Climate Crisis

R.I.’s Environmental Big Three United Against Power Plant

A fossil fuel power plant has been proposed for the woods of Burrillville, R.I. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

BURRILLVILLE, R.I. — Since the Clear River Energy Center was proposed two years ago, the state’s environmental Big Three have been criticized by some power plant opponents for not being more aggressive in their denunciation of the controversial fossil-fuel project.

The Rhode Island chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and Save The Bay could be accused of entering the fray a little late, some would argue by about six months, but all three organizations, along with the Conservation Law Foundation, have been vocal opponents of the natural gas/diesel facility.

“There are arguments that could stop it,” said Larry Taft, executive director of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. “But jumping up and down and getting mad won’t make a difference. We’ve been remarkably consistent in our opposition, but perhaps more restrained than some might like.”

Taft recently spoke with ecoRI News about the perception that his organization and other Rhode Island conservation agencies haven’t done enough to derail the project. He politely said that isn’t the case, and handed ecoRI News a letter his organization issued in July 2016 in opposition to the proposed power plant. Plans for the proposed Clear River Energy Center were announced in early August 2015.

The 2016 letter, titled “The Audubon Society of Rhode Island Opposes Invenergy’s Proposed Clear River Energy Power Plant,” reads, in part:

“Audubon opposes the proposed 900MW power plant in Burrillville, Rhode Island because it will disturb the integrity of western Rhode Island’s forested habitats and wildlife corridors and because the plant undermines Rhode Island’s ability to achieve greenhouse gas reduction goals set in the 2014 Resilient Rhode Island Act.

“The proposed Invenergy power plant would undermine the integrity of one of the most intact, forested areas in not only in Rhode Island, but also in Southern New England. Large tracts of forest are critical to the region’s biodiversity as well as our ability to adapt to and mitigate against the threats of climate change.”

Taft noted that the organization’s stance remains the same.

“Audubon is opposed to a new power plant anywhere in Rhode Island,” he said. “We don’t even want one in Connecticut. That continues to be our singular message.”

Taft said the chosen location for the Clear River Energy Center — the forest of northwest Rhode Island — and the proposed construction of a fossil-fuel power plant provide a double whammy: “a really nice spot in the middle of a natural wildlife corridor” that “is counter to state policy.”

It’s the latter point that the Audubon Society is most concerned about. The organization, like other environmental agencies, believes adding a fossil fuel facility would weaken Rhode Island’s ability to lower its greenhouse gas emissions and would exacerbate climate-change impacts. That’s the legal argument Taft said that could derail the project.

The Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 calls for the reduction of climate-change emissions by 10 percent below 1990 levels by 2025, 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2035, and 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

“Climate change is a reality,” Taft said. “Why are we building another fossil-fuel power plant? We should be focused on using solar and wind to generate electricity, not converting natural gas to make electricity.”

He said the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) “is making a great case that the power plant isn’t necessary.” Taft said that issue and where the Chicago-based developer will get water, primary and backup sources, to cool the facility are the key arguments against the project. He noted that the Biological Inventory Report “isn’t a game changer.”

“There’s nothing in that report that would bring a power company to their knees,” Taft said. “The siting of these type of facilities allows for the taking of some wildlife habitat. Climate change and sea-level rise, though, are having a huge impact.”

The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has done an excellent job showing how the proposed power plant would undermine the integrity of one of the most intact forested areas in southern New England, according to Taft.

In its July 21, 2016 letter to Gov. Gina Raimondo, TNC said building a power plant in the proposed location would threaten the ecosystem and biodiversity.

“The Invenergy power plant would threaten the integrity of a 12,000-acre forest area, one of the largest intact natural areas in Rhode Island,” according to TNC’s July letter. “Moreover, the power plant’s proposed location is within a critical corridor for wildlife movement to other healthy forest areas from the Quabbin Reservoir to the north and to the southern coast of Rhode Island.”

The Nature Conservancy didn’t respond to an ecoRI News request to speak with someone from the organization for this story.

Save The Bay recently urged the rejection of the Clear River Energy Center, saying that it would cause unacceptable harm to the environment. The Providence-based organization cited a recent Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management advisory opinion that raised concerns about the amount of forestland that would need to be clear-cut to make room for the proposed facility.

“Can’t Rhode Island meet its energy needs without taking out one of its most valuable ecological areas?” Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s director of advocacy and policy, asked the state Energy Facility Siting Board at an Oct. 10 public hearing at Burrillville High School.

There are at least 75 organizations, municipalities and lawmakers that have publicly come out in opposition to the Clear River Energy Center, according to Keep Rhode Island Beautiful.

