Government

Bill Designed to Make Rhode Island Act On Climate

Senate committee also reappoints three Gov. Raimondo nominees to CRMC board

PROVIDENCE — Seven years ago Rhode Island’s first comprehensive climate bill, the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014, was approved. It called for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, below 1990 levels, of 45 percent by 2035 and 80 percent by 2050.

The bill’s emission-reduction goals, which weren’t mandated, are now out of date with current science. The act also created the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4) as the body to oversee Rhode Island’s response to the climate crisis.

Climate activists and environmental organizations soon found the bill’s aspirational goals limited — it has done little to nothing to reduce Rhode Island climate emissions — and that the EC4 lacked accountability and transparency. They’ve been trying to fix the problem for the past several years.

Their effort continued Feb. 3, in front of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture, during a hearing for the Act On Climate bill.

Similar to last year’s bill of the same name, this year’s version focuses on making the state’s greenhouse-gas reduction goals mandatory and enforceable. It does so by making emission reductions legally binding, so if the state fails to follow the law, it can be enforced by a court order.

In an email to ecoRI News prior to the hearing, Meg Kerr, senior director of policy for the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, wrote, “This may seem like a small, administrative bill, but making the state’s greenhouse gas goals mandatory and enforceable is a big step, along with requiring more transparency from the government agencies on the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council and beginning to include environmental justice in the state’s work on climate change.”

The bill, sponsored by the newly appointed chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture, Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, does that by updating the Resilient Rhode Island Act in several important ways: makes emissions targets jibe with the latest science; calls for a 45 percent reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030 and an 80 percent reduction by 2040; and requires net-zero emissions by 2050.

Since she was sworn into the Senate four years ago, Euer, along with others, such as Amy Moses, Rhode Island director for the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF), have introduced a version of the current bill to make emission targets enforceable. In her remarks Wednesday night, Euer framed the bill as a response to the Ocean State’s vulnerability to rising seas, more intense and frequent storms, and other impacts of the climate crisis.

“I think it’s especially compelling to know how many people in the public understand that this is a really urgent issue and want us to take action,” she said.

Euer’s bill mandates that specific plans to meet the state’s emission-reduction targets are issued every five years by the EC4. These plans would be open to public comment, and they would include input provided to the EC4 by its advisory committees. These plans would also include an equitable transition for environmental-justice populations and an avenue for these underserved communities to provide input.

These every-five-year plans would identify support for workers as the local economy moves way from fossil fuels. They would also include the development of programs to recruit, train, and retain women, people of color, Indigenous people, veterans, formerly incarcerated people, and people living with disabilities in jobs related to a renewable-energy economy.

The bill also calls for public metrics and an online dashboard, updated at least annually, to track emission reductions and Rhode Island’s sources of energy.

Both the Climate Crisis Campaign, a project of the Environment Council of Rhode Island, and CLF have called the 2021 version of Act On Climate their top legislative priority.

“Climate change is here and it is only going to get worse,” Moses testified. “Rhode Island has not passed comprehensive climate legislation since the Resilient Rhode Island Act back in 2014. That act set up some structures and aspirational goals. Now is the time to update it and to get to work reducing our climate-damaging emissions.”

She noted that if Rhode Island’s political leaders fall short in cutting the state’s climate emissions, the judicial branch can enforce the law and order the state to comply. She said the legislation is crucial to building effective climate policy.

Most of the other speakers who testified or submitted written testimony, including Johnathan Berard, Rhode Island director of Clean Water Action, a representative of treasurer Seth Magaziner, and the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, spoke in favor of the bill.

At the end of the hearing, Euer said “there are some tweaks” she wants to make to the legislation, and hopes to bring the bill back to committee for passage “very soon.” The bill was held for further study.

CRMC reappointments
In other action during the Feb. 3 meeting, the eight-member Senate Committee on Environment and Agriculture near-unanimously approved the reappoint of three Gov. Gina Raimondo nominees to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) board: Raymond Coia, Donald Gomez, and Jennifer Cervenka.

Coia, who has been on the board since 2003, and Gomez, who was initially appointed in 2007, were unanimously reappointed. Cervenka, the board’s chair since summer 2017, received a single nay vote.

Five Rhode Island residents spoke against the reappointments, with most objecting to the candidacies of Coia and Gomez.

Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay’s director of advocacy and policy, reading from written testimony submitted by the Providence-based organization, asked the committee to consider the nominees in the context of CRMC’s structure.

“It is a structure that undermines the integrity of CRMC’s regulatory program and often fails to protect natural resources the Council was established to protect,” according to the testimony. “The Council is a politically appointed body whose members are not required to have experience or expertise in coastal environmental matters. It acts as a collective body, with no one individual held to account for Council decisions, and no one person accountable to the Governor.”

Save The Bay noted that in 2017 Raimondo removed the only two members of the CRMC board who represented environmental perspectives and publicly advocated for the environment.

Save The Bay spoke against the reappointments of both Coia and Gomez, and urged the committee “to appoint new qualified members of the Council, including those from environmental justice communities.”

The three candidates are scheduled to go before the full Senate on Feb. 10 for final approval.

The hearing can be watched in two parts here and here.

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