The Rhode Island House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to allow a voter referendum on a possible tax agreement between the Burrillville Town Council and Invenergy, a Chicago-based developer proposing to build a 1000-megawatt natural gas-fired power plant.
The bill passed 64 to 7 with no debate, said State Rep. Art Handy, who chairs the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee.
“Nobody asked a question, nobody made a comment other than me introducing the bill,” said Handy, a co-sponsor of the bill introduced by Rep. Cale Keable.
“I was disappointed that there was absolutely no debate,” said TEC RI Executive Director Doug Gablinske, who supports the construction of the proposed power plant.
“As much as folks would like to think that it’ll happen overnight with solar and wind, it will not,” he said. "It will take decades for that to become a big part of the market. So in between, we need a bridge fuel. Gas is much less noxious than coal or oil."
“The argument that this is somehow clean and environmentally-friendly as a power plant really rubs me the wrong way,” said State. Rep. Aaron Regunberg, another co-sponsor of the bill. “This is a long-lasting power plant that will be emitting dangerous carbon pollution for decades and decades, when we know the science couldn’t be any clearer that we need to be moving in the exact opposite direction from that."
The bill has the broad support of environmentalists, who share Regunberg’s concerns about the impact such a project would have on climate change. The Environment Council of Rhode Island, a strong opponent of the proposed power plant, says the construction of a new natural gas-fired power plant will make it impossible for the state to meet its carbon emission reduction goals.
The vote was a victory for Burrillville residents, who overwhelmingly oppose the construction of a second power plant in their town. The legislation changes an existing state law passed in 1987 that allowed the Burrillville Town Council to negotiate a tax deal with Ocean State Power without a voter referendum.
“This is an important message,” said Burrillville resident Jeremy Bailey, who is ecstatic about this vote. "We are not voting on whether or not we want a power plant. We are voting on whether or not we like a tax agreement that our town council would negotiate on our behalf."
But the Burrillville Town Council disagrees and opposes the legislation. In a press release, the town council stated passing such legislation would remove the town’s leverage "to demand a tax treaty that protects its resident."
The bill includes a provision to expand the Energy Facility Siting Board from three members to seven, including a seat for the state’s Water Resources Board.
Supporters of the bill think expanding the EFSB will make the review and approval process more thorough.
Handy agrees. “I think all three people there [at the board] are great people, are very reliable and have a great deal of integrity — I don’t want to sound otherwise,” he said. “I just felt that three people in that context is too small of a number for so much power over deciding something that can wipe away state regulations and local regulations in their decision."
Elsewhere in the bill is a provision that requires the siting board to consider any city or town resolutions related to proposed electricity generators.
The sweeping House vote was a disappointment for labor and business groups, which perceive the bill as anti-business.
“This has nothing to do a tax treaty, this has nothing to do with policy, this has nothing to do with legality,” said Michael Sabatoni, president of the RI Building and Construction Trades Council. “That piece of legislation was an attempt to defer and kill that project — nothing more.
The bill moves on to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. Supporters and opponents will likely pack the Statehouse this afternoon when State Sen. Paul Fogarty’s companion bill goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 2:30 p.m.