By KEVIN PROFT
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo recently joined the United States Climate Alliance, calling President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement a “tremendous mistake.” She noted that climate change will have a large impact on Rhode Island communities and said she was committed to “fight climate change from the front lines.”
The Climate Alliance, initiated by the governors of California, New York and Washington, aims to step into the void left by Trump’s decision to walk away from the Paris accord.
Given that Hillary Clinton won Rhode Island by 15 points in November’s election and the state “Felt the Bern” in the primary, there is nothing especially brave or surprising about her statement. It will certainly be welcomed by democrats who are bewildered and angered daily by the president’s seemingly nonsensical actions, and, considering that 75 percent of Rhode Islanders said they would be more likely to support a candidate that lessens dependence on fossil fuels in a poll conducted last year, it’s probable that many of the state’s republicans support that statement as well.
For Raimondo, a seasoned politician, the statement must have felt like a reflex. The question is, however, will her commitment to fight climate change from the front lines materialize into meaningful actions? Her record on decisions related to climate change doesn’t inspire confidence.
Perhaps most salient is her position on the Clear River Energy Center. The proposed natural-gas/diesel power plant would be built on open space in Burrillville, in one of the region’s largest contiguous forests. It would be the largest power plant in the state, at more than 900 megawatts, and would increase Rhode Island’s already-overwhelming reliance on natural gas. Natural gas releases significantly less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than coal when burned for energy, but this advantage is limited or eliminated by methane leaks at wellheads and along pipelines, which are apparently considered too costly to repair.
Methane is 86 times stronger than carbon dioxide at trapping heat over a 20-year period.
Where does Gov. Raimondo stand on the proposed fossil-fuel project? Currently, she’s not saying. After initially, and enthusiastically, supporting the project in 2014, she later changed her position to “no comment” when the politics of the issue became uncomfortable. She now claims it would be inappropriate for her to insert herself into the process and defers to the Energy Facilities Siting Board.
Other high-profile decisions made by the governor also call into question her commitment to fighting climate change from the front lines. She gleefully supported Citizens Bank's decision to clear-cut woodlands in Johnston to build an isolated office complex with more than 2,400 parking spaces, despite the Rhode Island State Guide Plan specifically calling for exactly the opposite kind of development.
During the debate over the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reconstruct the 6-10 Connector in Providence, Raimondo supported an identical rebuild of the highway — a congested nightmare. Her top advisor on the decision, Peter Alviti, admitted the Rhode Island Department of Transportation never seriously considered the boulevard alternative, which would have disincentivized automobile use and promoted other modes of transportation.
The transportation sector is the state's largest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions.
This is not to say the governor hasn’t supported environmental or even climate change-related initiatives. She rebranded the Clean Water Finance Agency as the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank which, in part, offers financing to energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects. She extended least cost procurement, which also promotes energy efficiency.
Her 2015 “Lead By Example” executive order required state government — one of the largest energy consumers in Rhode Island — to greatly reduce energy consumption and adopt zero-emissions vehicles. According to the Environment Council of Rhode Island’s most recent green report card, her appointments to lead the Office of Energy Resources will “ensure Rhode Island remains on track to grow our clean energy industry.”
Now that Raimondo has joined the Climate Alliance, we must hope her intention is to significantly increase Rhode Island’s efforts to combat climate change, and not simply to capitalize on a ready-made, news-cycle win placed in her lap by Donald Trump.
To date, Rhode Island has nibbled at the edges of mitigating its emissions. The state’s short-term target — 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 — was never a challenge, even at the moment it was passed into law. In fact, the state has already achieved it.
To meet our longer-term goals, including an 80 percent reduction by 2050, the state — led by Raimondo — needs to reckon with the enormity of the challenge presented by climate change. Condemning Trump and nibbling at emissions won’t meet that challenge; taking bites and swallowing whole might. What’s the first course? Don’t build a 900-megawatt fossil-fuel power plant, stop subsidizing sprawl, and invest in public transportation.
Providence resident Kevin Proft is a former ecoRI News staffer and is currently earning a master’s degree in environmental science and management from the University of Rhode Island.