Opinion

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

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.

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  1. “,,,,,,,and you should know we are going to make sure that you are successful here.”

    Apparently, one of the things the State is willing to do to ensure Invenergy’s success is sacrificing Rhode Island’s most ecologically significant forest ecosystem. A place identified in the State Guide Plan as an area that “for some residents, is perhaps the only exposure to "wilderness" they will encounter in their lives.”
    How will this destruction be justified? Although details are limited, we know that Invenergy has prepared a Mitigation Plan that, in their own words, “…will primarily consist of land preservation.” From this statement we might surmise that the land to be “preserved” would be the 460+ additional acres owned by Alongquin/Spectra directly to the west of the power plant, a portion of it bordering the George Washington Management Area. Logically, a deal between Algonquin/Invenergy/State of Rhode Island would result in an addition to the management area. More than 400 acres protected and open for public use, how could anyone think this anything but a win-win for the people of Rhode Island, cheap power and cheap land. Some people might look on it for what it really is, a bribe.
    According to one definition, mitigation is the way of lessening the force or intensity of something unpleasant. It is not a scientific term, but a legal one. Designed as a way to balance the needs of the developer with the laws of nature. As with all environmental laws, nature comes out the loser because all development causes harm to the environment. The argument simply comes down to what is acceptable.
    Everyone knows the Burrillville power plant would be an unacceptable harm to the environment in many ways, and Invenergy’s answer to mitigating this harm is buying land and giving it to the state. But what sounds like a good deal is nothing but smoke, because no amount of land protection will alleviate the harm caused by the power plant. The ecosystem will still be destroyed, species will still be lost, the wilderness will still be gone.
    As a corporate/business person the Governor is likely well informed about mitigation. Interestingly, just recently she referred to mitigation in a statement about the power plant. The question is, when did discussions begin between the State and Invenergy in regards to any deal that would result in land being bought and transferred to the state as mitigation for the power plant? Depending on the answer, a second question might be how does the idea of all this free land coming to DEM affect Janet Coit’s objectiveness in her position on the EFSB?

  2. Real leadership would get renewable energy projects into the state that would provide work for the local trade unions and permanent jobs for technicians, maintenance, etc. and put the state on the path to a cleaner energy future to ensure future generations of Rhode Islanders have healthy coastlines to enjoy and healthy marine ecosystems to fish. Our elected officials need to work a little harder or they should be voted out.

  3. Thank you Rick for posting below: "The ecosystem will still be destroyed, species will still be lost, the wilderness will still be gone." That is the heart of the matter. It is disappointing to watch the slow process and our own governer taking the wrong side. This is a travesty for Rhode Island that will bring devastation and loss in a myriad of ways. I wish my own town of smithfield could take a firm stand say no to this and no to the unions. The environmental issues must come first.

  4. We need to stop building ANY fossil fuel infrastructure if we are to survive this century. The governor’s approach is complete madness. And our congress critters are very weak on this too.

  5. If there really is a need for additional power generation capacity …. why not upgrade something that already exists rather than destroying undeveloped forest land? There is the decommissioned coal-fired plant at Brayton Point. Even if it requires a complete replacement of the actual guts of the plant, it is already connected to the grid and located at an industrialized site. I can’t speak directly to the total costs, but even if it were marginally more expensive than the Burrillville site …. the short-term impacts would surely be much less.

  6. Rick Enser raised a troubling question at the end of this comment below: "…how does the idea of all this free land coming to DEM affect Janet Coit’s objectiveness in her position on the EFSB?"

    He is referring to how Invenergy, as it states in its "Biological Inventory," prepared by the ESS Group and filed with the EFSB, 8/2/17, has a plan to "mitigate" the effects of the destruction of the site and the effect of plant operations on the surrounding environment, (the George Washington WMA,) by buying other open space property and conveying it to DEM or such private conservation groups as The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island. And Janet Coit, of course, is Director of DEM, and was previously employed as Director of The Nature Conservancy in Rhode Island. In essence, Enser’s question is this: Will she, or will she not play her part in Governor Raimondo’s rather obvious "done deal" scheme to approve the plant and reward the trades unions for their critical support in her razor-thin 2014 primary and general election victories?

