Major Climate Legislation in Rhode Island nears General Assembly Approval

Rhode Island state house

The Rhode Island House and Senate are preparing to finalize Act on Climate 2021, the most serious piece of climate and energy legislation to pass in Rhode Island since the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014, the state’s first-ever comprehensive climate law. State Representative Lauren Carson (D-Newport), the sponsor of the bill in the House, described it as the most important environmental legislation to be considered by the House in 25 years.

Resilient Rhode Island called for a 45 percent emissions reduction by 2035 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. In addition, it established the Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council (EC4), an advisory body composed of 12 state agency directors, to implement its goals.

However, the goals set by Resilient Rhode Island are now outdated. Even an 80 percent emissions reduction would fail to keep meaningful portions of Rhode Island from being underwater by 2050. Further, critics argue that the EC4, the body created exclusively for implementation, has fallen short of its mandate. 

This is where Act on Climate 2021 comes in.

Act on Climate 2021 will dramatically increase the power of the Resilient Rhode Island Act. First, it commits the state to reduce its emissions by 45 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2040, and become net-zero by 2050. Second, it gives reduction benchmarks legal teeth, allowing citizens to sue if the state does not meet targets. That is, if the state does comply with the act, citizens of Rhode Island would be able to seek action in Providence Superior Court starting in 2025.

In addition, the bill requires the EC4 to submit an updated plan to the governor and general assembly every five years, which must include strategies, programs, and actions to ensure the state meets its economy-wide emissions reductions targets. The bill also requires the state to create an online transparent public dashboard to track annual emissions reductions and energy sources.

In a presentation to the EC4 Advisory Board on Wednesday, head of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island Priscilla De La Cruz stated, “This is a really big moment in ensuring that Rhode Island does not lag behind. Connecticut and Massachusetts have passed mandatory and enforceable emissions reductions targets several years ago.”

On Thursday, March 23rd, Act on Climate 2021 passed in the Rhode Island House of Representatives by a vote of 52-22. The bill passed in the Rhode Island Senate on March 17th, by a vote of 33-4. 

The bill must now be signed into law by Rhode Island Governor Daniel McKee. McKee became Governor on March 2nd, after former Governor Gina Raimondo was sworn in as Secretary of Commerce under President Biden. McKee’s spokesperson told the Boston Globe and the Providence Journal that McKee “looks forward to reviewing the legislation.” In an interview with The Public’s Radio on March 22, he expressed skepticism about the Republicans’ concerns:

“We’ll look at that data and then we’ll determine how accurate it is. I would feel as though it’s probably not as accurate as it’s being portrayed right now. But we’ll take a serious look at both sides of the argument and I think in general we support this effort in terms of lowering the carbon pollution.”

On Tuesday night, however, McKee released a letter to David Bennett, chairman of the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, raising a “serious” concern about the binding language in the bill. He argued that the right to bring civil action to enforce the law would “divert resources and attention from pursuing the primary objective of the Bill – the betterment of the State’s environment through the reduction of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.” McKee instead proposed giving the attorney general exclusive authority to enforce the law.

McKee’s appeal was not reflected in the final legislation. The House and Senate committees passed unchanged versions of the bill on Wednesday, which means the bill could be heard in the General Assembly as soon as next week. The Environmental Council of Rhode Island is calling on McKee to sign the 2021 Act On Climate into law by Earth Day on April 22nd.

The successful passage of Act on Climate 2021 is a result of years of work by advocacy groups across the state. It has been the top priority of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island for the past two years. Similar versions of the bill failed to pass in 2020 and 2019. Opponents on the right have been and continue to be concerned with the costs of the mandated actions and the delegation of legislative power to the EC4. During the hearing in the House, Minority Leader Blake Filippe (R-New Shoreham, Charlestown, South Kingstown, Westerly) stated: 

“Unlike traditional agency regulation making, H5445 makes clear that these regulations may be imposed no matter the financial impact on Rhode Island families and businesses. Such a broad delegation of legislative power to unelected agencies is repugnant to our core democratic values.”

In response to a similar critique of the bill last year, Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management Director Janet Coit asserted that enforcing emissions reductions would be nearly impossible without allocating additional power to state agencies:

“I don’t know how you could pass a bill with really ambitious targets without giving state agencies authority to take action. I do not believe we could meet the targets in the bill with our existing authority.”

State representatives debated the bill for more than four hours before it passed.

Beyond support from the members groups of the Environmental Council of Rhode Island, the legislation is backed by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, General Treasurer Seth Magaziner, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), and National Grid (the dominant electric and gas utility in Rhode Island).

Does The Bill Do Enough To Support A Just Transition?

The most recent version of the bill includes new sections on how the state will reduce emissions while also striving towards equity. It requires the plan to include an “equitable transition to climate compliance for environmental justice populations.” In addition, it requires programs that will “recruit, train, and retain those underrepresented in the workforce, including women, people of color, Indigenous people, veterans, formerly incarcerated people, and people living with disabilities.”

However, in a statement published after the Senate Committee hearing of Act on Climate 2021, Sunrise Providence called the bill’s plan for an equitable transition merely “lip service” to racial justice and a just transition to workers. Sunrise Providence took issue with the bill leaving equity plans to the discretion of agency heads, stating “We have seen this play out time and again—we don’t get real justice for low-income Rhode Islanders, BIPOC communities, or workers when these groups aren’t even at the table.”

Sunrise Providence has instead put its support behind The Rescue Rhode Island Act, a $300 million legislative package to address climate change, racial injustice, and economic inequality. The Rescue Rhode Island Act is backed by the Renew Rhode Island Coalition, a newly formed group co-chaired by Monica Huertas, executive director of The People’s Port Authority, and Emma Bouton, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement.

Supporters call the Rescue Rhode Island Act “Rhode Island’s Green New Deal.” The first bill in the package charges the state to create affordable green housing, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and address unemployment through the Housing Jobs Construction Program. The second bill aims to create a local, self-sustaining food system through investment in local farms and urban community gardens. The third bill would create “green justice zones,” and invest $25 million each year to fund “green justice projects” in these areas, such as replacing lead pipes.

Each of the bills were held in committee and recommended for further study.

Rhode Island Needs A Plan

In her House testimony on March 23rd, Representative Carson echoed Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse’s remarks on the need for a plan to address climate change at the state level. Whitehouse had told Carson that the states that have a plan will be able to take advantage of “federal resources and federal money.”

The passage of Act on Climate 2021 comes in the wake of the announcement of President Biden’s $3 trillion plan to invest in infrastructure, reduce carbon emissions, and narrow economic inequality. Carson was optimistic the administration was bringing in a “new economy.” She asserted that Act on Climate 2021 would position Rhode Island to be at the “forefront of this new economy.”

Featured Image: Rhode Island Statehouse at sunset. Photo: Piqsels