By ASHER LEHRER-SMALL
When wealthy Newport, R.I., merchant Francis Malbone built the Malbone House in 1760, the ocean was his source of fortune. Now, it threatens the historic inn’s very existence.
“Every year we have very serious wind storms, blizzards and possible hurricanes,” said Will Dewey, proprietor of the Francis Malbone House Historic Inn. “Insurance rates are skyrocketing and we are a small business.”
The Malbone House isn’t the only Ocean State business struggling with stormy waters and high winds. Sea-level rise and warming ocean temperatures threaten tourism in Newport and across the state, according to Dewey and concerned others.
Yet, rising waters along Rhode Island’s vulnerable coast haven’t led to rising urgency at the Statehouse, according to Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence. In every legislative session since 2015, Regunberg has introduced carbon-pricing legislation to curb Rhode Island’s fossil-fuel use. But each year, the legislation has failed to go to a vote on the House floor.
The bill, Energize Rhode Island, would require companies selling fossil fuels within the state to pay for the carbon pollution they produce, at a rate of $15 a metric ton and increasing to a rate of $50 by 2025. The $50 ceiling would amount to roughly a tax of 50 cents per gallon of gas, according to Brown University professor of environmental studies J. Timmons Roberts.
Proponents of the bill say such a tax would incentivize the use of renewable-energy sources such as wind and solar. Regunberg noted that such a change would benefit the environment and boost the local economy.
“It’s an economic stimulus bill for our state,” he said. “We don’t produce any fossil fuels in Rhode Island, so every megawatt that we can transition to local in-state renewable generation … that’s more money staying in our economy going to Rhode Island workers and businesses.”
The bill calls for rebates to disburse 70 percent of the fee’s revenue to Rhode Island residents and businesses, mitigating costs that may be passed on to consumers. Another 28 percent of the revenue is allocated to a fund for climate-resilience, renewable-energy and energy-efficiency efforts that would help low-income residents and small businesses transition away from fossil fuels.
With Energize Rhode Island having failed to pass despite these noted benefits, and with storms such as January’s bomb cyclone highlighting the worsening effects of climate change, Regunberg is tired of waiting.
“We need to act right now,” he said. “We don’t have any time.”
But House Speaker Rep. Nicholas Mattiello, D-Cranston, doesn’t share Regunberg’s urgency.
“The system is designed so that legislation moves slowly,” Mattiello said.
The speaker also noted that while the Energize Rhode Island legislation has many advocates, it also has numerous opponents. Business groups such as the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation and The Energy Council of Rhode Island (TEC-RI) have all submitted testimony against the legislation.
“Every single decision we make, you have to balance all of those interests,” Mattiello said.
One worry held by the business community is the perceived unreliability of renewable energy.
“Solar and wind are intermittent power,” said Douglas Gablinske, TEC-RI’s executive director. “When you need power at a moment’s notice, you can’t get that from solar or wind.”
Gablinske noted that improved energy-storage technology would make renewables much more viable. When the technology exists to effectively store solar and wind energy, “that will be the end of fossil fuels,” he said. “Until that day happens, businessmen will be opposed to renewables.”
That day is quickly approaching.
“Battery storage is advancing fast,” Roberts said.
Additionally, Roberts noted that battery storage isn’t the only way to increase the reliability of renewable energy. He said there are promising developments regarding the pairing of wind power with dispatchable hydropower to create consistent energy availability.
However, those innovations alone may not satisfy Rhode Island business interests. Gablinske worries that a tax on the state’s energy suppliers could subject Rhode Island businesses to higher energy costs, putting them at a disadvantage to out-of-state competitors.
“We need a regional agreement,” Gablinske said.
The Energize Rhode Island bill does include a trigger clause, stipulating that the law wouldn’t go into effect until Massachusetts and one additional state within the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative enact a carbon fee.
But for Gablinske, this measure doesn’t go far enough to protect Rhode Island businesses.
“Congress needs to make changes,” he said, arguing that a price on carbon should only come in the form of an international agreement that includes Canada and Mexico.
Regunberg said national and international changes are an unrealistic target.
“Obviously, we want action at the federal level; it doesn’t look like that’s happening right now so it’s up to the states,” Regunberg said. “The states are the only place where we can step up and lead.”
However, some climate activists worry that the person in Rhode Island’s highest office may be hesitant for her state to lead the way, despite her claims to the contrary.
“With respect to our governor, she’s just not courageous on this issue,” said Justin Boyan of Climate Action RI. “She doesn’t want to go first.”
Gov. Gina Raimondo seems to empathize with businesses that are afraid state-level climate policy will put them at a competitive disadvantage, in doing so she ends up ignoring the growing impacts of global warming.
“[A]ny comprehensive solution needs to be at least regionally based, particularly in absence of national leadership,” said Robert Beadle, communications manager for the Rhode Island Office of Energy Resources, in response to queries submitted to the governor’s office.
Raimondo’s cautiousness comes on the heels of support for climate-change legislation by her predecessor, Gov. Lincoln Chafee. With Chafee’s support in 2014, the General Assembly enacted the Resilient Rhode Island Act, which set goals for greenhouse gas-emission reductions in the state.
However, nothing legally binds Rhode Island to hit the act’s emission-reduction targets. Regunberg said Rhode Island needs carbon pricing to achieve the act’s ambitious goals.
The Resilient Rhode Island legislation, he said, “didn’t really create the teeth and the enforcement to make sure that we actually do it.” The Energize Rhode Island legislation, he added, “is about creating the structure and mechanism so that we can actually reach these goals that we set.”
To Regunberg, the Energize Rhode Island bill is a vital piece of the puzzle in fighting climate change.
“Carbon pricing is like an accelerator,” he said. “It makes all of our other programs stronger by providing funding and an incentive for folks to use them.”
Unfortunately for the bill’s proponents, special interests wield considerable influence in the Statehouse.
“These are big companies and some of them are, of course, campaign donors,” Roberts said. Meanwhile, he said, people pushing for the Energize Rhode Island bill “just show up at the Statehouse and … expect [lawmakers] to listen to us, and that’s pretty unrealistic.”
Roberts, though, has learned from the tactics of the bill’s opponents. In 2017, he created a political action committee to fund the campaigns of statewide candidates who support the Energize Rhode Island legislation.
“What’s interesting is that we have been getting more traction,” Roberts said.
Campaign contributions on their own, however, will not be enough to win the fight for a carbon tax.
“We need folks that are going to step up and fight,” Regunberg said.
Boyan, of Climate Action RI, exemplifies someone who has taken that call to heart. A former computer scientist and product manager at Google, Boyan made a 180-degree pivot after the 2016 election, devoting himself to climate activism.
“It was just that growing sense of why is nothing happening? Even under Obama, why is not nearly enough happening?” Boyan said.
He noted that because of the shared stakes of climate change, climate activism must involve everyone.
“It shouldn’t just be for activists and it shouldn’t just be for scientists,” Boyan said. “I feel like it has to be kind of part time for everybody.”
Asher Lehrer-Small is a sophomore at Brown University.