PROVIDENCE – It was another busy day in what is shaping up to be a busy session in the General Assembly for the environment.
On Tuesday, bills moved closer to enactment to purchase more offshore wind energy, cap concentrations of so-called forever chemicals in drinking water, prohibit food packaging that contains the same type of human-made chemicals, and ban the distribution of single-use plastic bags.
Bill for plastics processing plants killed
House leadership also announced that a controversial bill approved in the Senate that would ease the permitting process for the use of extreme heat to break down plastic into combustible fuels and other products would not go any further this year. The legislation is widely opposed by state environmental groups and won passage in the Senate only after several senators were absent for the vote.
"We are a member-driven body and our members have spoken to us loudly and clearly that they have serious unresolved questions about this bill," House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi and Majority Leader Chris Blazejewski said in a joint statement.
The statement was released minutes before a rally was set to start against the bill by environmental and community groups. The event on the Statehouse steps was led by the Environment Council of Rhode Island, the coalition that represents all the major environmental organizations in the state, and the People's Port Authority, an organization working to reduce pollution in and around the Port of Providence. Opponents have raised concerns that ProvPort is an area where a plant could be built that uses the high-heat process called pyrolysis to convert plastic waste into other commodities.
While pyrolysis is heralded by the plastics industry as a solution to the mounting problem of plastic garbage, which fills landfills and litters the landscape and oceans, environmental advocates say it's energy-intensive, poses risks to public health, and will do nothing to curb demand for plastics, which are made from fossil fuels.
Shekarchi and Blazejewski framed their opposition to the pyrolysis bill by referring to the flurry of environmental legislation so far this session. The activity this year follows on from the enactment last year of the Act on Climate, a landmark law that requires the state to reach net-zero emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases by 2050.
Senate President Dominick Ruggerio also pointed to the recent work around the environment in his response to the House decision, saying "the Senate has led the way on environmental initiatives including the Act on Climate" and other bills.
"We respect the House's position on [the pyrolysis] bill, and we look forward to continuing to work productively with them to enact strong environmental legislation," he said.
It has been a productive session so far around environmental policy, agreed Priscilla De La Cruz, president of the Environment Council of Rhode Island. With bills that would boost the state's supplies of renewable power, legislators are building on the foundation established by the Act on Climate, she said.
"I think this session sets the standard for the type of climate action needed," she said.
A push for more renewable energy in R.I. is complicated by financial incentives for energy utilities
The session has included an update of the Renewable Energy Standard, the key state law that drives support of the development of offshore wind, solar and the like. Following on from Senate approval, the House passed the legislation earlier this month that requires all electric sales in Rhode Island be offset with renewable energy by 2033.
On Tuesday, another big piece of expanding the use of clean energy in the state moved to the brink of approval. The House Committee on Corporations approved legislation that would require Rhode Island Energy, the company formerly known as Narragansett Electric, to solicit proposals for up to 1,000 megawatts of offshore wind.
A different version of the bill passed the Senate, but it stalled in the House over questions about an incentive for the state's dominant energy utility. A compromise was struck that allows Rhode Island Energy a payment equal to up to 1 percent of what it pays for power from new offshore wind development. The new bill that is moving to the House floor on Wednesday gives the state Public Utilities Commission authority to determine the incentive level.
A PFAS ban may take effect by 2024
Also making it out of committee on Tuesday, on the Senate side, was a bill banning the distribution of wrappers, bags and other food packaging that contain per- and polyfluorolalkyl substances, or PFAS. Known as forever chemicals because they persist in the environment over time and build up in human and animal bodies, the compounds have been associated with cancers, low birth weights and other health problems. The ban, which already passed the House, would take effect in 2024.
The chemicals are most widely known for contaminating water supplies, including in a Burrillville village a few years ago. On the House floor Tuesday, members passed a drinking water standard for the chemicals that has been in the work for years. The bill, which would cap concentrations of some of the most common PFAS chemicals, already passed the Senate.
A plastic bag ban nears approval
The full House also took up another bill that had been introduced in past sessions but had never made it to a floor vote until this year. On Tuesday, members approved the Senate's bill banning distribution of single-use plastic bags at most retail outlets. The House had already passed its companion bill, which will go to the Senate on Wednesday.
Despite the progress, De La Cruz said legislators shouldn't rest on their laurels. There's still work to be done to prevent forest loss for solar projects, to decarbonize buildings and the transportation sector, and to protect low-income and minority communities from pollution. And, she warned, the pyroylis bill will probably come back again.
"We have this solid foundation," she said. "There's more to be done."