Let’s Get Physical: Trades Council Union Members Clash with Environmentalists Over Natural Gas

Members of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council showed their support Aug. 4 for the proposed Clear River energy project. Members clashed with opponents outside the Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Members of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council showed their support Aug. 4 for the proposed Clear River energy project. Members clashed with opponents outside the Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

Groups on opposite sides of new power plant proposed for Burrillville

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — A controversial plan for a new natural gas-fired power plant is drawing protests and physical resistance.

Multiple witnesses said force was used by members of the Rhode Island Building & Construction Trades Council as they stood in a line and walked into a crowd of environmental activists. Both groups held competing rallies Aug. 4 outside the building where Gov. Gina Raimondo was briefing the press on a new Burrillville power plant. There were no reports of injuries.

The charged atmosphere on the sidewalk of the downtown headquarters of the Rhode Island Chamber of Commerce was marked by shouting and individual arguments between the two groups. The construction union wants the $700 million power plant planned for Burrillville because of the 300 building jobs it promises. Environmentalists oppose the project because of noise and other pollution they say it would bring to the community. Emissions from the plant also increase greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to climate change, according to opponents.

Raimondo didn’t address either group after the meeting and she was ushered away in an SUV as activists approached her. The union did have an audience with the governor prior, as Michael Sabitoni, president of the trades council, was one of the main speakers at the press event.

Nick Katkevich, organizer for the protest group Fight Against Natural Gas (FANG), accused the governor of abruptly changing the meeting location from the Statehouse to a private office downtown, a move that kept activists outside the meeting. FANG, the principal organizer of the protest, has staged multiple actions in the past year, including a tree-sit and a laugh-in during a speech given by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

A spokesman for the Chicago-based power plant developer, Invenergy LLC, said hot weather prompted the change in location, because the Statehouse doesn’t have air conditioning.

At the press event, Raimondo explained how the proposed Clear River Energy Center would lower energy bills, reduce the state’s carbon footprint and grow the local renewable-energy sector.

“The only silver lining of climate change, if there is one, is that if we take action and get ahead of it, we can create jobs,” the governor said.

Environmentalists are skeptical that burning any fossil fuel, albeit one with fewer emissions, helps curb carbon pollution.

“We need to be reducing fossil fuels,” FANG activist Trevor Culhane said. “Instead we are making a big investment in natural gas.”

Raimondo defended the project, which is expected to be in operation for 40 years, saying the push to wind and solar energy can’t happen all at once.

“We have a problem today. Our (electricity) prices are too high, (natural gas) supply is too low and we have climate-change reality,” she said. “So this project is one piece of the puzzle. It is cleaner and more efficient and more cost effective than anything else we have in the natural-gas area. At the same time, we are moving forward with renewables at a rapid a rate as we can.”

Invenergy said new power plants are needed to replace the 6,000 megawatts of electricity that are being lost as old power plants in New England retire, most notable is the 1,500-megawatt, coal-fired Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass.

Invenergy CEO Michael Polsky said this new power plant would emit far less carbon dioxide than the power plants it would replace. It also would have a fast and efficient on-and-off switch that allows it to work with the intermittent electricity generated by solar arrays and wind turbines.

“It will have a very significant impact on the air quality in New England,” Polsky said.

Cost to ratepayers?
Raimondo insisted that no public subsidies will help pay for the new power plant. Instead, she said, the project would cut energy prices and make them more predictable. A study funded by Invenergy concluded that the power plant would save ratepayers $280 million annually.

The project would be funded by loans and company equity, and repaid through the sale of electricity to utility companies such as National Grid.

What remains unclear is the impact on ratepayers when the cost of natural gas increases. Currently, more that 95 percent of the electricity generated in Rhode Island is fueled by natural gas. Polsky said price volatility would be reduced by the proposed plant’s efficiency. He noted, however, that the new facility would only account for 4 percent of New England’s energy supply, thus minimizing its impact on price swings.

“So, we can only contribute to the extent of our (power) plant,” Polsky told ecoRI News.

John Niland, director of project development for Invenergy, said high prices in the region are “entirely due to gas pipeline constraints.”

The new power plant, he said, would undoubtedly benefit from pipeline expansion projects underway across the region. As a paying customer for natural gas from the pipeline, the new power plant would also help fund additional pipeline expansion projects.

Raimondo said she supports the naural-gas pipeline expansion project underway in Burrillville as well as future pipeline projects.

The 900-megawatt Clear River Energy Center would require permits from the state Department of Environmental Management, the Energy Facility Siting Board and the town of Burrillville. Public meetings are expected. If approved, construction is expected to start in late 2016. The power plant would be operational by summer 2019.