    Certainly Ms Coit’s failure to argue that the EFSB should order that an Environmental Impact Statement be conducted at the outset of the process two years ago suggests this possibility. And adding to that suspicion, this past December, when the EFSB entertained a motion by the Town of Burrillville that the EFSB at last do that—order an EIS before the Final Hearings in the case begin—it was Coit who successfully argued that the motion be rejected. In her opinion, voiced in public and duly recorded, the EFSB had all the information it needed to decide the matter of the plant’s impact on the surrounding environment without an EIS—this despite the fact that Burrillville’s motion identified a half dozen power plants previously vetted by the EFSB where the Board did order EIS’s, including not only the iconic Manchester Street Station on the waterfront of Providence, but the state’s largest generator, the Ocean State plant in the northeast corner of Burrillville, a shade under seven miles from the proposed Invenergy site.

    This latter fact, the Ocean State EIS, (that remains on-line, available to the public,) lends particular credence to a plausible suspicion of Coit’s motives because, were an EIS conducted for the Invenergy proposed, it would undoubtedly reveal that Invenergy’s site, on the border of the wildlife management area, was considered and rejected as an alternative site for the Ocean State plant during that proposal’s EIS in 1988. Here is what you read on page "W-132" of Volume Two of Ocean State’s "Final EIS, Letters and Comments;" it is a part of Ocean State’s written comment on the "Draft" EIS. and it purports to demonstrate that a power plant on its preferred location on Sherman Farm Road in northeastern Burrillville would do far less harm to its surroundings than one located at the so-called "Buck Hill" alternative site that is Invenergy’s proposed location today:

    "While there are no Federal level criteria for excluding either the Buck Hill Road site or the Sherman Farm Road site as potential environmentally sensitive areas, at the State government level there exists sound reasons for excluding the Buck Hill Road site from consideration. Materials are enclosed from the Natural Heritage Program of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. In that letter the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management makes the following statements regarding the Buck Hill area:
    ‘(It) is not only botanically significant, but…highly utilized for recreational purposes including camping (George Washington and Buck Hill Scout Reserva-
    tion), hunting, fishing, and hiking among others. I would recommend that this Site No. 1, (i.e., Buck Hill), not be considered for this power plant project,
    not only because of a close proximity to Dry Arm Brook, but also because potential impact of significant wildlife and plant species as well as the recreation
    in this area. On the basis of what I know of these sites I have listed, this seems by far the most inappropriate location for a power plant.’ "

    The letter quoted here was written by DEM wildlife biologist, Chris Raithel, and is dated July 22, 1987. (Know the guy? Call him and ask. The Providence Journal certainly won’t. I passed this on to Alex Kuffner in 2016. And if you are a friend of Janet’s, you can help her defend her integrity by passing this to her.)

    "

  7. Rich Dionne
    Mr. Eccleston is absolutely correct when he states that this very same site that is being proposed for Invenergy’s Clear River Energy Center was rejected back in the 80’s when Ocean State Power Plant was being considered. I was present at the Dec. 2017 EFSB hearing when the Town of Burrillville’s attorney McElroy made an unbelievably good argument for an Environmental Impact Study to be conducted only to be shutdown by the 3 person panel. DEM’s Director Janet Coit’s statement that there already exists enough information presented to The Board on "environmental impacts" is very unsettling and even more than that, suspicious. A project with the magnitude of this, in the heart of some of RI’s most protected forests and open space, without the requirement for an EIS makes one wonder if "the fix" is in.
    And then we have Seldom Seen Sheldon, Mr. Climate Change himself, calling on us to "trust the process" and totally refuses to weigh in on this project. I say to Mr. Whitehouse, "grow a set of cajones" and stand up for the same people of Burrillville who have continued to send you to Washington to represent the will of Rhode Islanders (32 cities and town in RI have submitted resolutions against this project). You may find yourself with plenty of time to relax and sunbathe at a "members only" beach in Newport in the near future.

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