PROVIDENCE — There was no debate last winter about what Rhode Island’s environmental groups wanted the General Assembly to do in its 2020 session.
The Environment Council of Rhode Island had only one item on its list of legislative priorities — winning passage of a law that would finally make targets adopted years ago for reductions in greenhouse gas emissions mandatory and enforceable in the state.
As the legislature prepares to reconvene in 2021, there is a renewed sense of hope among advocates that a change in leadership in the House, along with an injection in both chambers of new blood from the progressive wing of the Democratic party, will help propel forward the climate legislation as well as a host of other environmental bills that range from new protections for forestland to restrictions on chemicals in drinking water.
“This is a session in which we could see great progress,” said Priscilla De La Cruz, president of the Environment Council of Rhode Island, a coalition that represents more than 60 environmental groups. “We’re going to be bolder in our ask. We sense a receptiveness for the General Assembly to do more.”
Priscilla De la Cruz, president of the Environment Council of Rhode Island, sees opportunities for progress on environmental issues in the next General Assembly session.
Unlike a year ago, the consensus is split in the environmental community over which bill will take top priority. If they had been asked two weeks ago, groups like the Conservation Law Foundation, the Acadia Center or the Audubon Society of Rhode Island all would have probably agreed on the Act on Climate law.
But things changed Dec. 21 when Gov. Gina Raimondo joined her counterparts in Connecticut, Massachusetts and the District of Columbia
in signing onto what may become a landmark plan to curb emissions from cars and trucks. All of a sudden, winning the necessary approval from the legislature for the governor’s decision to join the Transportation and Climate Initiative rose to the top of the list for some key players in the state’s environmental community.
The Green Energy Consumers Alliance has raised it up to equal status with the Act on Climate bill, said De La Cruz, the group’s Rhode Island director. And the Acadia Center is making the initiative its priority this year because of its regional impact, Rhode Island director Hank Webster said.
“I think it’s really important not to miss this opportunity with this set of governors,” he said.
One reason why the initiative is seen to be key is the potential impact the initiative could have on greenhouse gas emissions in the state. The transportation sector is responsible for nearly 40% of emissions in Rhode Island. While the Raimondo administration has moved independently to reduce the carbon footprints of electricity generation and, to a lesser extent, heating, state environmental officials say they need to be a part of a regional plan to make any sort of dent in transportation.
“It’s very difficult for Rhode Island to make headway on its own,” said Janet Coit, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
That’s because the key to the transportation initiative is making diesel and gasoline suppliers pay a fee for the pollution caused by using their fuels. The extra costs they incur will probably be passed on to consumers — adding an estimated 5 to 9 cents per gallon of gas. If Rhode Island’s neighbors don’t do the same thing, there’s nothing to stop drivers from crossing state lines for cheaper gas, which would undermine the intent of the program.
The legislation for the initiative has yet to be finalized and probably won’t be introduced for another couple of months.
“Certainly, our priorities will include submitting legislation on the historic, bipartisan Transportation and Climate Initiative that Governor Raimondo announced December 21st and working with legislators and partners to advance legislation to meet the state’s goal of 100% electricity demand with renewables by 2030,” Coit stated in an email.
Representatives of some environmental groups haven’t elevated the transportation initiative to the same level as the administration. The Audubon Society of Rhode Island is still focused on the Act on Climate bill. Meg Kerr, senior director of policy, said it’s essential because it sets a framework that the state must follow for decades to come.
“It’s the bedrock that needs to be in place,” she said. “All these things that the governor is doing now need to be codified.”
Amy Moses, Rhode Island director of the Conservation Law Foundation, agreed.
“Climate is a true emergency and it’s about time it got the attention it deserved,” she said.
The Environment Council of Rhode Island, or ECRI, has yet to make a decision on its priorities, but De La Cruz expects the climate bill and the transportation compact to be on the list.
They are just a couple of pieces of legislation on the environment that are expected to fare better under new House leadership this year. Former Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, a conservative Democrat who lost his bid for reelection in November, was seen as an impediment to action on the environment. While environmental bills moved swiftly through the Senate, versions in the House stalled in committee or never made it to a floor vote.
The lack of action had been so bad that in its
2019-2020 Green Report Card, which in typical years assesses the records of individual lawmakers on the environment, ECRI handed down a blanket “incomplete” to the entire General Assembly and the Raimondo administration.
It was the first time the group had taken such a step since at least 2002 and reflected what it described as a failure “to take concrete steps toward environmental protection and climate justice in Rhode Island.”
Unlike Mattiello, who drew attention for proclaiming at a Boston Globe forum last January that action on the climate can happen only at the national and international levels, his presumed successor, K. Joseph Shekarchi, recently told the Globe that he believes there are steps Rhode Island can take on the issue. Joining him in the leadership is new House Majority Leader Christopher R. Blazejewski, lead sponsor last year of the Act on Climate bill.
Another notable bill that is expected to benefit from the changes at the top is
a statewide ban on plastic bags, which passed the Senate in both 2019 and 2020 but stalled in the House.
The developments at the state level, combined with a more environmentally-friendly federal administration under President-elect Joseph R. Biden, have injected a newfound sense of optimism in the broader environmental movement.
Biden has selected an experienced team to lead environmental efforts for his government that include the appointment of a climate czar in Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under President Barack Obama. He also has made a commitment to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the global climate pact from which President Donald Trump withdrew.
Advocates say that meaningful programs to meet the Paris goals can only come through work at both the state and federal levels. If Rhode Island is to step up its efforts, it will mean getting the General Assembly on board.
“This administration has been doing everything it can to move toward the climate targets,” Coit said. “Our challenge is to get the legislative support.”