Ocean State’s Fossil-Fuel Hypocrisy Does Nothing to Address Climate Change

By FRANK CARINI

The problem for Burrillville when it comes to fighting the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure is the town’s location, more than 50 miles from Point Judith and some 50 miles from Easton’s Beach.

Rhode Island’s governor and three of its four D.C. delegation members descended upon the University of Rhode Island’s Narragansett campus in mid-February to push back against President Trump’s nasty plan to open up the East Coast to offshore drilling.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., told the crowd that oil and Narragansett Bay don’t mix. He noted that Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who couldn’t make the trip, is “on board with making sure this does not happen.” He thanked two Rhode Island lawmakers in attendance “for the keen interest of the General Assembly in protecting our shoreline communities.” He thanked Gov. Gina Raimondo for “being such a strong voice against this dumb idea.”

“We need to make sure we are standing up to protect our fisheries, our shoreline communities, our beach tourism, our fishing community again, and standing up for what Rhode Island really stands for,” Whitehouse said.

Apparently, the Ocean State stands for hypocrisy, at least when it comes to which fossil-fuel projects to oppose. It’s easy for Democrats to bash Trump’s unpopular ideas. It takes political chutzpah, however, to oppose a fossil-fuel project that has the backing of local trade unions and, thus, has potential reelection ramifications.

And when the state’s top elected official essentially tells an out-of-state energy developer its nearly 1,000-megawatt natural-gas power plant proposed for Burrillville would be a wonderful addition to the area’s forestland, the message sent is that birdwatching and hiking aren’t as economically valuable to Rhode Island as fishing and swimming. Tourists love Newport. Nobody visits Burrillville.

In 2015, in what could be called a flagrant disregard for Rhode Island’s ambitious climate-emissions goals, Raimondo said to Invenergy CEO Michael Polsky that, “I know you have choices about where you could be and I’m pleased you’ve chosen Rhode Island, and you should know we are going to make sure that you are successful here.”

The governor’s fossil-fuel fawning happened during a staged press event that summer, at which Polsky and Raimondo jointly announced the project. The governor thanked the Chicago-based developer for investing in Rhode Island.

If built, the Clear River Energy Center would become Rhode Island’s largest fossil-fuel power plant and the largest emitter of climate emissions in the state.

Since the governor’s very public endorsement of the natural-gas/diesel facility, only a few members of the General Assembly have spoken out against the project. Rhode Island’s D.C. contingent hasn’t traveled to northwest Rhode Island to appeal for the protection of Burrillville’s fishing holes, freshwater beaches and rural communities.

Following the governor’s lead, the Office of Energy Resources has endorsed the Burrillville project, claiming it will lower carbon emissions and help Rhode Island meet its greenhouse gas-reduction goals. Invenergy officials have made the same shaky claims, and both have ignored the fact that natural gas is just as damaging to the environment and public health as oil and coal.

National Grid's proposal to build another liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility on the Providence waterfront has similarly received little pushback from top elected officials. More than a dozen General Assembly members have spoken out against the project, announced in 2015, but the governor and Rhode Island's congressional delegation have remained silent. After all, Trump didn't propose it, and the only people fishing in Providence's industrial waters are immigrants and the desperate.

Rhode Island collectively spends about $4 billion annually on imported fossil fuels that emit more than 11 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year. Much of this imported fuel is fracked natural gas from Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Wyoming. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is a controversial extraction technique first developed in the late 1940s. The practice relies on toxic chemicals and massive volumes of water, and produces vast amounts of wastewater.

Fracking has been linked to the contamination of drinking water, among other localized health and environmental impacts. Of course, most of that hydraulic fracturing damage is happening well beyond Rhode Island’s borders. It would be like expecting the Wyoming Legislature and that state’s D.C. contingent to care about the environmental impacts of drilling for oil off the coast of Rhode Island.

While many of our elected officials, at both the state and federal level, continue to hide behind the petro-funded myths that natural gas is “clean energy” and a “bridge fuel,” they ignore the dangers of fracking and the burning of natural gas. Methane is an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas.

In southeastern Ohio, a rural county in the Appalachian foothills is a dumping ground for fracking wastewater. The toxic liquid is pumped into pit wells, which look “like an old swimming pool, covered by a tarp. No sign indicates the presence of chemicals, just a ‘no trespassing’ sign. Allegedly, a guard will snap your picture if you stop or turn your car around. The well is located in a residential area, with houses — some with swing sets — just down the road.”

In 2015 alone, tank trucks dumped 4 million barrels of fracking waste into Ohio’s poorest county.

If we want Ohio, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma to care about the impacts of fossil-fuel infrastructure on our shoreline communities and fishing industry, perhaps we should stop asking them to provide us with more fracked gas. If Rhode Island truly wants to address climate change and be a national leader on the issue, as Gov. Raimondo often proclaims, we need to stop expanding fossil-fuel infrastructure of any kind. Renewable energy is the present and future.

Frank Carini is the ecoRI News editor.