Climate-Change Efforts Lacking in R.I., Ending in D.C.

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The Clean Power Plan, one of President Obama’s signature steps to curb climate emissions, is in jeopardy now that President Trump has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review the rule. But Curt Spalding, who stepped down as head of the EPA’s New England region on Inauguration Day, says the plan isn't doomed.

“It’s the right and rational thing to do,” the Cranston resident and former executive director of Save The Bay said of the 460-page rule.

Trump’s campaign promise to gut the EPA and eliminate the Clean Power Plan, Spalding said, was effective at winning votes in the Midwest, which has a high number of coal-burning power plants.

“It means that (Trump’s pledge) was not about the Clean Power Plan at all. It was about the politics going on in the country,” Spalding said last week during an energy panel at the annual meeting of Peoples Power & Light.

Yet, the emissions-reduction plan for fossil-fuel power plants — electricity generation accounts for about 30 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases — is palatable with policymakers, the public and the energy industry, which favors uniform regulations instead of piecemeal, state and regional carbon-cutting regulations. Thus, Spalding said, a broad carbon tax or cap-and-trade program on pollution will eventually be embraced as the rational, less politically motivated, climate-mitigation option.

Spalding noted that the EPA may turn to outside legal help to halt the Clean Power Plan, as in-house lawyers may not be as eager to reverse a rule they recently created.

There are “some strange goings on at EPA,” he said.

Spalding said he expects the EPA to drop any efforts to lead the country on climate-change research planning.

“Right now, people aren’t doing anything on climate in Washington or in the central part of the EPA,” Spalding said.

He called it a victory that the EPA is using the word “climate” in its programs.

“They are just trying to hang on to the idea that we even have a climate program,” Spalding said.

Spalding explained that the Trump administration will say it is cutting federal programs so that states can determine their climate plans. But state budgets and staff, he said, have been reduced during the past 20 years.

“Everybody (at EPA) is in the foxhole right now,” he said. “Hopefully, they are going to hang on to their little piece.”

Local climate goals not adequate
Brown University professor J. Timmons Roberts said Rhode Island's goal of cutting carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050 isn't sufficient to slow the effects of climate change. The latest research, he noted, suggests human-caused CO2 and methane emissions must be cut to zero by 2035.

“We are already at 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide. The temperature has already risen 1 degree Celsius,” Roberts said during the May 3 panel discussion.

The Rhode Island Executive Climate Change Coordination Council (EC4) is the best entity to lead emission-reduction action, said Roberts, who serves on an EC4 subcommittee. The council of state agency bosses is moving too slowly. He criticized its 2016 analysis of the state emission plan for failing to advocate for a proposal to achieve the carbon reductions.

“It wasn’t actually a plan. It doesn’t really tell us how we are going to get there. It lacks the social and the political and economic steps we can make and the policy tools at the economy-wide level,” Roberts said.

He called for public support of Senate and House bills advocating for a state and regional carbon tax on the sale of all fossil fuels. The House Finance Committee is expected to hold a hearing soon for H5359.