearing April 3.