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Sunday, May 16, 2021

RI fee on carbon pollution would help fund the development of wind, solar and battery-storage technology

Carbon-Pricing Plan Would Fund Job Training, Energy Efficiency, Renewable Energy Technology

By BRIAN P. D. HANNON/ecoRI News staff

A Rhode Island fee on carbon pollution would help fund the development of wind, solar and battery-storage technology. (istock)

As support for reducing carbon emissions grows, lawmakers in Rhode Island now face the details — and the debate — of bringing budget realities in line with the goals of climate legislation such as the Economic and Climate Resilience Act of 2021.

Members of the Senate Environment and Agriculture Committee debated the merits of the bill and heard testimony from fellow legislators and the public during a May 5 videoconference.

Bill S0154 would levy fees for carbon emissions and establish an account, called the Rhode Island Economic and Climate Resilience Climate Fund, that would use the collected fees to add jobs and help workers move to low-carbon industries, improve state energy efficiency and promote the use of renewable energy technology.

The bill also would help launch renewable energy programs focused on assisting low-income residents and small businesses while aiming to meet or exceed state emissions targets for 2035 established in the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014.

The 7-year-old law created the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council. The General Assembly tasked the council with addressing the complexities of climate change without funding, research and administrative staff or authority. The effort soon proved to be toothless, and negligible results have been witnessed since it was passed.

The new legislation — a companion bill to the recently signed into law Act On Climate legislation that makes reductions in climate emissions mandatory — focuses on carbon pricing, which the text of the bill says is a cost-effective and “market-based means to achieve significant carbon emissions reductions.”

“Everyone should be able to enjoy clean air. That’s my belief and that’s what this bill is based on,” said Sen. Susan Sosnowski, D- South Kingstown, a sponsor of the measure.

Testifying to the committee that will decide whether to move the bill to the full Senate, Sosnowski said the legislation can be considered a “carbon dividend bill” to protect the economic well-being of residents while garnering public support for effective climate policy.

The bill says Rhode Island is “committed to the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement and to the findings of the latest climate science,” but Sosnowski noted there are some who don’t support the 2016 international accord to lower global carbon emissions and subsequently may reject carbon pricing as a viable reduction strategy.

Sen. Gordon Rogers, R-Foster, a committee member, expressed his differences with the bill in a short debate with Sosnowski, saying there was nothing in the legislation as it’s written to attract his support.

“This bill has morphed into a redistribution by economic class,” Rogers said, noting he perceived the carbon-pricing model as a way for two people to buy the same amount of fuel, but enables the more-affluent person to produce more pollution. “It isn’t just the climate with this bill.”

Rogers told Sen. Joshua Miller, D-Cranston, another bill sponsor, that he viewed carbon pricing as a method of raising money from energy companies that would then pass on the costs to customers.

Miller said fossil fuels have been subsidized for years and lawmakers are finally attempting to make a similar effort to support renewable energy. Further incentivizing its use will not make renewable energy more costly, he said.

Rogers contended if renewable energy is in the ascendency, a possible answer to growing costs could be shifting government subsidies away from fossil fuels to renewables.

Public comment on the bill was mostly supportive among the seven residents who testified by phone.

Peter Trafton with the Rhode Island chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, an environmental advocacy group, said a climate dividend would protect those most likely to be harmed by the costs of climate change while providing better protections for residents with fewer resources.

“The people know a fee on carbon will help and the majority support this in polls that have been done,” Trafton said.

Dan Corley, another Citizens’ Climate Lobby volunteer who works as head of school for Community Preparatory School in Providence, said he strongly supports “any bill that has a carbon fee and dividend,” which he said would benefit children and low-income residents.

“It basically puts a fee on those who pollute and spreads that fee out among those people who most deserve it,” Corley said.

Kenneth Filarski, chair of the U.S. Green Building Council Rhode Island, said the Economic and Climate Resilience Act potentially puts Rhode Island “in the driver’s seat” as many companies the state is trying to attract for economic development hope to benefit from this type of bill, while large corporations are already implementing internal strategies for carbon dividends and pricing.

Angel Lopez of the Silver Lake section of Providence said he opposes the bill because of the lack of support for residents in the lower third of the economic scale. He calculated the bill’s financial dividend for small business owners and those who have experienced the greatest impact from climate change and the coronavirus pandemic could be less than $8 per person.

“I believe economic resilience is not achieved through economic disaster,” said Lopez, asking the senators to reject the bill’s establishment of a carbon fee. “This is not going to help small businesses. This is a horrible bill, economically speaking.”