Rhode Island Needs to Rethink Its Stance Regarding Natural-Gas Expansion

By PETE GALVIN

Readers of this website are well aware of the current disputes concerning the addition of more natural-gas capacity in Rhode Island. By the time this piece is published, we may well see Burrillville and Woonsocket residents threaten to boycott each others stores.

But there are other pending developments on the national front that I believe require a re-evaluation by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Gov. Gina Raimondo and other elected officials in this state of their views about this fossil fuel. Please join me in urging them to do so.

The first development is the pending congressional rejection of the standards limiting methane emissions from drilling sites. These standards were issued last June by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Those who assert that gas is a “bridge fuel” to help us reduce our greenhouse-gas emissions have strongly supported these standards, because without them the health and pollution impacts of methane released from oil- and gas-drilling sites is only too well documented.

The courts are reviewing the standards, but the new Congress doesn’t want to wait, and they are in line to be rejected under the Congressional Review Act in the next 100 days. If this happens, EPA is barred from issuing them again, or any standards “substantially similar,” even should a more sympathetic administration want to do so in the future.

I’m not among those who sees this congressional action as necessarily bad. After all, should the rules be allowed to go into effect, it will be the climate-denying Trump administration enforcing them, and the Republican Congress and the Trump administration determining EPA resources.

Moreover, if this type of emissions control is barred, the courts may ultimately find themselves with no choice but to order EPA to take a stronger approach. After all, the courts have already ruled that greenhouse gases should be controlled under the Clean Air Act, and EPA’s determination a few years ago that this includes emissions at gas well sites can no longer be challenged.

To stop all EPA rules on this subject, the Republican Congress would need to amend the Clean Air Act, and that is a big lift. But for the moment, I think we are better off without the fig leaf that methane emissions will be controlled, revealing increased gas production for the clear threat that it is to our survival.

The second development concerns guidelines issued by the Obama administration on how to consider greenhouse-gas emissions in preparing environmental impact statements. The most recent edition of these guidelines requires that when we consider a gas project, we look at the impact of the greenhouse gases across the whole system — not just here in Rhode Island. So if the project is to result in significant emissions of methane at a wellhead in Tennessee, we need to consider it. It is, after all, only one atmosphere, and every project to increase greenhouse gases, no matter where located, impacts all of us.

It’s similar to the position the Obama administration took on the Keystone pipeline project — ironically, the agency in charge of oil and gas pipelines is not under presidential control, and has declined to adopt the CEQ guidance. The person expected to take the position in the Trump administration responsible for rule-making is not likely to look favorably on the EPA approach, and can change it with the stroke of a pen. Another fig leaf will thus be removed from the illusion of a “clean” fossil-fuel industry.

So now it is going to be to users of natural gas including people like myself, and those who live near proposed pipelines or facilities, to slow and eventually stop the use of this fossil fuel. Some incentives to switch over from natural-gas and propane use for heating to electric heat pumps, which can be powered by solar and wind, would help facilitate a transition.

I would also recommend a few related changes in how Rhode Island approaches limiting our own greenhouse-gas emissions.

First, I would urge Rhode Island officials to step up and announce plans to join with other states, whether controlled by Republicans or Democrats, that have committed to continue moving forward at a fast pace to transition from gas and other fossil fuels to renewable fuels — and the jobs they bring. It would be nice if the whole region did so as a group, joining states like Ohio, California and Hawaii in renewed commitments, but there is no reason Rhode Island needs to wait to make such a commitment. Those who remain hesitant, due to worries about costs or doubts about the science, shouldn’t be allowed to drown out the excellent case for moving forward.

Second, while I would like to compliment the Raimondoadministration on its timely completion of a plan to meet Rhode Island’s emission targets in a timely way, state officials need to recognize that those targets always have, and continue to be, way too weak. The science is actually quite clear that the world needs to stop using fossil fuels well before 2050; Rhode Island’s goal for that date is only to reduce 1990 emissions by 80 percent.

The Raimondo administration’s report, consistent with current law, pledges to examine opportunities to move beyond this goal should they be feasible. These commitments are better than those in many states, but neither they, nor full compliance with the Paris accord, are going to save us from the worst consequences of a changing climate that continues to be made worse by greenhouse-gas emissions. We’re going to have enough problems reducing those already emitted, and which will continue to add heat every day to the atmosphere unless they are removed.

I don’t think the administration’s report was particularly creative in suggesting how to move forward, shy as it always is when it comes to stepping into the turf of the legislators. But it has some good proposals.

I hope the readers of this website will step forward with ideas, and not necessarily put all their thought into any proposed cure-all.

North Kingstown, R.I., resident Pete Galvin spent nearly 35 years assisting the federal government with legislative and regulatory matters, in particular those involving scientific and technical information. He has focused his efforts on climate-change issues for the past four years.