Climate Crisis

R.I.’s Carbon-Pricing Study to Look at Policies and Best Practices

The study will look at successful and failed carbon-pricing programs. It also will review and summarize critical state policies and regional climate initiatives. (Office of Energy Resources)

PROVIDENCE — The state’s long-awaited carbon-pricing study began last week with little controversy or debate, but judging by the number of representatives from the environmental and fossil-fuel sectors there is likely to be a clash of opinions.

A carbon tax, or fee on all fossil fuels, is a system for curtailing oil, gas, and propane consumption by raising prices so that consumers look to lower-emission alternatives to heat their homes and power their vehicles. Goals include electrifying the transportation sector and heating and cooling buildings with heat pumps. This energy transition is necessary, advocates say, to address the climate crisis.

A carbon-pricing program is perceived as a threat to the fossil-fuel industry. Groups wary of carbon programs, such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Oil Heat Institute of Rhode Island, and the New England Convenience Store & Energy Marketers Association, attended the study’s Oct. 24 kickoff meeting. Business groups, such as the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, The Energy Council of Rhode Island, and the Rhode Island Association of Realtors, that have opposed carbon-pricing legislation were in the audience.

Stephen Dodge of the New England Petroleum Council said after the meeting that he plans to participate in the public vetting process for the study but doesn’t have an opinion yet on carbon pricing.

Dan Dolan, president of the New England Power Generators Association Inc., said he is  “supportive of putting a meaningful price on carbon dioxide emissions to meet the economy-wide mandate that exists in Rhode Island — similar to what we see in states like Connecticut and Massachusetts. This type of analytic approach will help identify a market-based mechanism to drive continued CO2 emissions reductions in the electricity sector, while also helping to pick up the slack from transportation and buildings.”

The Rhode Island study was approved by the Senate in 2017, after several bills for a statewide carbon-pricing program failed to advance in the General Assembly. The study was delayed because of a lack of funding until this year when the Office of Energy Resources (OER) was able to use $250,000 of settlement money the state received from the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

The study is being conducted by public-interest consultants Cadmus of Waltham, Mass., and Synapse Energy Economics Inc. of Cambridge, Mass. The report will consider state and New England-wide carbon-pricing programs that will be designed to achieve Rhode Island’s goal of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050 and 45 percent by 2035. The report is expected in late spring 2020, with presentations to the public and General Assembly. Public input and updates will be offered in the coming months.

Prior to the kickoff meeting, Brown University professor Timmons Roberts said he was concerned that the release date, scheduled for May, was too late in the legislative session to enact a meaningful carbon-pricing program. Anything passed in 2021 would be too outdated to meet reduction goals, he said.

Roberts also wants the study to include methane leakage in its emission-reduction modeling and to increase the reduction targets to 100 percent by 2050, as suggested by recent reports from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The study will look at carbon-pricing policies and best practices in other states, regions, and countries that Rhode Island could emulate. This includes the cap-and-trade Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and the greenhouse-gas emissions cap in British Columbia. Policies will be evaluated on their political and technical feasibility, implementation costs, costs and benefit to residents, economic impacts, heath and economic impacts, extent of need for regional participation, and social equity.

The modeling for the carbon tax will focus on the transportation and heating sectors, the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the state. The emissions modeling program is the same used for carbon-pricing proposals in Washington state. Voters in Washington have twice defeated referendums to pass a state carbon-tax program.

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