EFSB Chairman Asks: Why Doesn’t City Act on Port Expansion?
Energy Facility Siting Board says it’s not responsible for whether the Sea 3 Providence facility is desirable or whether the site should be used for liquefied petroleum gas storage
July 3, 2021
WARWICK, R.I. — The state’s Energy Facility Siting Board (EFSB) reckoned with its jurisdictional role in limiting fossil-fuel development during a recent hearing regarding Sea 3 Providence LLC’s proposal to expand propane operations in the Port of Providence.
Defined by the EFSB chairman as a “petition for declaratory judgment,” the July 1 hearing departed from typical procedure to hear oral arguments as presented by Sea 3 and three intervening parties: the city of Providence, the Conservation Law Foundation and the attorney general’s office. Both sides attempted to tease out the boundaries of EFSB’s jurisdiction and clarify the legal role of the three-member board as pertaining to Sea 3’s contentious liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) expansion project.
Ronald Gerwatowksi, chairman of the EFSB and Public Utilities Commission, said the board is not responsible for determinations on whether the port should be expanded, whether the Sea 3 facility was desirable or whether the site should be used for LPG storage — a use which was grandfathered in when the board was created in 1986.
“That is not within the authority of the board,” Gerwatowksi said. The board is bound by law, he said, to focus solely on the proposal at hand and whether the project in fact constitutes a major alteration.
Sea 3 is a subsidiary of Texas-based propane purveyor Blackline Midstream LLC, which is jointly owned by California-based Blackline Partners LLC, a private growth-oriented asset development company, and California-based Sixth Street Partners, a global investment firm.
The Sea 3 proposal aims to increase LPG storage capacity at its 25 Fields Point Drive site by 3 percent, by adjoining a vacant adjacent lot and adding six 90,000-gallon tanks, according to documents filed with EFSB. The $20 million project would also allow the facility to link up to an existing rail line and accept daily rail deliveries of LPG, opening Sea 3 to a domestic LPG market and lessening dependence on foreign marine LPG shipments, according to Sea 3 lawyer Nicholas Hemond.
In March Sea 3 petitioned EFSB — the body responsible for licensing and permitting related to major energy facilities — to bypass a full application process on the basis that the expansion did not qualify as “a significant modification to a major energy facility.”
“It would be significant to the efficiencies of our operations,” said Hemond, noting reports compiled by Sea 3 engineers show no significant environmental or public-health impact.
Intervenors disagreed, citing the expansion as a significant move away from Rhode Island’s environmental-justice and climate-action goals. Pages of public comment documented by the EFSB note widespread opposition.
Speaking on behalf of the city of Providence, city solicitor Jeffrey Dana said it was hard not to see the project as a significant alteration given the changes to LPG transport, the adjoining of an additional lot and the increased capacity of the site. He noted the impact is particularly significant given that South Providence and Washington Park neighborhoods have long been overburdened by pollution and port traffic.
James Crowley, staff attorney for the Conservation Law Foundation, called on the EFSB to work in accordance with the state’s recently signed into law Act on Climate bill and limit an expansion that deepens Rhode Island’s fossil-fuel dependence. He countered Sea 3’s claim that the expansion is in line with climate goals and would open the site to the “renewable propane” trade. These “so-called” renewable fuels, Crowley said, “have severe limitations,” are not carbon neutral and could prevent Rhode Islanders from investing in more sustainable solutions for decades to come.
“We are in a climate emergency,” he said to the cheers of a small hearing room audience quickly quieted by the board.
Crowley also pointed to flaws in the board’s process that established one-sided evidence early on and placed the burden on intervenors to prove significant impact.
“This gets the standard precisely backward,” Crowley said.
Hemond said Sea 3’s extensive proposal showed no evidence of environmental or public health impact. “None of this happens under the cover of dark,” he said, adding the expansion would be vetted and permitted by a number of agencies after approval.
But special assistant attorney general Nicholas Vaz cautioned against a piecemeal approach that necessitates multiple assessments of different aspects of the project at the local, state and federal levels.
“That’s not the same as seeing the full picture,” Vaz said, “and I think that’s what EFSB’s role is.”
In his own stand against piecemeal solutions, Gerwatwoski questioned why the EFSB should go further than the city in limiting usage of the port area.
Though the city could amend zoning laws that demarcate the port as a W-3 marine industrial area, Dana said the process is time consuming and would have a limited impact on existing port usage.
Hemond said the historical usage of the site means that little else can be placed there. Sea 3, he said, is “just trying to operate within the rules that do exist.”
“In this instance, if the city cares deeply … why doesn’t the city act on it now?” Gerwatwoski asked. “It’s an odd construct that we have right now.”