The proposed site for fossil fuel power plant is owned by an out-of-state energy conglomerate.

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  1. The Energy Facility Siting Act established a process by which state agencies would render advisory opinions concerning the siting of new facilities, in particular the Act mandates that “the statewide planning program within the department of administration shall conduct an investigation and render an advisory opinion as to …consistency with the state guide plan.”
    One of the key elements of the State Guide Plan is “Ocean State Outdoors”, the state’s comprehensive plan for outdoor recreation, conservation, and open space. This document defines policies and guidelines for protecting open space and for providing outdoor recreation opportunities for all Rhode Islanders. It is a document that has been around for decades, crafted by state planners and biologists, and honed through hours of public meetings with local conservation and outdoor recreation stakeholder groups.
    It is difficult to imagine how a power plant, no matter where it is proposed to be located, could be considered consistent with the goals and policies of Ocean State Outdoors. In fact, it is not a matter of whether the CREC is consistent with this Plan, but rather how inconsistent it is. In this regard, one paragraph in the Plan is of particular note because it speaks directly to the value of the northwestern Rhode Island forest where the power plant will be located:
    The recreational experiences these forested areas accommodate are special, and care must be taken to insure that they are not diminished by the insidious threats of overuse, resource degradation, pollution, and conflicting uses on lands surrounding the public estate.
    Doesn’t sound very consistent with a power plant. Yet, the office of Statewide Planning, in its advisory opinion to the EFSB, found: “This Project is not inconsistent with this State Guide Plan Element.” An absurd statement, that in one breath erases the work that some have spent their careers on, crafting a vision for conservation in Rhode Island that is based on science, and recognizes the value of maintaining the integrity of the state’s ecosystems.
    One of the most valued stakeholders in the crafting of Ocean State Outdoors was the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. They, more than anyone from the public, should be mortified by Statewide Planning’s treatment of this document. Yes, “jumping up and down and getting mad”.
    Audubon’s letter of opposition (written over a year ago) will be treated as nothing more than “public comment” in the eyes of the EFSB, akin to the city and town resolutions that the Board has decided are also to be treated as public comment. Simple statements like, “large tracts of forest are critical to the region’s biodiversity”, mean little to the EFSB members who are not versed in conservation biology, or the habitat requirements of forest interior birds.
    What the Board requires is evidence, data. Data on this project was impressively supplemented with the results of the Biological Inventory performed by ESS for Invenergy. With hard evidence in hand, Audubon’s statement that: “The proposed Invenergy power plant would undermine the integrity of one of the most intact forested areas in Rhode Island”, can now be changed to read “THE most intact forested area in RI”, which is of course what state conservationists, including those who wrote Ocean State Outdoors, have been saying for the past 30 years.
    Despite the long understood significance of this land, a fact that is even admitted to by Invenergy, on one has yet detailed WHY this area is significant to the EFSB. No pre-filed testimony, no advisory opinion. Instead, we have a statewide planning opinion that reinterprets its own plan in favor of Invenergy.
    Just in case anyone is wondering why we’re jumping up and down mad.

  2. Our top three elected officials remain silent. Environmental champions until this issue arose. Why?

    If Hillary gave back Harvey Weinstein’s campaign contribution so could they. Think of the publicity it would generate for them. Standing up to protect the interests of their constituency.

    What I fear is that somehow the proposed LNG terminal on the flood plain in Providence is related to the Burrillville Power plant.

    Finally, an article in the latest Save the Bay newsletter (an excellent one) discusses problems with the public water supply in Bristol County. Where would towns turn if they needed water? Probably not Fall River now. Water should not be for sale to the highest bidder. We need contingency plans in the event of an unforeseen crisis.

  3. …In other words, in his comments below, Mr. Enser is suggesting that in the absence of the sort of data-driven criticism of Statewide Planning’s opinion that the Audubon Society is capable of delivering, the Energy Facility Siting Board could arrive at a sort of environmental version of the Dred Scott Decision: By the lights of a strict construction of its mandate, the unexamined flaws in Stateswide’s opinion will be no bar to the EFSB deciding that our northwest forest ecosystem, in which the public has invested millions to protect, has no rights that a power plant developer is bound to respect.

    If this happens, and for the next two years our constant goads are the cranes-in-the-air above the White Pines of the George Washington Wildlife Management Area, the consequences for the unity of our environmental community are likely to be serious, even ugly, given the size and passion of the power plant opposition, and stakes on the table in this new and forbidding age of climate change.

    That is why I, too, am jumping up and down regarding Mr. Taft’s obtuseness on Mr. Enser’s point.

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