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Decarbonization bill hangs in the balance

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Decarbonization bill hangs in the balance

Jun 13, 2024 | 5:45 am ET
By Nancy Lavin
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Decarbonization bill hangs in the balance
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Electric powered heat pumps can reduce the nation’s heavy reliance on oil and gas for home heating. (Oregon Department of Energy)

Environmental advocates celebrated as the Rhode Island Senate passed long-awaited legislation Wednesday laying a framework to reduce carbon emissions from buildings, and requiring new construction be “electric ready” for future heat pump conversion. 

But victory was bittersweet; an hour before, a House panel advanced a watered-down substitute for its companion legislation.

The original companion bills, sponsored by Sen. Meghan Kallman, a Pawtucket Democrat, and Rep. Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat, aim to bring the state building sector up-to-speed with decarbonization mandates under the state Act on Climate law passed in 2021. 

Deadlines for incremental emissions cuts under state law are fast-approaching, including a 2030 benchmark to reduce emissions by 45% compared with the 1990 baseline. And preliminary modeling suggests the state might miss its 2030 target.

Which is why including the Environmental Council of Rhode Island named the building decarbonization bill as one of its top priorities for the year. As first proposed, the bill would charge the state’s Executive Climate Change Coordinating Council with gathering data on energy use for every building above a certain square footage in the state. The information would be used to set baseline energy usage benchmarks and eventually, new metrics to help the state achieve its climate change mandates. Revised legislation also requires new construction to be “electric-ready,” meaning having the wiring to allow for conversion to electric heat pumps down the line. 

“You can’t reduce what you don’t measure,” Amanda Barker, co-vice president of policy for the Environmental Council of RI, said in an interview on Wednesday. “We think this a huge step in decarbonizing existing building stock, which is where most emissions are coming from.”

State senators heaped praise upon the legislation as a symbol of commitment to decarbonization, backing Kallman’s bill in a 30-6 vote along party lines. But minutes before the Senate issued its stamp of approval, the House got cold feet.

Instead, lawmakers in the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources advanced a significantly stripped down version of the legislation.

The committee’s unanimous vote substitutes the original bill with a resolution requesting the EC4 gather data and issue a report to lawmakers in February 2025 with a small fraction of the original information on building energy use.

The House resolution does not require Senate approval. Nor does it advance the original bill backed by the Senate, effectively killing the proposal despite strong Senate support. 

Kislak in an interview prior to the committee vote blamed late-in-the-game opposition, including from state administrators, for taking the teeth out of her initial legislation.

“There’s nothing like a deadline to focus on folks on bills that look like they’re moving,” Kislak said. “I am confident that given a little more time, we could have been able to figure something out to address the concerns.”

However, Kislak didn’t see the weakened resolution as a total defeat.

“We’re not doing nothing,” she said. 

She also hoped a new Providence City Council ordinance laying out a path to carbon-neutral municipal buildings by 2040 would serve as a model for statewide action.

But with the clock ticking down on the 2030 deadline, will that be too late?

“We don’t have time to mess around,” Kallman said. “It’s going to be much more expensive and much more painful to do these things as retrofits, than it is to give ourselves a longer runway.”

Kislak’s counter perspective: “It’s all too late, and yet, we have to do what we can within the parameters we have.” 

Three more bills to watch on the 2024 green list

CRMC reform: Never say never, but Attorney General-backed legislation abolishing the politically appointed-council and replacing it with an administrative agency akin to DEM remains lingering in committee with no plans to advance to the floor as of Wednesday. “Disappointment,” was the single-word summation from Rep. Terri Corvriend, a Portsmouth Democrat and bill sponsor.

Bottle bill: A late-in-session bottle bill sponsored by Rep. Carol McEntee, a South Kingstown Democrat, also looks bound to die in legislative purgatory following a  committee hearing on June 5. But the 15-member legislative panel tasked with studying the issue is getting more time, and more members, to continue its work, with a 10-month extension approved by the House on Tuesday and headed to the Senate Thursday.  

Shoreline access: A year after the state enacted long-awaited protections for public shoreline access, lawmakers approved supplemental legislation requiring that oceanfront property sales include information about the state shoreline access law and coastal permitting requirements. The companion bills, sponsored by Cortvriend and Sen. Victoria Gu, a Westerly Democrat, await signage by Gov. Dan McKee following passage in both chambers on June 6.