Climate Change, Beach Erosion Among Topics for State Study Commissions


PROVIDENCE — The 2024 legislative season is officially over: the budget’s been passed and signed, and lawmakers have traded stuffy committee rooms for the campaign trail ahead of the primary election in September.

But while the Statehouse will lie (mostly) empty and dormant until January, the work isn’t over for a handful of lawmakers who will be chairing or serving on any one of a dozen study commissions established this year.

Study commissions used to be something akin to a joke; in a now-bygone age of Rhode Island politics, study commissions were where troublesome political issues or bills went to die quietly in between sessions.

That has changed in recent years. In 2021, Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, sponsored legislation to create a commission studying lateral access along the Rhode Island shoreline. The 12-member commission started meeting that September, and eventually succeeded in producing an expansion of shoreline access rights for the public, which passed at the end of the 2023 General Assembly session.

The resulting legislation received praise from House Speaker Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, who lauded the work done by Cortvriend and the study commission as setting a prime example for other lawmakers: that study commissions were not places where issues went to die, but where things got done.

Last year saw four additional study commissions created on environmental issues — solar siting, bottle deposit legislation, decline of quahog landings in Narragansett Bay, and a panel studying forest management practices.

Results of these study commissions have been mixed. The solar siting study commission finished first, and has inspired little legislation, although lawmakers did approve a new task force on solar siting that is expected to meet over the next 18 months.

The forest management commission, created and chaired by Rep. Megan Cotter, D-Exeter, finished earlier in the session, and saw marginal gains. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management has received increased funding in its forestry division with one eye on fighting wildfire outbreaks, and has been allowed to hire two new forest rangers. Lawmakers and advocates were also successful in adding more money into the green projects bond proposed by Gov. Dan McKee for open space acquisition and conservation programs.

The other two commissions finished too late in the session to accomplish much, or were ultimately stonewalled. The commission on quahog landings sent its final report to the General Assembly on the same day the House debuted its nearly $14 billion spending plan, far too late in the session to introduce legislation or budget priorities.

The final study commission, studying the implementation of a bottle deposit system in Rhode Island, had a bill introduced late in the session which did receive a hearing, but not a vote, in committee. Members of the study commission from the bottling and convenience store industries staunchly opposed any implementation of a bottle deposit system.

That study commission has also been officially extended through the end of the year, but Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown, indicated in the committee hearing on its extension that if opponents of the bottle bill didn’t compromise, she would introduce the same bill next year.

Meanwhile, three new study commissions related to environmental issues were approved by lawmakers this session. Here’s what some lucky few will be studying this offseason, if and when leadership chooses to empanel them:

Beach erosion. The hottest topic this summer is that Rhode Island beaches along the state’s southern shoreline took a bit of a beating this past winter. A series of storms in December and January caused serious erosion on beaches from Narragansett to Westerly.

In April, Michelle Kershaw, director of parks and recreation for the town of Narragansett, told ecoRI News that Town Beach was hit with a trio of nor’easters. In a typical year, the town would spend between $8,000 and $12,000 trucking in sand to replace what had been washed away. This year the town was trucking in somewhere between $60,000 and $80,000 of sand.

Rep. Samuel Azzinaro, D-Westerly, sponsored legislation this year to create a House study commission investigating how to restore the ecosystem of beaches in Rhode Island.

“This commission is going to have to study what other states are doing, particularly down in Florida and the Carolinas, to see how they maintain their beaches,” Azzinaro said. “We have an idea of what they do, but we need to look into what it would cost to dredge the ocean and put that sand back on the beach.”

Azzinaro also told lawmakers in committee that state and town beaches in South County are prime money-makers for the beachfront communities, bringing in millions of dollars and creating thousands of jobs.

One of the first study commissions approved by lawmakers this year, the coastal study commission will consist of nine members, four of whom will be House representatives; director of DEM (or designee); director of the Coastal Resources Management Council (or designee); the dean of biological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island; the commander of the New England Army Corp of Engineers; and the director of the Misquamicut Business Association.

Climate change impacts and solutions. Spurred by Azzinaro’s beach erosion panel, this commission, introduced by Cortvriend, will make a wider investigation into the impacts climate change will bring to Rhode Island’s 39 cities and towns. In its enabling legislation, the commission lays out a specific outline of the issues it will study, including sea level rise and its impacts; riverine flooding; increased costs of stormwater management; loss of property taxes and other revenue streams; infrastructure vulnerabilities to climate change; and funding mechanisms for resilience programs.

Renewable energy programs. Rhode Island’s renewable energy programs are insufficient to achieve the state’s ambitious climate goals. That’s the impetus of this Senate study commission sponsored by Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D-South Kingstown. The bulk of the state’s renewable energy programs, including net metering, the renewable energy growth program, and others were created over a decade ago when the industry was still in its infancy.

The largest commission passed by lawmakers this session, its 17 members will include at least three members from the House of Representatives and representatives from DEM, the Division of Statewide Planning, CRMC, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Rhode Island Coastal Institute, the Institute at Brown University for Environment and Society, and the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, among others.

Lawmakers have sporadically made tweaks to the energy-efficiency programs, most recently last year when they approved lifting the cap on the state’s virtual net metering program in return for greater protection of specifically defined core forest areas around the state. But despite intentions to revisit and revise renewable energy programs, nothing substantial has passed the legislature in years.

An eight-member study commission will review all of the state’s renewable energy programs — and their impacts on ratepayers — with an eye toward identifying Rhode Island’s future renewable energy needs, and finding the most cost-effective way to revise the programs. Four members are expected to be sitting senators, the rest will be representatives from DEM, the Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, and the Office of Energy Resources, and someone from Rhode Island Energy.


Join the Discussion

View Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your support keeps our reporters on the environmental beat.

Reader support is at the core of our nonprofit news model. Together, we can keep the environment in the headlines.


We use cookies to improve your experience and deliver personalized content. View Cookie Settings