Environmental Advocates Say 2024 Legislative Session Produced Mixed Bag


PROVIDENCE — It’s been more than two weeks since lawmakers adjourned for the year, so how are Rhode Island’s environmental groups feeling about the state of the session?

No one in politics gets everything they want, so perhaps unsurprisingly, the results are mixed. The General Assembly passed a number of longstanding environmental priorities, including a ban on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in consumer products (with a few exceptions); mandating state environmental officials write a coastal resiliency plan; and dedicated funding for the state’s climate council.

But several other major priorities of environmental groups were left on the committee room floor.

“We were pretty disappointed on the climate mitigation front,” said Amanda Barker, Rhode Island policy associate for Green Energy Consumers Alliance. “Rhode Island is not on track to achieve the emission reductions mandated by the Act on Climate, and especially in the building sector the Legislature did very little to change this session.”

Barker’s organization, together with the Acadia Center, were the strongest proponents of energy benchmarking legislation, aimed at reducing emissions from large buildings across the state.

The Building Decarbonization Act would have required owners of buildings larger than 25,000 square feet to begin tracking their energy use and emissions as early as next year. Data derived from the legislation would have been used to come up with emission reduction goals for large buildings, similar to an ordinance enacted last year by the city of Providence.

It’s an area of climate policy that’s sorely needed in Rhode Island, as buildings account for 30% of emissions released in the state, and reducing emissions in every sector is the only way the state will reach the net-zero emission goals outlined in the Act on Climate law.

Others were more upbeat about the results of the session.

“I’m really happy with it,” said Emily Howe, interim director of the state chapter of Clean Water Action. “We’re thrilled the governor signed the consumer PFAS ban earlier this week.”

The ban on PFAS in consumer products was one of two major pieces of legislation Clean Water Action (CWA) was aiming to get across the finish line this year. Howe became interim director of the organization earlier in June, after former director Jed Thorp left to be director of advocacy at Save The Bay.

CWA’s other major priority didn’t pass muster this year. The bottle deposit return bill, often more simply called “the bottle bill,” would have created a redemption system for all single-use plastic bottles sold in Rhode Island. The legislation, introduced late in the session by Rep. Carol McEntee, D-South Kingstown, who also chaired the study commission on the issue, faced strong opposition from industry groups that view it as an onerous burden on businesses.

Howe pledged to continue work on the bottle bill in the offseason, and praised the environmental committees in each chamber for their work, and how seriously environmental issues were being taken on Smith Hill.

“It’s really nice to see the environmental community involved and invested,” Howe said. “And truthfully that goes to what the Senate president and speaker of the House have done.”

“We didn’t get everything we wanted, as you can imagine, but we had a terrific session,” said Michael Woods, chair of the New England chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA). “We were able to get a lot of our long-standing priority issues resolved, and other bills we were happy to see move forward.”

BHA’s major priority this year was a statewide ban on captive, or canned, hunting — the practice of importing wildlife from outside Rhode Island to hunt in an enclosed setting. BHA has been advocating for the law since 2019, a year after the Preserve, an exclusive sports club and resort in Richmond, lobbied the General Assembly to legalize the practice.

Woods singled out a shoreline access bill that will require real estate agents to disclose the state’s new lateral shoreline access law when selling waterfront property. Woods also noted two other shoreline access bills, part of a package of legislation introduced in each chamber by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, and Sen. Victoria Gu, D-Westerly. Those bills would have strengthened the ability of municipalities to maintain shoreline access on abandoned roads, and allowed the state Coastal Resource Management Council to designate historical footpaths as rights of way.

Two other major environmental priorities died in session this year: reform of CRMC as the state’s coastal regulator and legislative action on environmental justice bills that would have empowered environmental officials to designate environmental justice zones.

“We’re definitely going to come back strong on the Environmental Justice Act,” Barker said. “It was disappointing it didn’t even end up getting a hearing in the House. We cannot keep allowing disadvantaged communities to bear the burden of polluting facilities.”

The Environmental Justice Act, introduced by Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, and Rep. Karen Alzate, D-Pawtucket, would have required the Division of Statewide Planning to use Census data to designate and periodically update environmental justice zones based on income levels, large people of color populations, or a high number of households without English proficiency. Designated areas would then have additional requirements from entities proposing to build industrial projects such as power plants, recycling facilities, and incinerators.

“CRMC reform was one really big change we wanted to see happen that ultimately didn’t make it across the finish line this year,” Woods said.

BHA, along with Save The Bay and other environmental and good government groups, backed legislation stripping the part-time, politically appointed executive council of its powers, and giving them to the agency’s executive director. Unlike a state agency like the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, CRMC has empowered a 10-member council to make final decisions within the agency.

It’s a quirk of government that has gotten the agency in a lot of hot water over the past 20 years, as the oft-overlooked council has made backroom deals with applicants, circumvented the General Assembly’s powers for submerged land leases, and even struggled to act at all with repeated quorum issues.

A cost estimate from the State Budget Office on this year’s pair of CRMC reform bills estimated the cost between $2 million and $3 million, resulting in advocates alleging the estimate took big liberties when reading the legislation.

It’s not the end of reflection about the session. Later this year the Environmental Council of Rhode Island is expected to release its report card that grades individual legislators and the General Assembly as a whole when it comes to their actions and votes on environmental legislation.


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